by Marc D. Feldman, M.D.
Witch Hunts & the Winds of Rumor
Salem, Massachusetts is famous for its 1692 "witch hunts." Sparked by the accusations of four young girls, a Puritan community already fearful of eternal damnation became panicked into believing that witches were among them. By the time the events came to an end, more than 20 people had been convicted: 19 were hanged, one was pressed to death under huge stones, and four others died in prison. Even as late as 1957, the small Massachusetts community was paying restitution to the families of those who had become the victims of so-called "mass hysteria" (Bartholomew, 1995).
The cause of mass hysteria is often a baseless belief that begins small but, like a hurricane, travels and becomes more devastating as it picks up speed. Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938 is a well known example of the power of a false idea gone berserk. Though the play was announced as fictional several times, panic still spread throughout the country as millions became convinced that the Martians were taking over the Earth.
From our perch distant in time, we might view these episodes as rather quaint. Believing ourselves to be more enlightened, we're likely to bristle at any suggestion that we too can be overwhelmed by misguided passions. In reality, the Internet and other new communication technologies allow us not only to spread information as fast as it is generated, but to transmit it even before it has been verified. This creates a climate ripe for runaway rumors.
How does a normal person, or a small group of people, or even an entire community get swept up into the conviction that an off-hand remark is a terrifying reality?
Mass Sociogenic Illness
"Mass sociogenic illness" (MSI), a form of mass hysteria, demonstrates the process. In MSI, mere sight and sound, like disabling viruses, can make so many people feel so sick that within minutes an entire town's ambulances are summoned. One such case occurred in a summer program in Florida for disadvantaged kids (Desenclos, Gardner, & Horan, 1992). Every day at noon, the 150 children gathered in a dining hall where they were served pre-packaged lunches. As lunch began one day, a girl complained that her sandwich didn't taste right: she felt nauseated, and came back from the restroom reporting that she had thrown up. Others began to complain that their stomachs hurt too and that the sandwiches really did taste funny. Then a number of them described having headaches, tingling in their hands and feet, and abdominal cramping. The supervisor, obviously worried about all the complaints, announced to the horrified children that the food might be poisoned. They were told to stop eating immediately.
Within 40 minutes, 63 children were sick. More than 25 of them had vomited. Ambulances were called and the children had to be divided up among three different hospitals.
But an hour later, it was all over. Every examination and test performed on the children was normal. Meal samples were analyzed, but no bacteria or pesticides were detected. Food processing and storage techniques had been faultless. And no one had become ill at any of the other 68 sites at which the very same food was served. Unmistakably, these children were victims of MSI.
Looking back, doctors recognized that the statement of the first girl had precipitated a small chorus of complaints. Her reason for the remark may have simply been the momentary feeling of lightheadedness many of us get at times. Regardless, it proved very powerful. The number of victims, all suggestible children, multiplied as an authority figure, the supervisor, announced that the food might indeed be tainted. Typical of settings ripe for mass hysteria, the summer program itself was already an unsettled environment. Two days earlier, a newspaper article had reported on management and financial problems within the youth center, and the children seemed to have picked up on the anxiety of the staff.
Containing the Fear
Mass hysteria is best countered through prevention or very early intervention. The most powerful tool is for a calm authority figure to give clear and accurate information repeatedly, and to remain visible and available to provide updates and reassurance. In contrast, a message that is dramatic and menacing, as in the Florida case, is guaranteed to have a catastrophic result.
Thankfully, mass hysteria occurs infrequently. Still, it has common characteristics that the general public should know. For instance, in MSI, even though the individuals involved appear and feel ill, all the lab tests and physical exams are normal. Second, hyperventilation, dizziness, and fainting are almost invariable. Third, the symptoms spread through the group with blazing speed. And fourth, though "relapses" can occur if the same factors all conspire again, the long-term outcome is excellent. If people are aware of the phenomenon and know its features, they will be better able to overcome the main obstacle: accepting that there is no actual basis to their frightening beliefs and physical symptoms.
Desenclos, J.C., Gardner, H., & Horan, M. (1992): Mass sociogenic illness in a youth center. Revue D'Epidemiologie et de Sant, Publique, 40, 201-208
This article was adapted in part from Feldman, M.D. & Feldman, J.M. (1998): Stranger Than Fiction: When Our Minds Betray Us. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press. Adapted with permission.
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