From Laughter: A Scientific Investigation by Robert Provine:
Consider the extraordinary events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The setting was a missionrun boarding school for girls between 12 and 18 years of age at Kashasha village, about 25 miles from Bukoba, near Lake Victoria. The first symptoms appeared on January 30, when three girls started laughing. The symptoms of laughing, crying, and agitation quickly spread to 95 of the 159 students, forcing the school to close on March 18. The school reopened on May 21 but closed again within a month after 57 pupils were stricken. Individual laugh attacks lasted from minutes to a few hours and recurred up to four times. In a few cases, the symptoms persisted for 16 days. Although temporarily debilitating, the laugh attacks produced no fatalities or permanent aftereffects, but teachers reported students being unable to attend to their lessons for several weeks after a laugh episode. The affected girls were highly agitated and often resisted restraint. None of the teachers (two Europeans and three Africans) were afflicted. The girls sent home from the closed Kashasha school were agents for the further spread of the laugh epidemic. Within 10 days of the school closing, laughter attacks were reported at Nshamba, home village for several of the Kashasha girls. Two hundred seventeen of the 10,000 Nshamba villagers, mostly young adults of both sexes and schoolchildren, were afflicted. Another outbreak occurred at Ramashenye girls’ middle school on the outskirts of Bukoba, near the home of other Kashasha students. The school closed in mid-June when 48 of the 154 girls were overcome with laughter. Kanyangereka village, 20 miles from Bukoba, was the site of yet another outbreak, with one of the Ramashenye girls being the source of the contagion. This flare-up first involved members of the girl’s family (sister, brother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law), but quickly spread to other villagers and to two nearby boys’ schools, both of which were forced to close. Before finally abating two and a half years later, in June 1964, this plague of laughter spread through villages “like a prairie fire,” forcing the temporary closing of more than 14 schools and afflicting about 1,000 people in tribes bordering Lake Victoria in Tanganyika and Uganda. Quarantine of infected villages was the only means of blocking the epidemic’s advance. A psychogenic, hysterical, origin of the epidemic was established after excluding alternatives such as toxic reaction and encephalitis. The epidemic grew in a predictable pattern, first affecting adolescent females at the Christian schools, then spreading to mothers and female relatives but not fathers. No cases involving village headmen, policemen, schoolteachers, or other “better educated or more sophisticated people” were recorded. The laughter spread along the lines of tribal, family, and peer affiliation, with females being maximally affected. The greater the relatedness between the victim and witness of a laugh attack, the more likely the witness would be infected.
Have not we all experienced a lesser form of the epidemic? Recall your own experience with “fits” of nearly uncontrollable laughter (laughing “jags”). Innocent bystanders are also sucked into this vortex of social biology. Once initiated, laughing jags are difficult to extinguish, a point noted by several television newscasters who have suffered laugh attacks during broadcasts. Heroic effects to stifle such outbursts often make things even worse.
Dance and music manias
the human susceptibility to social synchronization need not arise from pathology. History is rich in examples of “mass hysteria” and “mania” in which people are swept up into frenzies of communally synchronized behavior. Notable are the St. Vitus’s and St. John’s dance manias of the European Middle Ages, and the tarantella, an Italian dance craze thought to be caused by the bite of a spider. Secluded groups and women are especially sensitive to mass hysteria, with convents being sites of some of history’s stranger epidemics. One nun in a large French convent started mewing like a cat, triggering a chorus of contagious mewing that swept through the sisters. Eventually, the nuns gathered daily for several hours of communal mewing, a performance that continued until stopped by police who threatened to whip those who continued. Even stranger is the epidemic of biting nuns in the fifteenth century. One nun began biting her companions, triggering an epidemic of mutual biting that engaged all of the sisters in the convent, spreading to other convents and eventually to the mother house in Rome.
- Gangnam style
Daniel Radcliffe in Japan:
Mobbing sports heroes:
On internet shaming frenzies (How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life):
When I first met [Sacco], she was desperate to tell the tens of thousands of people who tore her apart how they had wronged her and to repair what remained of her public persona. But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.
Reactions to the OJ Simpson verdict:
Secluded groups and women are especially sensitive to mass hysteria, with convents being sites of some of history’s stranger epidemics. One nun in a large French convent started mewing like a cat, triggering a chorus of contagious mewing that swept through the sisters. Eventually, the nuns gathered daily for several hours of communal mewing, a performance that continued until stopped by police who threatened to whip those who continued. Even stranger is the epidemic of biting nuns in the fifteenth century. One nun began biting her companions, triggering an epidemic of mutual biting that engaged all of the sisters in the convent, spreading to other convents and eventually to the mother house in Rome.
Red Guard mania, as told by Richard Baum:
... how the boundaries of conventional civility had been so easily breached. Clearly, peer group pressure and the absence of adult supervision were important factors, much as they had been key factors in William Golding's fictionalized account of adolescent brutality in his vivid novel Lord of the flies. In the case of the Red Guards, mass hysteria was an additional factor. A psychological contagion had been induced by the students' frenzied devotion to Chairman Mao. In giving into their most destructive impulses, they truly believed they were acting on behalf of of their living deity. In such a hyper-charged atmosphere, the license to defy authority interacted with immature youthful absolutism and overactive teenage hormones to create an explosive, potentially deadly mix.