Mass hysteria, or mass sociogenic disease, is fascinating.
Cases of mass hysteria have been documented since the Middle Ages. Let me mention a few of the more recent cases.
When a radio play by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, aired in 1938 shortly after the Munich Accord was suspended, the play is said to have caused panic among listeners, who thought they were being attacked by Martians.Another intriguing case is an episode of a Portuguese TV show called Strawberries with sugar. In the episode, the characters were infected with a potentially fatal virus. After the show, more than three hundred students reported symptoms similar to those experienced by the characters on the TV show, such as rashes and difficulty breathing. Some schools have even closed. The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergencies concluded that the virus did not exist in reality and that the symptoms were caused by mass hysteria.
Likewise, on Emirates Flight 203 in September 2018, dozens of passengers began to believe they were ill after observing other passengers with flu-like symptoms. Due to the panic, the entire flight was quarantined. In the end, only a few passengers had a cold or the seasonal flu.
It is well known that there are nocebo effects, which are the opposite of placebo effects. Due to the placebo effect, a person recovers from an illness because they expect to do so. When we experience a nocebo effect, on the other hand, we get sick just because we expect to get sick.1 In a self-fulfilling prophecy, waiting can cause symptoms. Anxiety and fear aggravate this process.
Mass hysteria can cause symptoms. Additionally, hysteria, whether collective or not, causes people to behave in ways that cautious people unaffected by hysteria would likely view as absurd. It is open for empirical research to study whether and to what extent the world suffered mass hysteria during the covid-19 epidemic.3 We have all seen people hoarding toilet paper, wearing masks while driving alone in cars or hearing stories. people hardly leaving their homes for months. We also know people who are afraid of the virus even if their own risk of death is minimal.
While exploring the possibility of corona mass hysteria is certainly interesting, I would like to focus here on a more fundamental question; namely, the extent to which the existence of the state can exacerbate mass hysteria. Certainly, there can be cases of mass hysteria in a free society, due to the negativity bias of the human brain. We focus on the negative news and experience psychological stress when we think we are out of control. It can also happen in a free society when negative news prevails. Yet in a free society there are certain self-correcting mechanisms and limitations that make it harder for mass hysteria to get out of hand.
As a corrective mechanism, there are well-known strategies for reducing fear and anxiety. In a free society, people are free to use these strategies. You can release the tension in your body through sport and exercise. Additionally, finding distractions from negative news and socializing is essential. In a free society, these distractions abound.
It is true that hysteria can cause people to inflict enormous harm on themselves and others. Yet in a free society there is a critical limit to the devastation wrought by mass hysteria, and that limit is the right to private property. In a free society, mass hysteria cannot lead to massive violation of private property rights by the state, just because the state does not exist.
Further, while anyone in health hysteria can voluntarily shut down their business, wear a mask, or stay home, in a free society no one can force others who do not succumb to hysteria to shut down their businesses, wear masks or quarantine. A small minority who continue to live their normal lives and are free to do so can be a red flag for those who have succumbed to mass hysteria, especially borderline cases. Imagine that a small group of people continue to run errands, work, breathe freely, hang out with friends and family, and they don’t die. Others can then 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 can take control of the state apparatus. and impose measures on the rest of the population and inflict untold damage. The possibility of mass hysteria is an important reason why the institution of the state is so dangerous.
Additionally, 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 in the case of the covid-19 epidemic, prohibits and decreases activities that reduce fear and anxiety, such as sports and fun. The state actually promotes social isolation, contributing to anxiety and psychological tension, ingredients that stimulate mass hysteria.
Second, the state takes a centralized approach to dealing with the source of the hysteria, in our case, the perceived threat of a virus. The state imposes its solution, and therefore there is little or no experimentation to solve the problem. People who have not succumbed to hysteria and oppose the approach of the state are suppressed. They cannot demonstrate other means of dealing with the “crisis”, because these alternative means are prohibited by the state. As a result, group thinking increases and hysteria feeds on itself, as no alternatives are presented to people.
Third, in a state the media are often politicized. News organizations and social media platforms have a close relationship with the state. The media can be directly owned by the state, just like public television stations, they may need state licenses to operate, they may seek the goodwill of public agencies, or they may simply be staffed with people who have been educated in public schools. These news agencies and social media platforms engage in massive negative news campaigns, intentionally scaring people, and suppressing alternative news. If people listen to, watch or read negative, one-sided stories all day long, their psychological stress and anxiety increase. Mass hysteria sponsored by a biased media sector can spiral out of control.
Fourth, negative news from an authoritative source is particularly harmful to psychological health and causes anxiety. If there is in society an institution of total power such as the State which intervenes in the lives of people from birth to death, 5 the announcements of its representatives gain weight. Many people attach great authority to these representatives and to the warnings of state institutions. So when a doctor like Anthony Fauci speaks for the state and tells people to worry and wear masks, it becomes easier for mass hysteria to develop than it would in a decentralized society.
Fifth, the state sometimes wants to actively instill fear in the population, thereby helping to create mass hysteria. In fact, during the first months of the corona outbreak, an internal document from the German Interior Ministry was leaked to the public. In the document, experts recommend that the German government instill fear in the German population. The document recommends increasing fear with three communication measures. First, authorities should focus on the respiratory problems of patients with covid-19, as humans have a primordial fear of death from suffocation, which can easily trigger panic. Second, fear must also be instilled in children. Children can easily be infected when they meet other children. They should be told that when they in turn infect their parents and grandparents, they can suffer a painful death at home. This measure aims to invoke feelings of guilt. Third, authorities should mention the possibility of unknown long-term irreversible damage after corona infection and the possibility of sudden death of infected people. All of these measures were aimed at increasing fear among the population. Fear, in the end, is the basis of the power of every government. As HL Mencken said:
The whole point of practical politics is to keep the population alarmed (and therefore clamorous to be taken to safety) by threatening them with an endless series of hobgoblins, all imaginary.
To sum up: Mass hysteria is possible in a free society, but there are mechanisms for self-correction. The harm that such hysteria can inflict is limited by the enforcement of private property rights. The state is amplifying and exacerbating mass panics, causing enormous havoc. What are local, limited and isolated outbreaks of mass hysteria in a free society, the state can turn into global mass hysteria. Sadly, there is no limit to the damage mass hysteria can do to life and freedom if it takes over the government, as the state does not respect private property. The unscrupulous violation of fundamental freedoms during the corona epidemic is a case in point. The possibility of mass hysteria is another reason the state is such a dangerous institution to have.
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