Mass psychogenic illness

Mass psychogenic illness (MPI), also called mass sociogenic illness or just sociogenic illness,[1] is "the rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive group, originating from a nervous system disturbance involving excitation, loss, or alteration of function, whereby physical complaints that are exhibited unconsciously have no corresponding organic aetiology".[2] MPI is distinct from other collective delusions, also included under the blanket terms of mass hysteria, in that MPI causes symptoms of disease, though there is no organic cause.

There is a clear preponderance of female victims.[1] The DSM-IV-TR does not have specific diagnosis for this condition but the text describing conversion disorder states that "In 'epidemic hysteria', shared symptoms develop in a circumscribed group of people following 'exposure' to a common precipitant."

Current state of research

According to Balaratnasingam and Janca, “mass hysteria is to date a poorly understood condition. Little certainty exists regarding its etiology.”[3]

Besides the difficulties common to all research involving the social sciences, including a lack of opportunity for controlled experiments, mass sociogenic illness presents special difficulties to researchers in this field. Balaratnasingam and Janca report that the methods for “diagnosis of mass hysteria remains contentious.[3] According to Timothy Jones of the Tennessee Department of Public Health, MPI “can be difficult to differentiate from bioterrorism, rapidly spreading infection or acute toxic exposure.”[4]

These troubles result from the residual diagnosis of MPI. Singer, of the Uniformed Schools of Medicine, puts the problems with such a diagnosis thus:[5] “[y]ou find a group of people getting sick, you investigate, you measure everything you can measure . . . and when you still can't find any physical reason, you say 'well, there's nothing else here, so let's call it a case of MPI.'” There is a lack of logic in an argument that proceeds: “There isn't anything, so it must be MPI.” It precludes the notion that an organic factor could have been overlooked. Nevertheless, running an extensive number of tests extends the probability of false positives.[5]

British psychiatrist Simon Wesseley distinguishes between two forms of MPI:[6]

  1. mass anxiety hysteria “consists of episodes of acute anxiety, occurring mainly in schoolchildren. Prior tension is absent and the rapid spread is by visual contact.”
  2. mass motor hysteria “consists of abnormalities in motor behaviour. It occurs in any age group and prior tension is present. Initial cases can be identified and the spread is gradual. . . . [T]he outbreak may be prolonged.”

While his definition is sometimes adhered to,[2][7] others such as Ali-Gombe et al. of the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria contest Wesseley's definition and describe outbreaks with qualities of both mass motor hysteria and mass anxiety hysteria.[8]

An evolutionary psychology explanation for this disorder, as well as for conversion disorder more generally, is that the symptom may have been evolutionary advantageous during warfare. A non-combatant with these symptoms signals non-verbally, possibly to someone speaking a different language, that she or he is not dangerous as a combatant and also may be carrying some form of dangerous infectious disease. This can explain that conversion disorder may develop following a threatening situation, that there may be a group effect with many people simultaneously developing similar symptoms, and the gender difference in prevalence.[9]

Commonalities in outbreaks

Qualities of MPI outbreaks often include:[1]

Also, the illness may recur after the initial outbreak.[4]

Common symptoms

Jones compiles the following symptoms based on their commonality in outbreaks occurring in 1980–1990:[4]

Symptom Percent reporting
Headache 67
Dizziness or light-headedness 46
Nausea 41
Abdominal cramps or pain 39
Cough 31
Fatigue, drowsiness or weakness 31
Sore or burning throat 30
Hyperventilation or difficulty breathing 19
Watery or irritated eyes 13
Chest tightness/chest pain 12
Inability to concentrate/trouble thinking 11
Vomiting 10
Tingling, numbness or paralysis 10
Anxiety or nervousness 8
Diarrhea 7
Trouble with vision 7
Rash 4
Loss of consciousness/syncope 4
Itching 3

Predisposition for psychogenic illness

The hypothesis that those prone to extroversion or neuroticism, or those with low IQ scores, are more likely to be affected in an outbreak of hysterical epidemic has not been consistently supported by research. Bartholomew and Wesseley state that it “seems clear that there is no particular predisposition to mass sociogenic illness and it is a behavioural reaction that anyone can show in the right circumstances.”[2]

Females are affected with mass psychogenic illness at greater rates than males.[1] Adolescents and children are frequently affected in cases of MPI.[4]

History and examples

See also: Mass hysteria

Middle Ages

The earliest studied cases linked with epidemic hysteria are the dancing manias of the Middle Ages, including St. John's Dance and tarantism. These were supposed to be associated with spirit possession or the bite of the tarantula. Those afflicted with dancing mania would dance in large groups, sometimes for weeks at a time. The dancing was sometimes accompanied by stripping, howling, the making of obscene gestures, or even (reportedly) laughing or crying to the point of death. Dancing mania was widespread over Europe.[10]

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, instances of motor hysteria were common in nunneries. The young ladies that made up these convents were typically forced there by family. Once accepted, they took vows of chastity and poverty. Their lives were highly regimented and often marked by strict disciplinary action. The nuns would exhibit a variety of behaviors, usually attributed to demonic possession. They would often use crude language and exhibit suggestive behaviors. One convent's nuns would regularly meow like cats. Priests were often called in to exorcise demons.[2]

18th to 21st centuries

In factories

MPI outbreaks occurred in factories following the industrial revolution in England, France, Germany, Italy and Russia[2] as well as the United States and Singapore.

