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Mass hysteria (a.k.a. collective obsessive behavior or collective hysteria) refers to the expression of strong, inappropriate emotional or physical responses—such as irrational fears or hopes, or sickness—by groups of people to beliefs based on suggestions, misunderstood facts, imagined stimuli, communal reinforcement, or blindly following a false authority.
Recent examples of mass hysteria include the Satanic ritual abuse panic, fear of alien abduction, fear of electro-magnetic radiation, milk-drinking statues in India, the monkey-man of New Delhi, the hospitalization of 30 people exposed to a perfume they thought was carbon monoxide, and koro (shook yang) in Singapore.
Other examples usually given of mass hysteria include the Salem witch-hunt craze, St. John's (or St. Vitus) dance, the Dutch tulip craze of the seventeenth century, and the panic that allegedly ensued from the radio broadcast of H. G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds." The Salem witch-hunt craze is clearly an example of mass hysteria. The tulip craze and the "panic" caused by the 1938 Halloween Eve radio broadcast by Orson Welles have been exaggerated. (See Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Anne Goldgar and Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias by Robert E. Bartholomew and Bejamin Radford.) The convulsive dancing reported in the 14th century (and later) in Europe may have been, at least in part, due to a physical cause such as the ingestion of ergot.* Tarantism has also been suggested, but there is scant evidence that spider bites caused the behavior. The most plausible account of St. John's dance has been given by Bartholomew and Radford:
Based on a representative sample of medieval chronicles, it is evident that these episodes are best explained as deviant religious sects that gained adherents as they made pilgrimages through Europe during years of turmoil in order to receive divine favor. Their symptoms (visions, fainting, tremor) are predictable for any large population engaging in prolonged dancing, emotional worship, and fasting. (2003: pp. 146-148)
These days mass hysteria can be easily created by the mass media. Some examples include the fear of child abduction, fear of violent crime, fear of vaccinations, and fear of science-based medicine.
As everybody who writes about mass hysteria has noted: religious manias are too numerous to list, but here are a few: stigmatas, weeping and moving statues, apparitions of Mary and Jesus in urinals and tree bark, Fatima, Lourdes, relics, and faith healing (e.g., John of god).
Are there techniques one can use to avoid being caught up in a wave of mass hysteria? Sure, but will most of us be able to apply them when the time comes? Hard to say, but here are a few suggestions. Don't underestimate the power of suggestion. Just because something or someone seems authoritative doesn't mean they are. Consider alternative explanations to the one the group is accepting. If emotions are running at fever pitch, try to detach yourself from an emotional response and reflect on the issue. Try not to be driven by wishful thinking or fear. Remember that the media only focus on a few categories and tend to hype certain topics (such as violent crime, child abductions, school assaults, and natural disasters), making everything they report seem more widespread and important than they probably are. Beware of TV manipulators who show short clips of suggestive videos over and over again.
Mackay, Charles. (1995). Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds. Crown Publishing. Originally published in 1841.