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How mass hysteria happens (and how to avoid the COVID-19 panic)

Can a real pandemic (such as COVID-19) turn into mass hysteria?

  • Mass hysteria, also known as epidemic hysteria, occurs between two or more people who share beliefs related to symptoms suggestive of organic illness.
  • Research suggests that real pandemics can lead to mass hysteria.
  • A key factor that creates hysteria around pandemics is that the population's ability to remain calm and react logically to the situation at hand is blurred and unfocused due to the anxiety and fear felt by large groups of people.

    A pandemic, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is defined as a "global outbreak of a new virus". When dealing with a pandemic such as COVID-19, we need to be extremely cautious in the information we share. Pandemics (such as the Swine Flu pandemic of 2008) can very easily turn into mass hysteria cases, even though the threat is very real.

    Mass hysteria, also known as epidemic hysteria, is a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness but without an identifiable cause. It occurs between two or more people who share beliefs related to those symptoms, and has been described as a "social phenomenon involving otherwise healthy people."

    Mass hysteria has been well-documented throughout history, below are two separate cases from the 1900s that better explain what it's like to be in the midst of mass hysteria.

    The June Bug Epidemic (1962)
    60 workers in an American textile factory reported symptoms that included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Originally, the patients thought they had contracted a virus that was transmitted by the bugs in the factory.

    However, several doctors and health care experts from the U.S Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center could find no evidence to support this theory. Eventually, they concluded that the "illness" was really a case of hysterical contagion and that the symptoms were caused by the anxiety that surrounded the factory over potentially contracting this virus that didn't really exist.

    The Kosovo Student Poisoning (1990)
    More than 4000 young students became ill with symptoms such as dizziness, fainting, and even convulsions. Their eyes were inflamed and faces flush. The first area to be affected was a high school in Podujevo, only a few students at first - but in the days passing this number grew exponentially. Soon, it passed to many other schools, some even in cities as far away as one or two hours by car. During this time, a mass panic arose that spread throughout the nation.

    The Faculty of Medicine at the University of Pristina organized a group of doctors to announce it was epidemic disease, but they could not give any other information, simply because they didn't have it. The toxicological reports (analysis of blood and urine of the affected patients) were unclear. The samples did not appear to contain any poison. The Chief of Epidemiology of Kosovo Jusuf Dedushaj explained in a letter that he wrote later that year that the disease had psychic causes. The Federal Commission Head (a Slovenian doctor by the name of Anton Dolenc) agreed, declaring the incident having nothing to do with poisoning, but instead calling it a "psychological reaction", as this was the only explanation for what happened.

    In many cases, hysteria is caused by some kind of incident. This can anything - a news story about contaminated water supply or a virus that's going around (similar to what we're experiencing in 2020 with COVID-19.)

    The mind is a powerful and complex thing - it can play tricks on you.
    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.

    Can a real pandemic (such as COVID-19) turn into mass hysteria?

    concept of myth and fact COVID-19 misconceptions

    Pandemics (such as the Swine Flu pandemic of 2008 or COVID-19 outbreak of 2020) can very easily turn into mass hysteria cases, even though the pandemic is very real.

    Image by Gustavo Frazao on Shutterstock

    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.

    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.

    Staying calm and logical during the COVID-19 pandemic

    concept of fear and panic black and white image of scared woman alone

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

    Photo by tockfotografie on Shutterstock

    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.
    According to Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, the trajectory of COVID-19 suggests people will be exposed to this virus over the next two years, however, most will not develop serious illness.

    The CDC has explained that, as with most other viruses, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions or people who have impaired immune systems are at the highest risk.

    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). This interactive map from a team at Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) also shows up-to-date progress on the virus with real statistics.

    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).

    The Johns Hopkins map shows 184,407 confirmed cases worldwide (as of March 17, 2020) with 7,154 total deaths. While these 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.

    How accountability at work can transform your organization

    If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

    • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
    • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
    • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

    What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

    Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

    Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

    Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
    Strange Maps
    • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
    • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
    • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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    Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

    The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

    An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

    Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
    • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
    • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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    A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

    A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

    Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
    Surprising Science
    • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
    • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
    • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

    A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

    The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    So, em...

    Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

    In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

    Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

    The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

    Celestial sleuthing

    In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

    Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

    Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

    Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

    Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


    A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

    LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

    Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

    The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

    "Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
    (1) a surviving star or
    (2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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