Mass Behavior

What Is Mass Behavior?

Not all collective behaviors transpire at close distances. In some cases, individuals who are physically dispersed may act and react in similar and often atypical ways. Such behaviors are termed mass behavior.

By definition Mass Behavior is collective behavior Opens in new window that takes place when people (who often are geographically separated from one another) respond to the same event in the same way.

For people to respond in the same way, they typically have common sources of information that provoke their collective behavior. The most frequent types of mass behavior are rumors, gossip, mass hysteria, public opinion, fashions, and fads.

Rumors

Rumors provide people with a means of exchanging information about threatening situations and, in many cases, have a calming effect on groups and communities. In some cases, however, rumors can instigate more negative reactions to uncertainty, and play a part in triggering riots and panics.

  • Rumor is an unsubstantiated report on an issue or subject.
  • When unexpected events such as the massive 2003 power outage in the United States and Canada occur, people frequently rely on rumors to help them know what is going on. Getting accurate information out quickly helped prevent people from panicking as tens of thousands of workers in Manhattan sought to get home any way they could while electricity was unavailable in the city.

Whereas a rumor may spread through an assembled collectivity, rumors may also be transmitted among people who are dispersed geographically, including people posting messages on the Internet or talking by cell phone. Although rumors may initially contain a kernel of truth, they may be modified as they spread to serve the interests of those repeating them. Rumors thrive when tensions are high and when little authentic information is available on an issue of great concern.

For example, when the black-out of August 2003 occurred, leaving fifty million people in eight states and parts of Canada without electricity, the earliest rumors about the power failures reflected the turbulent times in which we live. One of the first rumors that began to spread was that the blackout was an act of terrorism; television broadcasters and public officials quickly tried to deflect this rumor for fear that people might panic and be injured as they sought to leave their workplaces in cities such as New York and make their way home. Fortunately, most people acted responsibly, and the riots and looting that took place during prior blackouts in New York City did not recur.

Gossip

Gossip is rumors about the personal lives of individuals. Whereas rumors deal with an issue or a subject, gossip refers to rumors about the personal lives of individuals. Charles Horton Cooley (1963/1909) viewed gossip as something that spread among a small group of individuals who personally knew the person who was the object of the rumor.

Today, this is frequently not the case; many people enjoy gossiping about people whom they have never met. Tabloid newspapers and magazines such as the National Enquirer and People, and television “news” programs that purport to provide “inside” information on the lives of celebrities, are sources of contemporary gossip, much of which has not been checked for authenticity.

Mass Hysteria

Mass hysteria is a form of dispersed collective behavior that occurs when a large number of people react with strong emotions and self-destructive behavior to a real or perceived threat. Although the term has been widely used, many social scientists believe that this behavior is best described as a panic with a dispersed audience.

An example of mass hysteria or a panic with a widely dispersed audience was actor Orson Welles’s 1938 Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s science fiction classic The War of the Worlds. A CBS radio dance music program was interrupted suddenly by a news bulletin informing the audience that Martians had landed in New Jersey and were in the process of conquering Earth. Some listeners became extremely frightened even though an announcer had indicated before, during, and after the performance that the broadcast was a fictitious dramatization.

According to some reports, as many as one million of the estimated ten million listeners believed that this astonishing event had occurred. Thousands were reported to have hidden in their storm cellars or to have gotten in their cars so that they could flee from the Martians. In actuality, the program probably did not generate mass hysteria, but rather a panic among gullible listeners. Others switched stations to determine if the same “news” was being broadcast elsewhere. When they discovered that it was not, they merely laughed at the joke being played on listeners by CBS.

Fad, craze, fashion, and social movements all constitute a form of mass behavior. However, we address each separately in designated entries.