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Hysterical contagion

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Hysterical contagion occurs when a group of people show signs of a physical problem or illness when in reality there are psychological and social forces at work. Hysterical contagion is a strong form of social contagion, which describes the copycat effect of imitative behaviour based on the power of suggestion and word of mouth influence, because the symptoms often include those associated with clinical hysteria.

June bug epidemic

The June bug epidemic serves as a classic example of hysterical contagion. In 1962 a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking department of a US textile factory. The symptoms included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Word of a bug in the factory that would bite its victims and develop the above symptoms quickly spread. Soon sixty two employees developed this mysterious illness, some of whom were hospitalized. The news media reported on the case. After research by company physicians and experts from the US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center, it was concluded that the case was one of mass hysteria.

While the researchers believed some workers were bitten by the bug, anxiety was likely the cause of the symptoms. No evidence was ever found for a bug which could cause the above flu-like symptoms, nor did all workers demonstrate bites.

Workers concluded that the environment was quite stressful; the plant had recently opened, was quite busy and organization was poor. Further, most of the victims reported high levels of stress in their lives. Social forces seemed at work too. Of the 62 employees that reported symptoms, 59 worked on the first shift, 58 worked in the same area, and 50 of the 62 cases occurred in the two consecutive days after the media supposedly “sensationalized” the event. Most of the employees who became sick took days off to recuperate.

Some have questioned whether the incident was a massive cover-up, but most evidence suggests psychological and social forces were at work at the clothing factory.

Further reading

"The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion" by Alan C. Kerckhoff, Kurt W. Back


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