A Theory on Mass Hysteria Bubbles

Mass hysteria is the rule of the day. You know I’ve long thanked smartphones and social media for accelerating it to such a fever crescendo. Yet, episodes of mass hysteria are nothing new. Our technology has only increased the speed with which hysteria spreads.

To refresh your memory, I’ll mostly work with Scott Adams’ definition of a mass hysteria bubble:

A mass hysteria happens when the public gets a wrong idea about something that has strong emotional content and it triggers cognitive dissonance that is often supported by confirmation bias. In other words, people spontaneously hallucinate a whole new (and usually crazy-sounding) reality and believe they see plenty of evidence for it. The Salem Witch Trials are the best-known example of mass hysteria. The McMartin Pre-School case and the Tulip Bulb hysteria are others. The dotcom bubble probably qualifies. We might soon learn that the Russian Collusion story was mass hysteria in hindsight. The curious lack of solid evidence for Russian collusion is a red flag. But we’ll see how that plays out.

If you’re in the mass hysteria, recognizing you have all the symptoms of hysteria won’t help you be aware you are in it. That’s not how hallucinations work. Instead, your hallucination will automatically rewrite itself to expel any new data that conflicts with its illusions.

But if you are not experiencing mass hysteria, you might be totally confused by the actions of the people who are. They appear to be irrational, but in ways that are hard to define. You can’t tell if they are stupid, unscrupulous, ignorant, mentally ill, emotionally unstable or what. It just looks frickin’ crazy.

When looking at incidents like this throughout history, it is possible to come to a somewhat startling conclusion. It could be confirmation bias on my part, so I’d like to know if you see the same thing. Consistency can help here.

Anyway, my working theory is that a mass hysteria bubble is more likely to blow up around things that are declining in importance or concern rather than issues that genuinely need to be dealt with. With the latter, there’s less need to hallucinate your concerns, so mostly everyone is likely to agree and thus, there won’t be different categories of people in relation to it (I.E. those in the bubble versus those who aren’t).

The Great Depression effected everyone, as did World War II. There was less reason to hallucinate things around these issues, at least generally (I’m sure people had their own individual hallucinations), because the need to solve them was very clear. Similarly, it’s the case today with crime in Chicago or elsewhere. The issue itself is clear, though other things tangential to it like identity politics are much more prone to a mass hysteria bubble.

Let’s take a look at some mass hysteria bubbles throughout history to see if the theory holds any water.

Witch Hunting

Though sorcery was long considered heretical in Christendom, witch hunting really began to take a fever pitch in the Renaissance and down into the Enlightenment. Scott Adams mentioned the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, which were only part of a much bigger mass hysteria bubble.

The mass hysteria bubble seems to have first blown up with a 1484 papal bull attempting to tamp down what was seen as an outbreak of witchcraft in Germany. If the idea was to combat witches because they posed a threat to Christendom, it seemed to be a backward one. Paganism had basically been wiped out from Europe for at least 150 years to that point. The last major strongholds of paganism, along the Baltic in what is today northern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, were wiped out by a series of crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, most notably by the Teutonic Knights. The Protestant Reformation didn’t change this equation, though it did cause a ton of intra-Christian schisms.

In other words, Europe had become more Christian, not less, by the time the witch hunts began to get underway. There were no pagan strongholds left, and magic and “witchcraft” go together with paganism. Of course, Islam remained as big a threat as ever, especially with Ottoman dominance in the Mediterranean and southeastern Europe, but the completion of the Reconquista in 1492 balanced the equation somewhat after the loss of Constantinople. It’s also worth noting that sorcery was just as big a crime in Islam, so a resurgence in sorcery coinciding with Ottoman expansion seems unlikely.

Instead, the witch hunts seem more like a mass hysteria bubble that occurred just as the very thing they were upset about had receded to the point of essential non-existence and the “problem” from their point of view had been more or less solved.

Witch hunts
Women weren’t the only victims of witch hunts, though they were disproportionate ones.

The Red Scare and McCarthyism

This mass hysteria bubble was more concrete than most. The Soviet Union, thanks to its acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1949, certainly did pose an existential threat to America. Yet, there were several things in this era that give rise to the idea that there was indeed a mass hysteria bubble inflating around things that were least important in terms of the threat the Soviet Union presented.

