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  • Writer's pictureSam Wilks

The Psychology of Mass Hysteria: Understanding Crowd Behaviour

Mass hysteria, a phenomenon as old as human society itself, emerges from the depths of our collective psyche, manifesting in various forms throughout history. Its presence is a reminder of the intricate and often volatile interplay between individual psychology and group dynamics. By looking at this issue from different angles, including economics, psychology, security, and crime analysis, we can learn more about how and why mass hysteria happens and how it has such bad results.

At its core, mass hysteria is a social phenomenon where a group of people, influenced by a shared anxiety, exhibit similar physical or emotional symptoms or irrational behaviours. This contagion of emotion, often fueled by rumours or misconceptions, can lead to a collective delusion that defies logical reasoning. The psychological underpinnings of mass hysteria are rooted in our basic human instincts: the need for social belonging, the influence of groupthink, and the fear of the unknown.

From an economic standpoint, the principles of supply and demand, as well as the concept of scarcity, play significant roles in shaping crowd behaviour. People frequently behave irrationally in situations of perceived scarcity, whether it be of a resource, information, or security, driven by the fear of missing out. This fear can rapidly spread through a population, leading to panic buying or irrational market behaviours, as witnessed during various crises.

Psychologists have long observed and studied the factors that lead individuals to succumb to crowd psychology. A sense of anonymity within a group leads to a diminished sense of personal responsibility, making individuals more susceptible to engaging in behaviours they might otherwise avoid. Security experts, on the other hand, emphasise the importance of understanding crowd dynamics in managing and preventing situations that could lead to mass hysteria. This involves identifying potential triggers and understanding the psychology behind crowd behaviour to implement effective crowd control measures.

Australia has witnessed its share of events that could be categorised as mass hysteria. One notable example is the toilet paper panic of 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fueled by fears of shortages, consumers engaged in panic buying, stripping supermarket shelves of toilet paper. This behaviour was not driven by an actual shortage but by the perception of scarcity and the fear of being left without essential goods.

Another example is the reaction to the bushfires that ravaged large parts of the country in 2019 and 2020. The widespread anxiety and fear led to various forms of collective behaviour, from an outpouring of support and donations to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the causes of the fires. NGO's in particular took advantage of this misinformation to raise millions of dollars in donations, of which, to this day, much of those funds have never made their way to the bush fire victims.

The media and information channels play a pivotal role in either exacerbating or alleviating mass hysteria. In the digital age, information, accurate or otherwise, spreads rapidly, often outpacing the ability of individuals to critically assess its veracity. This rapid spread can fuel hysteria, as seen in the aforementioned examples, where social media and news outlets played a significant role in shaping public perception and reaction.

Mitigating mass hysteria requires a multi-pronged approach. It involves not only understanding the psychological and economic factors that contribute to it but also implementing strategies to manage crowd behaviour and counter misinformation. The provision of bottled water when large crowds were protesting regulated peoples emotions and behaviour and allowed onsite personnel carrying out security and crowd control techniques to gain integrity, credibility, and favour to influence the massive crowds when required.

Education and public awareness campaigns can equip individuals with the tools to critically assess information and resist the pull of crowd psychology. Furthermore, effective communication strategies by authorities and institutions can help in providing accurate information, thus reducing the potential for panic and irrational behavior. Unfortunately, in Australia, those in positions of power and authority were the main victims of mass hysteria and its promoters.

Mass hysteria, a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, reflects the intricate interplay between individual psychology and group dynamics. Understanding its underpinnings from various disciplinary perspectives allows for a more comprehensive approach to managing and mitigating its effects. As societies continue to evolve and face new challenges, the study of mass hysteria remains relevant, offering insights into the human condition and our collective behaviour in times of crisis. From the author.

The opinions and statements are those of Sam Wilks and do not necessarily represent whom Sam Consults or contracts to. Sam Wilks is a skilled and experienced Security Consultant with almost 3 decades of expertise in the fields of Real estate, Security, and the hospitality/gaming industry. His knowledge and practical experience have made him a valuable asset to many organizations looking to enhance their security measures and provide a safe and secure environment for their clients and staff.

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