How the State Spreads Mass Hysteria
When a radio play by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, was broadcasted in 1938 shortly after the suspension of the Munich agreement, the play allegedly caused panic among listeners, who thought that they were under attack by Martians.
Another intriguing case is an episode of a Portuguese TV show called Strawberries with Sugar. In the episode, the characters were infected by a life-threatening virus. After the show, more than three hundred students reported similar symptoms as the ones experienced by the TV show characters such as rashes and difficulty breathing. Some schools even closed. The Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency concluded that the virus did not exist in reality and that the symptoms were caused by mass hysteria.
Similarly, on Emirates flight 203 in September 2018, dozens of passengers started to believe they were sick after observing other passengers with flu-like symptoms. As a consequence of the panic, the whole flight was quarantined. In the end only a few passengers had a common cold or the seasonal flu.
It is well known that there exist nocebo effects, which are the opposite of placebo effects. Due the placebo effect, a person recovers from an illness because she expects to do so. When we suffer a nocebo effect, on the other hand, we get ill just because we expect to become ill.1 In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the expectation can cause the symptoms. Anxiety and fear exacerbate this process.2
Mass hysteria can cause people to have symptoms. Moreover, hysteria, be it collective or not, makes people behave in ways that prudent persons not affected by the hysteria would likely consider absurd. It is open for empirical research to investigate if and to what extent the world has been suffering from mass hysteria during the covid-19 epidemic.3 We all have seen people hoarding toilet paper, wearing masks while driving alone in cars, or have heard stories of people virtually not leaving their houses for months. We also know people who are scared by the virus even though their own risk of death is minuscule.
While investigating the possibility of a 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 negative news and suffer psychological stress when we think we are not in control. This may happen also in a free society when negative news prevail. Yet in a free society there exist certain self-corrective mechanisms and limits that make it more difficult for mass hysteria to spiral out of control.
As a corrective mechanism, there exist well-known strategies to reduce fear and anxiety. In a free society people are free to make use of these strategies. One can release tension from one’s body through sports and exercises. Moreover, it is essential to find distractions from the negative news and socialize. In a free society these distractions abound.
It is true that hysteria can lead people to inflict enormous harm on themselves and others. Yet in a free society there exists an essential limit to the havoc caused by mass hysteria, and this limit is private property rights. In a free society mass hysteria cannot lead to a massive violation of private property rights by the state, simply because the state does not exist.
Moreover, while anyone in a health hysteria may voluntarily close his business, wear a mask, or stay at home, in a free society no one can force others who do not succumb to the hysteria to close 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 wake-up call to those who succumbed to the mass hysteria, especially the borderline cases. Imagine that a small group of people continues to go shopping, to work, to breath freely, to meet with friends and family, and that they do not die. Others may 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 may get control of the state apparatus and impose measures on the rest of the population and inflict untold harm. The possibility of mass hysteria is an important reason why the institution of the state is so dangerous.
Moreover, while in a free society there are mechanisms that reduce mass panics, mass hysteria can be exacerbated by the state for
Article from LewRockwell