Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rock On... Mass Madness

For as long as there have been superstitions and uncertainties about the unknown, mass madness has been prevalent. It is a phenomenon both documented in the field of psychology and popularized by contemporary media. Threats such as weapons of mass destruction and end-of-the-world speculations have helped fuel bouts of mass madness in recent memory. Other isolated, minor incidents have resulted in scores of people become physically sick from these overblown events. In addition, technological advancements have been used to perpetuate the hollow claims of fear found in the preceding examples and in cases yet to develop. Due to its sensitivity, treating mass madness has become an arduous task, but it can be handled appropriately by seeing these events as just psychological abnormalities toward changes of unfounded magnitude.

One of the first outbreaks of mass madness of the twenty first century came shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. When the United States of America declared war on al-Qaeda, talks for the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) took precedent. WMDs soon dominated newsprint, news television, and other forms of news media throughout the country. However, talks of these nuclear weapons brought forth a fear through the media and governmental agencies that WMDs would ultimately be used to arbitrarily annihilate untold numbers of people. Upon closer inspection, this mindset of Armageddon fails on two levels, psychologically speaking. First, history had shown little, if any, significant impact on civilians when faced with WMDs. Before and after World War II, for example, the British government and U.S. Civil Defense planners (respectively) assumed German bomb raids would bring about chronic mass madness in various European countries. In actuality, research on individuals who lived through these attacks in England, Germany, and Japan provided “little evidence of mass panic incidents” (Pastel 44). Second, long-term mass madness based on weapons alone proves to be nothing more than a fa├žade. Professor Simon Wessely of the Institute of Psychiatry once remarked that “when psychological weapons [of mass destruction] lose their novelty, they lose their primary potency, which is their capacity to cause fear” (Moscrop 1023). In time, this realization came to light as the United States braced itself for war in the Middle East. The hype surrounding WMDs came to pass and was relegated as a hollow threat.

A more dynamic form of mass madness today involves the alleged apocalypse to occur on December 21, 2012. After the Y2K scare went out with a whimper rather than a bang at the turn of the millennium, the next end-of-the-world event focused on the year 2012, which is the final year according to the Mayan calendar. Various rumors and studies have led to conflicting results about this finding, and the attention this supposed event should occur allowed for the media and pop culture to capitalize on its potential, going so far as to release a film in 2009 based on this event. But, by trivializing a topic of serious matter into tabloid fodder, a sense of uneasiness comes upon the general population in the form of moral panic through the media. News outlets understand the only way to entice their audience is to lure them into a psychological threshold, even if it means using moral panic as the “central means” through which to transmit events (Hier 331). In the long run, this strategy will lose steam when this event passes, nothing happens, and the exponential growth of mass madness sharply declines. Like many other doomsday tales before it, the 2012 phenomenon is set to become the next failed prophecy.

Unlike the two preceding examples, certain events as the cause of mass madness can cross over and affect a collection of individual’s health and well-being. These typically remain isolated to a particular region, and the physical ailments that befall this group are indicative of a phenomenon called mass sociogenic illness. In one instance, a group of over 800 schoolchildren in Jordan became ill from what they believed were side effects of a tetanus shot, even though a substantial amount were affected more from a psychogenic illness than they would with a shot (Weir 36). Yet, this is not uncommon. Approximately 50% of all episodes of mass madness leading into mass sociogenic illness take place in schools, and “nausea, vomiting, headache, and dizziness or lightheadedness” are the primary symptoms for these incidents (Pastel 44). The cause for these outbreaks remains largely unknown, but after a few days, normalcy returns.

Regardless of the effect, the main difference between episodes of mass madness then and now is the medium with which it travels. Historically, the most notable example of mass madness came about during the Middle Ages when people claimed to have suffered from either tarantism or lycanthopy and acted as if they were possessed by the devil (Comer 10). Like the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, this should come as no surprise when taken into context. As the church grew into power, they began to oversee all facets, including what influenced individuals to behave abnormally. If people were productive, they were deemed good stewards of the Lord. If not, and they behaved in certain manners detrimental to society, they were seen as lunatics and ostracized from the rest of a God-fearing society. Fast forward several hundred years into the twenty first century and things have become much different. Now, the church has taken a backseat to mainstream media for control of the status quo. And unlike the church in the Middle Ages, the media can transmit information within seconds across the globe. This new wave of distributing news through various forms of modern technology has proven to be more of a blessing than a bane. But when used to broadcast fear under suspicious circumstances, mass madness gets passed down to an unsuspecting public quicker than ever before.

Explaining mass madness is no easy task either, since individuals who go through these episodes have difficulty remembering what they did. For example, a sample assessment was conducted on patients who suffered from delusions at an intervention center in the United Kingdom. 75% of the participants reported no alternative responses toward their delusion because it “was their only explanation” for why they believed in what got them into an intervention center in the first place (Freeman & Garety, et. al 677). This is a scary number to take into consideration because this shows that, typically, the only people that believe in their delusions are themselves. The fact then that large numbers of people can potentially share the same case becomes coincidental. Broadening the horizons to incorporate every delusionary individual into the same realm for further psychological analysis would be downright crazy. Thus, it is important to treat each person suffering from mass madness under individual circumstances.

(Academic) Works Cited
[1] Comer, Ronald J. Abnormal Psychology: Seventh Edition. Worth Publishers, New York, 2010: Chapter 11.

Freeman, Daniel & Philippa A. Garety, David Fowler, Elizabeth Kuipers & Paul E. Bebbington, and Graham Dunn. “Why Do People With Delusions Fail to Choose More Realistic Explanations for Their Experiences? An Empirical Investigation.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 72 (4), Aug. 2004. pp. 671-680. PsycArticles. Web. 6 Sep. 2010.

Hier, Sean P. “Conceptualizing Moral Panic through a Moral Economy of Harm.” Journal of Critical Sociology, Vol. 28 (3), May 2002. pp. 311-34. Web. 6 Sep. 2010.

Moscrop, Andrew. “Mass Hysteria is Seen as Main Threat from Bioweapons.” British Medical Journal, Vol. 323 (7320), 3 Nov. 2001. pp. 1023. Web. 11 Sep. 2010.

Pastel, Ross H. “Collective Behaviors: Mass Panic and Outbreaks of Multiple Unexplained Symptoms.” Military Medicine, Vol. 166 (12 Suppl.), Dec. 2001. pp. 44-46. Web. 11 Sep. 2010.

Weir, Erica. “Mass Sociogenic Illness.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 172 (1), 4 Jan. 2005. pp. 36. Web. 11 Sep. 2010.

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