Mass Hysteria

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Mass Hysteria

Mass Hysteria


Mass hysteria is a phenomenon in which a group of people simultaneously exhibit similar hysterical symptoms. Technically, mass hysteria involves physical effects, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or a trance-like state or seizure-like movements. However, the term is also commonly used to refer to any mass delusion, in which a group of people become governed by irrational beliefs or moral panic.

Many cases of mass hysteria are controversial, as the supposed sufferers and even some observers feel that the term does not fully explain the phenomenon; for example, in the case of an alleged religious miracle or demonic possession affecting a large group of people. In addition, many people are reluctant to believe that intense physical symptoms they experienced were "all in their head."


Mass hysteria is most common in small, close-knit communities, particularly if they are isolated. Enclosed areas such as schools, factories, and hospitals are typical settings. There are two main types of mass hysteria: anxiety hysteria and motor hysteria.

Anxiety hysteria is shorter in duration, typically lasting a day. Symptoms may include nausea, light-headedness, headache, dizziness, and physical weakness. Often, this type of mass hysteria begins with the complaint of a single member of the group of something like an odd smell in the room. Others pick up on a perceived threat and begin to exhibit psychosomatic symptoms.

Motor hysteria is characterized by nervous twitching or spasms, trance-like states, and histrionic outbursts. It is slower to manifest than anxiety hysteria, building gradually over a few days or weeks, but can take weeks or months to subside. Motor hysteria commonly has a more severe and longstanding cause than anxiety hysteria as well; for example, brutal living conditions or excessive discipline.

Mass hysteria has been documented since ancient times, though it was not understood until recently as a sociopsychological phenomenon rather than a supernatural one. Throughout history, mass hysteria has frequently been the cause of moral panics that resulted in widespread rioting and even torture and executions, as in the case of witch hunts and trials. Even though the phenomenon is better understood today, it remains mysterious and disturbing, and those who have been subject to mass hysteria do not always find the modern psychological explanation sufficient.

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 ...
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