NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Public Hysteria

October 22, 2001

America is on the verge of public hysteria -- the contagion of panic spread by rumor and false alarms -- some mental health authorities warn. And that can be more dangerous than the real threat of bioterrorism.

It has happened before:

  • After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, convinced that a Japanese invasion of their state was imminent, Californians reported Japanese bombers in the skies and enemy subs off the coast of Santa Barbara -- but they were just rumors and false alarms.
  • When a North Carolina textile factory worker in 1962 reported becoming sick from a poisonous insect bite, 62 other workers soon claimed they too had been bitten, and exhibited symptoms of rashes and nausea -- but the bug didn't exist.
  • And when Orson Welles broadcast a dramatization of H.G. Wells's novel "The War of the Worlds," in 1938, thousands of radio listeners believed invading Martians were gassing New Jersey and New York; they fled their homes with wet towels over their faces, traffic jams clogged streets, and frantic callers clogged telephone lines.

Social psychologists who study crowd behavior have long known that beliefs, misinformation and fears can spread like a computer virus. Rumor is a function of ambiguity and importance.

Fear and hysteria spread primarily among like-minded people -- at the office, after church, at meetings, anywhere people talk informally -- and from anxiety-confirming reports in the media.

Public panic is spreading because communications from the government seem confused and inconsistent, say experts. Without structured and trustworthy information from the nation's leadership, they expect increased absenteeism, false symptom reports and hoaxes.

Source: Don Oldenburg, "That Way Madness Lies," Washington Post, October 18, 2001.


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