What causes mass hysteria?

Across several countries, there has been pandemonium at the supermarkets caused by the coronavirus situation. This is mass hysteria and it is occurring around the world. If you don’t have time to read through this post the summary is as goes: Take a deep breath. Think accurately and rationally. Use common sense.

Mass hysteria is known as epidemic hysteria, mass psychogenic illness, and mass sociogenic illness. According to a 1997 review of research by The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, mass hysteria is “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.” It’s “seen as a social phenomenon involving otherwise healthy people.”

Mass hysteria, many believe, is linked to groupthink. It’s believed that groupthink increases as group cohesiveness increases. This may help to explain the psychological phenomenon of mass hysteria. In cases of mass hysteria, the group members all develop a common fear that often spirals into a panic. The group members feed off each other’s emotional reactions, causing the panic to escalate.

Mass hysteria isn’t only about your mind convincing you that you have symptoms of a non-existent disease or virus – it’s a collective state of mind that can convince entire populations of things that aren’t based in evidence or logic.

This is dangerous when the virus doesn’t exist like with most mass hysteria cases, but it’s even more dangerous when we’re talking about a real virus that does exist. The fear and paranoia around catching the virus leads to panic-purchasing and the spread of misinformation, which furthers the anxiety and fear in the general public.

Consider the Mandela Effect, for example. The Mandela Effect is a collective misremembering of common events or details named after the 2010 notion and rumors that spread when the online masses falsely remembered Nelson Mandela to have died. Many people at this time believed that Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s, when in reality, he was actually freed from prison in 1990 and didn’t die until a few years after the Mandela rumors, in 2013.

The internet was ablaze with people who claimed to remember seeing clips of his funeral on TV or news articles about the man’s death, even though none were ever found (because he hadn’t in fact passed away).

Mass hysteria is quite similar to the Mandela Effect in that you unwittingly trick your brain into believing something that isn’t real…however, in the case of mass hysteria surrounding very real infections or viruses, we can convince ourselves we have the symptoms of the disease or that the disease is more deadly than it really is.

A study conducted by the University of Michigan proved that Swine Flu, also known as H1N1, did lead to mass hysteria. The experiment, conducted in May 2009, found that people perceived the H1N1 disease to be even more deadly than the Ebola outbreak in Africa, when the opposite was true.

The results of the experiment proved that when the perception of risk increases, the feelings and anxiety around our risk also increases, even if there is no actual increased risk involved. We can see the same Swine Flu-esque hysteria beginning to happen in 2020 with COVID-19.

Staying calm and logical during a pandemic can help prevent mass hysteria, panic-purchasing, and product shortages, and can ultimately help curb the spread of infection.

Find real facts from trusted sources – don’t share information you haven’t fact-checked. To find relevant information on COVID-19 and stop the spread of misinformation, you can trust sources such as WHO (World Health Organization) or the CDC (Center for Disease Control). 

Perspective matters – influenza compared to COVID-19 helps us understand more about the statistics. While COVID-19 has taken the world by storm this year, it’s important to understand everything we can about this specific strand of coronavirus in regards to other diseases in order to stop the spread of panic and fear.

Coronavirus has 7 other strains that commonly infect millions of people each year. COVID-19 is a new strain that used to solely infect animals but has now been transmitted to humans (CDC estimates that 3 out of every 4 emerging infectious diseases around the world are Zoonotic diseases, meaning they occurred first in animals and then were transmitted to humans).

While the death numbers seem daunting, it’s important to note other factors as well – 79,433 people have fully recovered from the virus, and the CDC has issued a statement explaining that elderly people ages 80+ are at the highest risk.

Compare these numbers with the influenza statistics released by the CDC: In the U.S alone, the flu has caused an estimated 350,000 illnesses and over 20,000 deaths this flu season alone. Researchers have suggested the new panic around coronavirus stems mainly from the fact that while we have studied the flu for years, this strand is new to humans, therefore many people consider it more dangerous.

Stop contributing to societal panic – stay vigilant but remain calm. Another key factor in pandemics is that the population’s ability to remain calm and react logically to the situation at hand becomes blurred and unfocused. Instead of taking the recommended precautions set forth by reputable places such as the CDC, people are panic-buying weeks worth of groceries and spreading information online that hasn’t been verified. This only leads to more panic and hysteria.

At times like this, it’s human instinct to be anxious, to feel fear and to worry about what the outcome of this fast-spreading virus could be. However, take a moment to consider the consequences of panic buying or spreading misinformation without fact-checking. There are real-world consequences, such as a lack of product for those who need them.

Stay calm, be vigilant, take care and most importantly, stay logical.

Check out my related post: What’s the difference between Wuhan’s virus, MERS and SARS ?

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