Rumor & Mass Hysteria

Rumor is an unsubstantiated report on an issue or subject. Rumors provide people with a means of exchanging information about threatening situations and, in many cases, have a calming effect on groups and communities.

For example, 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.

In some cases, however, rumors can instigate more negative reactions to uncertainty, and play a part in triggering mass hysteria. In 1954, rumors that windshields were being damaged by nuclear fallout began circulating in the Seattle area. The rumors escalated into a mild form of mass hysteria as reporters devoted much attention to the issue, residents jammed police telephone lines reporting damage, and civic groups demanded government intervention. Subsequent investigation revealed that no damage at all had occurred (Medalia & Larsen, 1958).

By definition, 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.