W. H. Phoon, Ministry of Labor in Singapore gives a case study of six outbreaks of MPI in Singapore factories between 1973 and 1978.[11] They were characterized by (1) hysterical seizures of screaming and general violence, wherein tranquilizers were ineffective (2) trance states, where a worker would claim to be speaking under the influence of a spirit or jinn (or genie) and (3) frightened spells: some workers complained of unprecedented fear, or of being cold, numb, or dizzy. Outbreaks would subside in about a week. Often a bomoh (medicine man) would be called in to do a ritual exorcism. This technique was not effective and sometimes seemed to exacerbate the MPI outbreak. Females and Malays were affected disproportionately.

Especially notable is the "June Bug" outbreak:[12] In June 1962, a peak month in factory production, sixty two workers at the Montana Mills dressmaking factory experienced symptoms including severe nausea and breaking out on the skin. Most outbreaks occurred during the first shift, where four fifths of the workers were female. Of 62 total outbreaks, 59 were women. Entomologists and others were called in to discover the pathogen, but none was found. Kerchoff coordinated the interview of affected and unaffected workers at the factory and summarizes his findings:

  1. Strain – those affected were more likely to work overtime frequently and provide the majority of the family income. Many were married with children.
  2. Affected persons tended to deny their difficulties. Kerchoff postulates that such were “less likely to cope successfully under conditions of strain.”
  3. Results seemed consistent with a model of social contagion. Groups of affected persons tended to have strong social ties.

Kerchoff also links the rapid rate of contagion with the apparent reasonableness of the bug and the credence given to it in accompanying news stories.

Stahl and Lebedun[13] describe an outbreak of mass sociogenic illness in the data center of a mid-western university town. Ten of thirty-nine workers smelling an unconfirmed “mystery gas” were rushed to a hospital with symptoms of dizziness, fainting, nausea and vomiting. They report that most workers were young women either putting their husbands through school or supplementing the family income. Those affected were found to have high levels of job dissatisfaction. Those with strong social ties tended to have similar reactions to the supposed gas, which only one unaffected woman reported smelling. No gas was detected in subsequent tests of the data center.

In schools

Thousands were affected by the spread of a supposed illness in a province of Kosovo, exclusively affecting ethnic Albanians, most of which were young adolescents.[14] A wide variety of symptoms were manifested, including headache, dizziness, impeded respiration, weakness/adynamia, burning sensations, cramps, retrosternal/chest pain, dry mouth and nausea. After the illness had subsided, a bipartisan Federal Commission released a document, offering the explanation of psychogenic illness. Radovanovic of the Department of Community Medicine and Behavioural Sciences Faculty of Medicine in Safat, Kuwait reports:

This document did not satisfy either of the two ethnic groups. Many Albanian doctors believed that what they had witnessed was an unusual epidemic of poisoning. The majority of their Serbian colleagues also ignored any explanation in terms of psychopathology. They suggested that the incident was faked with the intention of showing Serbs in a bad light but that it failed due to poor organization.

Rodovanovic expects that this reported instance of mass sociogenic illness was precipitated by the demonstrated volatile and culturally tense situation in the province.[14]

The Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962 was an outbreak of laughing attacks rumored to have occurred in or near the village of Kanshasa on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania, eventually affecting 14 different schools and over 1000 people.

On the morning of Thursday 7 October 1965, at a girls' school in Blackburn in England, several girls complained of dizziness.[15] Some fainted. Within a couple of hours, 85 girls from the school were rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital after fainting. Symptoms included swooning, moaning, chattering of teeth, hyperpnea, and tetany. Moss and McEvedy published their analysis of the event about one year later. Their conclusions follow.[15] Note that their conclusion about the above-average extroversion and neuroticism of those affected is not necessarily typical of MPI.:[2]

Another possible case occurred in Belgium in June 1999 when people, mainly schoolchildren, became ill after drinking Coca-Cola.[16] In the end, scientists were divided over the scale of the outbreak, whether it fully explains the many different symptoms and the scale to which sociogenic illness affected those involved.[17][18]

A possible outbreak of mass psychogenic illness occurred at Le Roy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York, United States, in which multiple students began suffering symptoms similar to Tourette syndrome. Various health professionals like Dr. Jennifer McVige, Dr. Laszlo Mechtler and personnel from the New York Department of Health had ruled out such factors as Gardasil, drinking water contamination, illegal drugs, carbon monoxide poisoning and various other potential environmental or infectious causes, before diagnosing the students with a conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness.[19]