One of the big issues in the 1960 election that John F. Kennedy rode to victory on was the idea that there was a “missile gap,” with the Soviet Union leading the United States. The media helped to spread this idea with hyping the launches of Sputnik and other satellites. In reality, the United States was greatly ahead of the Soviet Union in missile technology. This was why the Soviets saw the need to put missiles in Cuba, sparking off the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was a real issue, but the idea of a gap was probably a case of a mass hysteria bubble, supported by confirmation bias from the media.

More famously, there was the McCarthyism craze, where seemingly anyone of any consequence was suspected of being a communist, particularly in the State Department or in the entertainment industry. While the idea of a disproportionate congregation of socialists or communists in Hollywood likely holds more water than most, this is a classic case of a mass hysteria bubble surrounding a phenomenon that was declining in intensity.

The socialist movement in the United States peaked in the 1912 election, when perennial candidate Eugene V. Debs got around 910,000 votes, which was still a paltry number. Socialism, and certainly communism, as a political force in the United States, became even less of a blip after that. No one inside the bubble of the 1950s cared for this though, as they had hallucinated a greatly declined threat into an existential one.

Second Red Scare Iceberg
Given military developments in the late 40’s and early 50’s, this was an understandable reaction, if an inflated one, especially when it came to people at home.

The “War on Poverty” and Teenage Pregnancy

Thomas Sowell in Vision of the Anointed goes over many mass hysteria bubbles. You might say it’s how postmodern leftists operate. The 1960s was full of them. Two very notable ones were the ideas that poverty and dependence on the government was so high that there needed to be a full blown “war,” in terms of new social programs, to reduce this dependency, and that teenage pregnancy was such a “crisis” that a whole new program of sex education needed to be instituted in the schools.

To make a long story short, both poverty (and government dependence) as well as teenage pregnancy had been declining in America for years prior to any of this. Afterward, both increased.

While neither of them warranted being treated as a “crisis,” that’s what happened, which is consistent with this theory of mass hysteria bubbles.

Contemporary Bubbles

The idea that Russia “hacked the election” with Trump is an obvious one. It’s so obvious that even the ones peddling it have tuned their language down from “hacked” to the even vaguer “influenced” to keep the bubble going. It dovetails with the foreign policy establishment’s obsession with Russia as a huge threat to America, when in actuality Russia is a declining power that will only grow weaker in the coming decades.

The constant cries about “racism” are part of a clear mass hysteria bubble. The idea that America is a more racist country now than at any time in the past is incredibly dubious on its face. Just take a look at the rate of mixed race marriages for a simple clue. The idea of pervasive racism and “racial injustice” has attracted not the kind of response you’d expect, but freak-outs over sheets on a projector mistaken for KKK hoods and the rapidly spreading notion that the national anthem is somehow racist, even though that was never even a concept prior to the year 2016 A.D. These are, as you might tell by now, classic tells for a mass hysteria bubble.

It’s similar with the bubble that’s really been reaching a fever pitch over the past month (ever since Harvey Weinstein was destroyed), that of “sexual misconduct,” and while “rape culture” hasn’t been used as much in terms of phrasing, it does relate to it. In truth, crime of any kind, including sexual crime, has been in steep decline for the past 25 years (with some spikes in the past three). All available data suggests that the problem of “sexual misconduct” is getting better, not worse. Perhaps not coincidentally, with the low point of the general crime trend, around 2014, came the start of the mass hysteria bubble.

While there might well be a disproportionate amount of such crimes among the elites within society and especially in casting couch culture, this has only come after years of faulty allegations and talking points directed at the wider population. What’s more, I’m certain that many of these accusers are selectively remembering what they term as “misconduct” or “groping.” As a mass hysteria bubble operates in large part on cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, false or edited memories are certain.

Conclusion

The focusing illusion is central to the machinery of a mass hysteria bubble. Because people often mistakenly believe that whatever they pay attention to is the most important thing, the bubble becomes a full-blown panic, sucking attention away from issues of more pressing importance. Witness the vague cries of “social injustice” and hypertension over the national anthem taking precedence over black male unemployment and crime in Chicago, for instance.

Can this theory be tested? Yes. When something declines in importance but still has strong emotional content, look for a mass hysteria bubble of the type described by Scott Adams above. Human cognitive biases are wired for it.

To learn more about the biases of others and your own, read Stumped, which tells in detail how people come to believe things.