Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/July 1900/The Psychology of Crazes

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 57‎ | July 1900

By Professor G. T. W. PATRICK,


A WELL-KNOWN Washington newspaper correspondent, writing of the recent Congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution and its disorderly meetings, says: "It is the unanimous opinion of those who have attended the congress that, while the Daughters of the American Revolution, individually, are nearly all intellectual, refined and attractive women, collectively they are an uncontrollable mob." Why is the social conduct of human beings different from their conduct as individuals? This is the problem of the new science of social psychology. The following study of crazes and epidemics is offered as a slight contribution to this science.

By way of preface it might be said that a good deal of the confusion as to the subject matter of social psychology would be avoided if it were understood that this science is not the study of any mysterious entity called £ the social mind,' nor the mere study of those individual traits that make men social beings, such as imitation and suggestibility; but rather the study of the peculiar and characteristic behavior of the mind of the individual when under the influence of the social afflatus. Under this influence we do indeed find that he becomes a different being, and that his mental processes must be formulated by different laws; and we are convinced that, as thus understood, social psychology is just as distinct and legitimate a branch of study as is the psychology of the child or the psychology of sex.

Now, in what ways is the behavior of man as a social being different from his behavior as an individual? To answer this question in part, let us examine his behavior in mental epidemics and crazes. I select these because they illustrate in somewhat extreme form the influence of the social afflatus.

If, for the sake of comparison, we first consider the normal individual as such, we find that he is a perceiving, remembering, associating, judging, reflecting, reasoning being; that he is subject to certain feelings, emotions, desires and impulses, prompting him to action; that his action is more or less deliberative, and, when it finally occurs, is the result of a set of motives determined by the man's character, which in turn is the outcome of his heredity and education and his general ability to appreciate and reflect the moral ideals of the social order to which he belongs. If now we study this man in respect to his mental development, whether from the savage or the child, we find that the direction of change has been away from imitative, impulsive action, towards thought, reflection, deliberation. He continually makes more use of memory and, anticipating the future, regulates his action in the light of his past experience. This change from the imitative and impulsive to the reasoning man accompanies the development of the higher brain centers, particularly of the cerebral cortex, upon which depend the all-important functions of memory and association. As an experiment it is quite possible to reduce this highly developed reasoning being in a single moment to a condition resembling his primitive state by means of hypnotism. In hypnosis there is a temporary paralysis or sleep of the higher brain centers, upon which depends deliberative, rational action, and, the lower (older) centers alone being active, the subject becomes a mere ideo-motor machine acting out every suggestion. In various related states of automatism, where there is any spontaneity at all, the mentality and morality of the subject are of a lower type and may be called reversionary in character, owing, no doubt, to the fact that those brain centers which represent the most recent acquirements of the race are temporarily out of the circuit.

If again we study the mind of the child, we find that it presents many points of likeness to the mind of the hypnotic subject and to the mind of the primitive man. We learn from biology that the child is to some extent a recapitulation of the life of the race, passing through in his individual development the stages of race development. Physiologically speaking, the higher brain centers and the centers for association, which are late acquirements of the race, are last developed in the child. We are therefore not surprised to find that the child, like the savage and the hypnotic subject, is imitative, impulsive, nonreflective, incapable of much abstract thought, deliberation or reasoning, and that he acts with a view to immediate rather than remote ends.

If now we turn to the behavior of the normal adult man in mental epidemics and crazes of all kinds, from the Crusades to the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, from the tulip mania in Holland to the Dewey welcome in New York City, we observe that his behavior is to some extent similar to that of the hypnotic subject, and the child, and the primitive man. The general character of mental action in epidemics is as follows: Men become imitative beings and their actions are determined by suggestion from the actions of others. Memory and the association of ideas are inactive, and there is an inability to reason and an indisposition towards deliberation and calm reflection. Past experiences are disregarded, remote consequences are not seen and behavior is impulsive and spasmodic. Feeling is very strong and every kind of emotion is apt to be exaggerated. Calm observation is also lacking and mental images may be mistaken for objective reality, as in the case of the hallucinations that are frequent in these phenomena.

The moral peculiarities of an epidemic are of a similar kind. Under the influence of a craze, the moral character of a people suffers a reversion to a primitive type. In times of epidemic waves the moral standards of the crowd approach those of the savage. We observe the exhibition of primitive instincts, such as cruelty, revenge and bloodthirstiness, together with changeableness, fanaticism, self-sacrifice and enthusiastic devotion to a leader. All these moral traits were well illustrated in the Revolution crazes in France and in the persecution of witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even in our own times a striking example of the primitive character of the morality of a people under the influence of social excitement was seen in the battle-cry of our American sailors in the recent Spanish war, 'Remember the Maine/ the ethical motive being a precipitate impulse to seek revenge. An instance like this can not be explained upon the theory that it represented the actual individual morality of the sailors participating in the battles, for it was echoed and apparently endorsed by the press throughout the country and upon the platform and even in the pulpit. It is hardly conceivable that an Englishman of noble birth should openly boast of his joy in being revenged upon an enemy; yet collective England is wild with delight when 'Majuba Hill is avenged!'

