It sounds sexist, and it’s sure to raise the ire of some feminists, but the literature does not lie.  Throughout history, groups of people in cohesive social units have suddenly fallen ill or exhibited strange behaviors, from headaches and fainting spells to twitching, shaking and trance states.  But whether it’s an outbreak of spirit possession at a shoe factory in Malaysia, a collapsing marching band at a school gala in England or a twitching epidemic in a Louisiana high school, the pattern is invariably the same.  Most, and often all of those affected, are females.  In fact, of the 2,000+ cases in my files which date back to 1566, this pattern holds true over ninety-nine percent of the time.

Mass Hysteria 101

The scientific name for outbreaks is conversion disorder, a term used by Sigmund Freud to describe the converting of psychological conflict and distress into aches and pains that have no physical basis.  While the mechanism is poorly understood, there is no question that it happens.  A classic example is the pacifist whose arm freezes when trying to fire a gun in combat, or the witness to an atrocity who experiences temporary blindness, yet the eye structure is in perfect working order.  Occasionally, conversion disorder spreads within groups.  Think of mass hysteria as the Placebo Effect in reverse.  If people can think themselves better, they can make themselves sick.  Part of the confusion surrounding the term is that it is often used to describe unrelated behaviors.  Social panics.  Share market sell-offs.  Riots.  The Communist ‘Red’ Scare.  Rock concert stampedes.  Each have been wrongly identified as group hysteria.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that women are the weaker sex or prone to mental problems.  Mass hysteria is not a mental disorder – it’s a collective stress response that unfortunately has a stigma attached to it.  This is especially true of the name.  During the nineteenth century, hysteria was a catch-all term to describe everything from panic attacks to mood disorders and schizophrenia.  The diagnosis of hysteria was once used by the male-dominated medical profession to reinforce the notion that females are emotionally unstable.  The issue of hysteria is still a sensitive one.  Just ask any feminist scholar in the heat of an impassioned debate, to “dial down the hysterics,” and see what happens!  But the core question is not if, but why females, are more susceptible to mass hysteria?  Explanations fall into two broad camps—nature and nurture. 

The Case for Nature

Critics of the nature hypothesis point out that in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where outbreaks are common, females live repressive, submissive lives.  They are often told who they can marry, and may require their husband’s permission just to leave the home.  Yet Canadian psychiatrist Francois Sirois believes the answer lies not in society’s treatment of females, but their biology.  He analyzed 45 school outbreaks from around the world, and found that girls near puberty are most frequently affected.  Sirois observes that outbreaks in Western schools, affect girls at about the same rate as those in other parts of the world, despite the social conditions being fairly uniform for both sexes.  Many psychogenic conditions are more common in females, including individual cases of conversion disorder, and globus hystericus, a feeling of a lump in the throat that produces a sensation of choking.

The Case for Nurture

As a sociologist, I believe that social and cultural factors can explain the mass hysteria gender gap.  While adolescent girls are more frequently affected in schools, workplace outbreaks rarely involve females near puberty.  Women are over represented in the types of mind-numbing jobs which produce dissatisfaction.  Sociologist Alan Kerckhoff observes that according to industrial folklore, females are better than males at tedious, boring, repetitious tasks.  Hence, women are often hired to fill these jobs.  The result is a hotbed of tension and frustration.

Western females are also socialized to cope with stress differently than males.  British psychiatrist Simon Wessely says that females are more likely to talk to each other about their symptoms, which can spread outbreaks.  It is well-known that women are more likely to seek medical attention than men.  Similar female character traits are evident in most non-Western countries.  Working women may also experience gender role strain and conflict arising from having to balance the demands of their traditional domestic duties.

Insights from Anthropology

In many less developed countries, close-knit groups under great stress, enter trance and possession states where they can do and say things that they ordinarily would not get away with as they are thought to be in the company of gods and spirits.  Anthropologists call these possession cults.  Most group members are women living in male dominated societies.  Sometimes alone, but often in groups, they will exhibit twitching, shaking and anxiety-related ailments that parallel outbreaks of mass hysteria in African and Asian girls’ schools where students dare not criticize authorities.  During outbreaks girls may insult school officials and demand change.  They have even spat on and slapped their superiors in the face – with no repercussions.  The students are able to escape punishment because their actions are blamed on the possessing spirits who are believed to be talking through them. Often local healers are called in to rid the premises of demons who are thought to be causing the symptoms.  These shamans often enter trances states and claim to communicate with the 'other side' to air their grievances.  In reality, they reflect the complaints of the girls.  Many anthropologists believe that mass hysteria and spirit possession in Asia and Africa are culturally appropriate ways of indirectly negotiating problems – a form of subconscious collective bargaining.

What’s in a Name? 

Perhaps the diagnosis of mass hysteria would be more accepted if we distanced ourselves from its sexist roots and renamed it ‘collective stress response.’  But regardless of the name, and while it may not be politically correct, there is no denying that it is an overwhelmingly female phenomenon.   

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