The history of mass hysteria, or mass sociogenic illness is fascinating. Cases of mass hysteria have been documented since the Middle Ages. Let me just mention a few of the Continue Reading
When a radio play by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, was broadcasted in 1938 shortly after the suspense of the Munich agreement, the play allegedly caused panic among its listeners who thought that they were under attack of Martians.
Another intriguing case is an episode of a Portuguese TV show called Strawberries with Sugar. In the episode, the characters were infected by a life-threatening virus. After the show, more than 300 students reported similar symptoms as the ones experienced by the TV show characters such as rashes and difficulties to breath. Some schools even closed. The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency concluded that the virus did not exist in reality and the symptoms were caused by mass hysteria.
Similarly, on Emirates flight 203 in September 2018, dozens of passengers started to believe they were sick after observing other passengers with flu-like symptoms. As a consequence of the panic, the whole flight was quarantined. In the end only a few passengers had a common cold or the seasonal flew.
It is well known that there exists nocebo effects, which are the opposite of placebo effects. Due the placebo effect, a person recovers from an illness because she expects to do so. On the contrary, when we suffer a nocebo effect, we get ill just because we expect to become ill.1 In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the expectation can cause the symptom. Anxiety and fear exacerbate this process.2
Mass hysteria can cause people to have symptoms. Moreover, hysteria, be it collective or not, makes people to behave in ways that prudent persons not affected by the hysteria would likely consider to be absurd. It is open for empirical research to investigate if and to what extent the world has been suffering mass hysteria during the covid-19 epidemic.3 We all have seen people hoarding toilet paper, wearing masks while driving alone in cars or heard stories of people virtually not leaving their houses for months. We also know people that are scared by the virus even though their own risk of death is minuscule.
While investigating the possibility of a corona mass hysteria is certainly interesting, I would like to focus here on another more fundamental question. Namely, to which extent the existence of the state can exacerbate mass hysterias. Certainly, there can be cases of mass hysteria in a free society, due to the negativity bias of the human brain. We focus on negative news and suffer psychological stress when we think we do not have control. This may happen also in a free society when negative news prevail. Yet, in a free society there exist certain self-corrective mechanisms and limits that make it more difficult for a mass hysteria to spiral out of control.
As a corrective mechanism, there exist well known strategies to reduce fear and anxiety. In a free society people are free to make use of these strategies. One can release tension from one´s body through sports and exercises. Moreover, it is essential to get distractions from the negative news and socialize. In a free society these distractions abound.
It is true that hysteria can lead people to inflict enormous harm on themselves and others. Yet, in a free society there exists an essential limit to the havoc caused by mass hysteria and these are private property rights. In a free society mass hysteria cannot lead to a massive violation of private property rights by the state simply because the state does not exist.
Moreover, while anyone in a health hysteria may voluntarily close his business, wear a mask or stay at home, in a free society no one can force others, which do not succumb to the hysteria, to close their business, wear masks or quarantine. A small minority that continues to live their normal life and is free to do so, can be a wake-up call to those that succumbed to the mass hysteria, especially the borderline cases. Imagine that a small group of people continue to go shopping, to work, to breath freely, to meet with friends and family, and they do not die. Then, others may follow their example and the group of hysterics shrinks.
While the destruction inflicted by mass hysteria is limited by private property rights in a free society, such limits do not exist when there is a state.4 Indeed, a well-organized group that has succumbed to mass hysteria may get control of the state apparatus and impose measures on the rest of the population and inflict unheard harm. The possibility of mass hysteria is an important reason why the institution of the state is so dangerous.
Moreover, while in a free society there are mechanisms that reduce mass panics, mass hysteria can be exacerbated by the state for several reasons:
First, the state can and, as is the case of the covid-19 epidemic, does prohibit and diminishes those activities that reduce fear and anxiety such as sports and diversion. The state actually fosters social isolation contributing to anxiety and psychological strain, ingredients that spur mass hysteria.
