Breaking Down Hysterical Contagion
Hysterical contagions involve the spread of symptoms of an illness among a group, usually one in close contact, when there is no physiological disease present.
In hysteria, or hysterical conversion, a person demonstrates bodily symptoms which are without an ascribable physiological basis. Hysteria occurs when a person experiences extreme anxiety which is relieved by converting the anxiety to physical symptoms (Frazier & Carr, 1974).
In hysterical contagion, the symptoms are passed from one individual to another, triggered by a precipitating event which heightens the sense of an immediate and tangible threat (Kerckhoff & Back, 1968).
An episode of hysterical contagion usually begins with one person exhibiting physiological symptoms such as nausea, stomach cramps, itching, or uncontrollable trembling. That person receives sympathetic attention as people accept that some genuine physical or biological agent caused the symptoms. People begin to talk about the case. Soon other people begin to experience similar symptoms, then also receive attention for their illness.
When the outbreak becomes more widespread, authorities attempt to locate and eliminate the source of the problem. When they are unable to find a biological cause for the outbreak, speculation begins that the episode is a case of mass hysteria (Gehlen 1977).
Although the nature and course of hysterical contagion are reasonably well understood, there is some controversy as to the dynamics of this rather strange phenomenon. Kerchoff and Back (1968), Smelser (1962), and Klapp (1972) favor the explanation that hysterical contagion is part of a negative cycle of stress-illness-greater stress.
Gehlen (1978), on the other hand, argues that in hysterical contagion the behavior adopted is positively rather than negatively reinforcing, allowing the individual to relieve stress by participating in the benefits associated with the sick role. The latter explanation seems to describe the data of hysterical contagion better than does the runaway-fear hypothesis.
Hysterical contagion, at least under Earth conditions, has a brief and well-defined life span of a few days, after which the symptoms rapidly disappear. An interesting aspect of the hysterical contagion phenomenon is that it is probably related to a conscientious work ethic. Kerkhoff and Back found that hysterical contagion is unlikely to occur among individuals who are willing to take an occasional day off.
The word hysterical connotes frenzied behavior, yet hysterical contagion follow a consistent pattern that can be accounted for by social factors. Hysterical contagion is most likely to occur when it provides a way of coping with a situation that cannot be handled in the more usual ways.
Workers, for example, who think it is not legitimate to take a day off from work just because they need a rest may become part of a hysterical contagion because being “sick” is then validated by others in the group. These diligent people may believe they are actually sick (Gehlen 1977; Kerckhoff & Back 1968). If others participate in the sickness, there is less risk being viewed as a slouch or malingerer. This is not to say that people are faking.
Like other types of collective preoccupations Opens in new window, hysterical contagion results when people try to cope with an ambiguous situation. It usually means redefining how we feel and what causes those feelings.
Political contexts also shape how hysterical contagions are defined. During a hysterical contagion in a West Bank school in Israel in 1983, the contagion began in a girls’ school, soon spread to other schools and, eventually, the whole community. Hospital doctors, working without laboratory facilities, thought the girls had been poisoned by gas.
At the height of the epidemic, rumors circulated among the Arab population that poison gas was being used to diminish the fertility of the school girls, a ploy that would depopulate the West Bank area, then under Israeli occupation. Only later were external medical experts able to establish that there was no gas and no poison (Hefez 1985).