Mass hysteria, also known as collective obsessional behaviour, is a curious psychological phenomenon that has captured human imagination for centuries. A term once widely used to describe collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, mass hysteria draws a complex picture of how humans react under the influence of their environment, especially in times of fear or stress. This blog post aims to delve into the psychological mechanisms behind mass hysteria, its historical context, and how understanding it can benefit us today.
The roots of mass hysteria in history
The concept of mass hysteria isn’t new; it has its roots deeply embedded in history. One of the most notable historical examples is the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century. A group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. The accusations quickly spread like wildfire, and the whole community was engulfed in a state of mass hysteria that led to public trials and executions.
Another remarkable incident took place in the small French town of Strasbourg in 1518, known as the “Dancing Plague“. Hundreds of people took to the streets, uncontrollably dancing for days, despite exhaustion and, in some cases, even death. In both instances, a combination of social, psychological, and perhaps even biological factors contributed to the widespread panic and irrational behaviour.
What fuels mass hysteria?
Mass hysteria often starts with an inciting incident, a “trigger” that sets off the collective panic. This could be an event, a piece of news, or even a rumour. It’s like a psychological domino effect where the initial emotional reaction gets amplified as it spreads through a group, community, or even a nation.
The term “social contagion” describes how emotional states and behavioural patterns can quickly spread among individuals. This is often exacerbated by strong emotional ties within the group and further amplified by external influences such as media, strengthening the cycle of mass hysteria.
When faced with contrasting information, the human mind seeks to resolve this “dissonance”, often by succumbing to the most emotionally appealing narrative. In the case of mass hysteria, this usually means accepting the prevailing sentiment of fear or panic, reinforcing the hysteria further.
The role of media
In today’s digital age, the role of media in propagating mass hysteria can’t be ignored. Social media platforms act like a petri dish for “virality”, allowing rumours and half-truths to spread faster than ever before. While traditional media outlets might have journalistic standards that include fact-checking, the same cannot always be said for social media where anyone can be a publisher.
Managing and overcoming mass hysteria
Understanding the psychology behind mass hysteria is the first step in managing it effectively. As individuals, it’s crucial to cultivate critical thinking skills to evaluate information objectively, rather than simply absorbing and amplifying prevailing sentiments. On a community level, it’s the responsibility of the authorities to disseminate clear, accurate information and for the media to report responsibly to help break the cycle of hysteria.
Digital mental health interventions
Technological advancements have provided us with digital platforms to address mass hysteria in real-time. Leveraging data analytics, mental health apps can now provide tailored advice to individuals experiencing heightened anxiety due to social contagions. While they’re not a replacement for professional mental health treatment, they can be an effective initial step in managing emotional reactions.
Mass hysteria is a fascinating yet unsettling manifestation of the human psyche. While it’s been part of our social fabric for centuries, the acceleration of information sharing in the digital age makes it more pertinent than ever to understand its psychological underpinnings. By promoting critical thinking, responsible media reporting, and leveraging digital mental health tools, we can better manage and perhaps even prevent the debilitating effects of mass hysteria on society.
Sophie Williams, PsyD is a clinical psychologist who specialises in community mental health and behavioural psychology.