Attitudes, Beliefs, and ConsistencyEmotionEmotion and AffectViruses

Psychology of Mass Hysteria

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, an interesting behavior took place.  Within a few days of the warnings about the spread of COVID-19, people flocked to the stores to buy supplies.  Although that isn’t a behavior out of the ordinary, one of the items people hoarded in great supply was – toilet paper.

There will likely be many ongoing theories as to why toilet paper was one of the most hoarded items during the Coronavirus pandemic, but one thing is for sure, mass hysteria was, at least in part, a driving factor.

Mass hysteria is a fluid concept.  This doesn’t have to have a negative connotation.  Mass hysteria can be linked to behaviors that are benign, or even charitable.  The fact is, when people start noticing a trend, they tend to gravitate towards that way of thinking and acting.

Take the British invasion for instance.  You know the one, featuring four musicians from the U.K. in a band called the Beatles?  Yes, their music was very good and they were certainly handsome young men, but could that alone explain why young women were literally falling unconscious when they took the stage?

This is a great example of mass hysteria.  When there is a general consensus something is worthy of praise, recognition, and even worship, large groups of people will ramp up individual attention in an effort to stay ahead of the competing forces.

From the Beatles back to the toilet paper, as people recognized others were valuing the rolls of TP, out of fear of missing out, they made sure they got theirs.  The impulse buying of toilet paper created panic buying, setting off mass hysteria.

Mass hysteria lives at the intersection of psychology and sociology.

You also find instances of mass hysteria in the marketplace, politics and certainly in religion.

Researchers like to use the term “collective obsessional behavior” in an effort to avoid negative connotations of the term “mass hysteria”.

Mass hysteria is also described as a “conversion disorder,” in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system.

Professor Simon Wessley of King’s College London in the United Kingdom suggests that in characterizing mass hysteria, we should aim to guide ourselves by five principles:

  1. that “it is an outbreak of abnormal illness behavior that cannot be explained by physical disease”
  2. that “it affects people who would not normally behave in this fashion”
  3. that “it excludes symptoms deliberately provoked in groups gathered for that purpose,” such as when someone intentionally gathers a group of people and convinces them that they are collectively experiencing a psychological or physiological symptom
  4. that “it excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots”
  5. that “the link between the [individuals experiencing collective obsessional behavior] must not be coincidental,” meaning, for instance, that they are all part of the same close-knit community
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