Mass Hysteria: A Collective Obsessional Behavior

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Mass Hysteria: A Collective Obsessional Behavior

A number of scientists and researchers throughout history attempted to explain mass hysteria / Photo by Getty Images


History might have introduced you to the bizarre case of the Salem witch trials. In the 1960s, there had been unexplained seizures and outbursts in children throughout the Salem, Massachusetts area. Eager to know the reason behind these strange occurrences, the community initiated a witch hunt that imprisoned or executed more than 20 people. This is the most popular case of mass hysteria where various people in a common group spontaneously exhibit an outbreak of physical symptoms caused by psychological stress. 

Cases of mass hysteria have been popular in history since its whole explanation remains mysterious. An article by the Neuroscientifically Challenged cited another example called "dancing plague," which happened in 1374. A large city park was surprisingly filled with hundreds of people, most of them are naked, dancing and staring blankly up at the sky. The scene became more bizarre as some of them fell to the ground and started convulsing, agonized screams were heard, and their dancing became jerky and almost out of control. The event even spread across the large area of Europe, which included Northeastern France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Western Germany. 

To this date, scientists are still stumped, unable to provide a concrete explanation with the cases of mass hysteria. Cases like the Salem witch trials and dancing plague are actually common in history but remain a strange occurrence. In fact, a report from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health showed that there were at least 70 distinct outbreaks between 1973 and 1993 alone. Mass hysteria usually happens in workplaces, schools, and small communities. 

Mass Hysteria and Its Possible Explanations

Over the years, scientists and researchers have spent decades trying to discover the mystery of mass hysteria. According to an article by Medical News Today, the strange phenomenon was recognized as a potential clinical interest or referred to as "collective obsessional behavior." In these cases, the people involved developing a common fear that often grows into a panic. The panic would then escalate more and people would feed on each other's emotional reactions. 

Additionally, review of research in 1997 by the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health defined mass hysteria as "a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness, but without an identifiable cause, that occurs between two or more people who share beliefs related to those symptoms." Some of the physical and psychological symptoms include uncontrolled laughter, fainting, dizziness, muscle weakness, and many more. 

A number of scientists and researchers throughout history attempted to explain mass hysteria. For instance, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as far back as 1900 BCE believed that there's a connection between mass hysteria and the uterus. This is because the Greek word “hysteria” is close enough to the source for the word “uterus.” It was believed that women caused the situation as they move from one place to another. Although this has been widely accepted before, this idea was rejected eventually. 

Cases of mass hysteria have been popular in history since its whole explanation remains mysterious / Photo by Getty Images


According to an article by the Facts Legend, mass hysteria was also believed to have been caused by witchcraft and demonic possession during the Middle Ages. When the modern era approached, scientists discarded the idea of demons and witches resulting in mass hysteria. Thus, they lean more on the psychological aspect. According to scientists, mass hysteria is caused by multiple factors, such as social anxiety, extreme stress, cultural pressure, fear, extraordinary excitement, and many more. 

An article by Everyday Health also stated that mass hysteria is also triggered by an environmental society, which can affect a person's overall health. It can also be contagious since people who have witnessed individuals in this kind of situation also manifest the same symptoms later on. Additionally, Prof. Simon Wessely from King's College London in the United Kingdom said that mass hysteria shouldn't be confused with "moral panic." 


Other Facts and Findings of Mass Hysteria

Medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew's book titled "Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics" had assessed the most popular cases of mass hysteria throughout history. His study found out that groups of women mostly experience instances of mass hysteria. Some researchers explained that this is because women are typically exposed to more stressful situations, thus, resulting in collective obsessional behavior. 

The physical symptoms of mass hysteria sometimes provide a non-confrontational way out of an overwhelming situation. Bartholomew stated that it can pave the way for resisting and forging a way out to women in a stressful situation. This has been agreed to by Christian Hempelmann from Texas A&M University-Commerce. "The way [...] to get out of [an oppressive situation] is to show symptoms of the disease and to be allowed not to have to endure the situation any longer," he said. 

Additionally, there are two types of mass hysteria collective obsessional behavior. These are "mass anxiety hysteria" and "mass motor hysteria." According to Professor Wesseley, "mass anxiety hysteria" is caused by physiological symptoms, such as heart palpitations, nausea, hyperventilation, headaches, fainting, dizziness, chest tightness, and abdominal pain. 

Mass motor hysteria, on the other hand, is characterized by apparent partial paralysis (pseudoparesis), seizure-like events (pseudoseizures), and other signs that can change an individual's motor function in a specific way.



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