Starting around 2009, a spate of apparent poisonings at girls' schools across Afghanistan began to be reported, symptoms included dizziness, fainting and vomiting. The United Nations, World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force carried out investigations of the incidents over multiple years, but never found any evidence of toxins or poisoning in the hundreds of blood, urine and water samples they tested. The conclusion of the investigators was that the girls were suffering from mass psychogenic illness.[20][21]

Terrorism and biological warfare

Bartholomew and Wessely anticipate the “concern that after a chemical, biological or nuclear attack, public health facilities may be rapidly overwhelmed by the anxious and not just the medical and psychological casualties.”[2] Additionally, early symptoms of those affected by MPI are difficult to differentiate from those actually exposed to the dangerous agent.[4]

The first Iraqi missile hitting Israel during the Persian Gulf War was believed to contain chemical or biological weapons. Though this was not the case, 40% of those in the vicinity of the blast reported breathing problems.[2]

Right after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the first two weeks of October 2001, there were over 2300 false anthrax alarms in the United States. Some reported physical symptoms of what they believed to be anthrax.[2]

Also in 2001, a man sprayed what was later found to be a window cleaner into a subway station in Maryland. Thirty-five people were treated for nausea, headaches and sore throats.[2]

Response to outbreaks

Timothy F. Jones, of the Tennessee Department of Health recommends the following action be taken in the case of an outbreak:[4]

Some responses by authorities to MPI are not appropriate. Intense media coverage seems to exacerbate outbreaks.[3][4][7] Once it is determined that the illness is psychogenic, it should not be given credence by authorities.[7] For example, in the Singapore factory case study, calling in a medicine man to perform an exorcism seemed to perpetuate the outbreak.[11]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 , Mass, Weir E. "Mass sociogenic illness". CMAJ 172 (2005): 36. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Bartholomew, Robert and Simon Wessely. "Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness." The British Journal of Psychiatry 180 (2002): 300–306. Web. 28 Nov. 2009.
  3. 1 2 3 Balaratnasingam, Sivasankaran and Aleksandar Janca. “Mass hysteria revisited.” Current opinion in psychiatry 19(2) (2006): 171–4. Research Gate. Web. 28 Nov. 2009.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Jones, Timothy. “Mass Psychogenic Illness: Role of the Individual Physician.” American Family Physician. American Family of Family Physicians: 15 Dec. 2000. Web. 28 Nov. 2009.
  5. 1 2 Singer, Jerome. “Yes Virginia, There Really Is a Mass Psychogenic Illness.” Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis. Ed. Colligan et al. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1982. 21–31. Print.
  6. Wessely, Simon. “Mass hysteria: two syndromes?” Psychological Medicine 17(1) (1987):109–20. Web. 16 Dec. 2009.
  7. 1 2 3 Waller, John. “Looking Back: Dancing plagues and mass hysteria.” The Psychologist 22(7) (2009): 644–7. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
  8. Ali-Gombe, A. et al. “Mass hysteria: one syndrome or two?” British Journal of Psychiatry 170 (1997) 387–8. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
  9. Bracha, H. (2006). "Human brain evolution and the "Neuroevolutionary Time-depth Principle:" Implications for the Reclassification of fear-circuitry-related traits in DSM-V and for studying resilience to warzone-related posttraumatic stress disorder". Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 30 (5): 827–853. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2006.01.008. PMID 16563589.
  10. Bartholomew, Robert. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers. 2001. Print.
  11. 1 2 Phoon, W. H. “Outbreaks of Mass Hysteria at Workplaces in Singapore: Some Patterns and Modes of Presentation.” Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis. Ed. Colligan et al. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1982. 21–31. Print.
  12. Kerchoff, Alan C. “Analyzing a Case of Mass Psychogenic Illness.” Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis. Ed. Colligan et al. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1982. 5–19. Print.
  13. Stahl, Sydney and Morty Lebedun. “Mystery Gas: An Analysis of Mass Hysteria.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 15(1) (1974): 44–50. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2009.
  14. 1 2 Radovanovic, Z. “On the Origin of Mass Casualty Incidents in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, in 1990.” European Journal of Epidemiology 12(1) (1996):101–113. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2009.
  15. 1 2 Moss, P. D. and C. P. McEvedy. “An epidemic of overbreathing among schoolgirls.” British Medical Journal 2(5525) (1966):1295–1300. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
  16. "DEFINE_ME_WA".
  17. "DEFINE_ME_WA".
  18. A. Gallay. "Belgian Coca-Cola-related Outbreak: Intoxication, Mass Sociogenic Illness, or Both?".
  19. "Mass hysteria outbreak reported in N.Y. town: What does it mean?". 19 January 2012.
  20. "Poisonings' at Afghan girls' schools likely mass hysteria - not Taliban, says report". 4 July 2012. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  21. "Are the Taliban Poisoning Afghan Schoolgirls? The Evidence". 9 July 2012. Retrieved 5 January 2016.


This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/21/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.