Second, the state takes a centralized approach to deal with the source of the hysteria; in our case the perceived threat by a virus. As a consequence, there is no or very reduced experimentation possible to solve the problem, because the state imposes its solution. People that have not succumbed to the hysteria and oppose the state´s approach are suppressed. They cannot demonstrate alternative ways to confront the “crisis,” because these alternative ways are prohibited by the state. As a consequence, groupthink increases and the hysteria feeds itself as no alternatives are shown to people.
Third, in a state, the media is often politicized. News outlets and social media platforms engage in close relationships with the state. Media outlets may be directly owned by the state such as public TV channels, they may need state licenses to operate, they may look for the goodwill of state agencies or are simply staffed with people that were educated in state schools. These news agencies and social media platforms engage in massive negative news campaigns, intentionally scare people, and suppress alternative information. If people listen to, watch or read negative and one-sided stories all day, their psychological stress and anxiety increases. Mass hysteria sponsored by a biased media sector may run out of control.
Fourth, negative news from an authoritative source is especially harmful for psychological health and produces anxiety. If there exists in society an institution of total power such as the state that intervenes in the life of people from birth to death5, the announcements of its representatives acquire weight. Many people attach great authority to these representatives and the warnings of state institutions. So, when a doctor such as Anthony Fauci speaks in the name of the state and tells the people to worry and wear masks, it becomes easier for a mass hysteria to develop than it would have been the case in a decentralized society.
Sixth, the state sometimes actively wants to instill fear in the population thereby contributing to the making of mass hysteria. In fact, during the first months of the corona epidemic an internal paper of the German Department of the Interior was leaked to the public. In the paper, the experts recommend the German government to instill fear in the German population. The paper recommends to increase fear by three communication measures. First, the authorities should emphasize the breathing problems of covid-19 patients, because the human beings have a primordial fear of death by suffocation which can easily trigger panic. Second, fear should also be instilled in children. Children could get infected easily when meeting with other children. They should be told, that when they, in turn, infect their parents and grandparents these could suffer a distressful death at home. This measure intends to invoke guilt feelings. Third, authorities should mention the possibility of unknown long-term irreversible damage after a corona infection and the possibility of sudden deaths of people who once were infected. All these measures were intended to increase fear in the population. Fear, at the end, is the foundation of every government´s power. As H.L. Mencken put it:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
To sum up: mass hysteria is possible in a free society, but there are self-correcting mechanisms, and the harm such hysteria may inflict is limited by the enforcement of private property rights. On the contrary, the state amplifies and exacerbates mass panics, causing tremendous havoc. What are local, limited, and isolated outbreaks of mass hysteria in a free society the state can convert into a global mass hysteria. Unfortunately, there is no limit to the damage mass hysteria can do to life and liberty if it takes hold of the government, as the state does not respect private property. The unscrupulous violation of basic liberties during the corona epidemic is a case in point. Therefore, the possibility of mass hysteria is another reason why the state is such a dangerous institution to have.
- 1. In a famous case a man tried to suicide himself. He thought he was swallowing twenty-nine capsules of an experimental drug. However, they were in reality placebos. But he was thinking he would be killing himself. He arrived at the hospital with extreme low blood pressure and other serios symptoms. When the doctor of the medical trial arrived and told him that he had taken just placebos, the man recovered within fifteen minutes.
- 2. During the Spanish flu panic contributed to deaths that otherwise would not have occurred.
- 3. Keep in mind that the psychological strain on and the anxiety suffered by the population during the lockdowns was tremendous.
- 4. For the psychology of masses and their irrationality see the classical work of Gustave Le Bon.
- 5. A related point regards the consequences that come with a population that stopped believing in God and started to believe in the state instead. When people turn away from religion and stop believing in a life after death, they start to fear death more. A strong fear of death is another factor contributing to panics, disorders, and mass hysteria. As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has put it: “It is difficult to fear death if one is very pious. It is difficult not to worship health if one fears death. It is difficult to enforce general health without large scale state intervention and it is equally difficult to imagine increased state intervention without a loss of liberties.” The Menace of the Herd or Procrustes at Large (Milkwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Company, 1943), pp. 38–39.