We are thus led apparently to the theory that, for some reason not yet evident, under the influence of social excitement, something takes place in the brain of the individual not unlike the action of hypnotism, by which the higher centers representing the more recent moral and mental acquirements of the race are temporarily paralyzed, reducing the subject in a greater or less degree to the condition of the child and of the primitive man. The observation of certain physical phenomena which often accompany mental epidemics tends to confirm this theory and at the same time to suggest a possible explanation. Epidemics of the more extreme kind are apt to be accompanied by great muscular excitability, varying all the way from mere extreme mobility, such as shouting, jumping and throwing the arms, to convulsions like those of epilepsy. The dancing manias of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries furnish the best illustrations of this, although these phenomena did not equal in intensity the frightful physical convulsions during the religious revivals in Kentucky at the beginning of this century. The particular character of these muscular movements is determined by imitation and suggestion. The movements themselves are no doubt due to congestion and irritation of the motor centers, or at least to a rapid overflow of nervous discharges at these centers, an accompaniment of the excessive emotion which attends all mental epidemics. In such a condition of the nervous system, thought, reasoning, memory and association can have little place, or, to express it physiologically, the unusual excitement in the lower centers of the brain accompanying excessive emotion may not only find expression in muscular movements, but may also exercise an inhibitory or paralyzing effect upon the higher centers, resulting in a kind of hypnotic condition. Neither is it difficult to understand the presence of this excessive emotion during mental epidemics or during any purely social movements, when we remember that war itself is the great original social movement, which even in this age always takes the form of a mental epidemic called the war spirit. The emotional effect of the mere physical congregation of a large number of men, the emotion increasing with the size of the assemblage, is known to all.

As we glance now at a few of the typical mental epidemics of history, we shall notice the ever-recurring presence of some or all of the mental and moral traits that I have pointed out. For illustrations of these phenomena we may turn indifferently to ancient, medieval or modern history. They abound at every period.

Very good examples may be found in Hecker's 'Epidemics of the Middle Ages.' In the Crusades, particularly in the Children's Crusades, we may observe all the mental, moral and physical peculiarities that have been mentioned. In the anti-Semitic mania, we see in its history of criminal horror the dehumanizing effects of the epidemic and the moral reversion which takes place under the influence of social excitement. The peculiar physical phenomena which have been referred to as characterizing epidemic excitement are best illustrated in the dancing manias of the Middle Ages and in the religious revival. Although epidemic 'revivals' have occurred in all countries, some of the best illustrations are seen in America in its early history and to some extent at the present day. At the time of the elder Edwards, revivals were accompanied by fainting, falling, tremor and numbness. In the Kentucky revivals the meetings, called camp meetings, were held in the open air. The interest in them spread in true epidemic form. At the height of the excitement, as many as 20,000 people, men, women and children, were gathered in a single camp at one time. Dr. Davidson, who writes a history of this revival, says that "the laborer quitted his task, age snatched his crutch, youth forgot his pastime, the plough was left in the furrow, business of all kinds was suspended, bold hunters and sober matrons, young men, maidens and little children flocked to the common center of attraction." The emotional tension was very great. A boy perhaps would spring to his feet and begin to rave, or some over-excited person would utter a piercing shriek, or a cry of triumph, and this would be the signal for a general hysterical outbreak, accompanied by many remarkable physical symptoms. Of these the most common were falling in convulsive spasms, jerking, dancing, barking like dogs, fainting, crying, singing, praying and cursing. Sometimes whole companies were seized with uncontrollable laughing fits, called the holy laugh. At a meeting in East Tennessee, six hundred began jerking at one time. In many instances sensibility would be lost and the extremities would be cold, while the face was flushed. In some places the sufferers were laid out in rows and squares in the churchyard until they should recover. From a medical point of view we should call this epidemic chorea, but its more exact physiology I have already referred to. When closely examined, the phenomena lose a part at least of their mysterious character. We must remember that religious emotions are powerful, deep and ancient. The effect, furthermore, is increased by the general epidemic excitement, by the element of large and unwonted gatherings of people, by imitation, by the stimulating music and by the fearfully exciting power of human shrieks and wild cries and prayers. Such a nervous condition induced in an individual must have two results: first, the escape of the unusual nervous excitement in motor channels, giving rise to the choreic movements; and second, the paralysis of the higher brain centers, resulting in various hypnotic phenomena and reversionary morality and mentality.

Many of these scenes were repeated in the great revival that swept New York and the Middle States, beginning in the year 1832. In these meetings preachers who kept cool and reasoned logically were not listened to. There was rather a demand for the wild, impetuous, vociferous, physically impassioned oratory of the rude man. As an example of reversionary morals in this epidemic, we may notice the fact mentioned by Albert Rhodes that in response to visions many men put away their own wives and took others from their neighbors.

From the psychological point of view perhaps the most instructive of all epidemics is the demonophobia or witchcraft mania which raged from the end of the fifteenth to the end of the seventeenth centuries. The savage's fear of demons and of unseen supernatural agencies lurking in every forest and moor now took hold of the modern world and turned the people, not into brutes and devils as we figuratively say, but simply into the original savages from which they came, whose basal instincts they still carried in their lower nervous centers, to be brought out under the influence of a social craze. The ecclesiastical authorities, both Roman and Protestant, led in this homicidal frenzy, while sedate judges, learned jurors and wise legislators lent their zealous aid. It spread in true epidemic form all over the Continent and into England and Scotland, even to America. Distinguished jurists declared that ordinary methods of trial should not be used for this offence, for so difficult is it to bring proof of the crime of witchcraft, that out of a million of witches not one could be convicted if the usual course of justice were followed. One contemporary of undoubted authority wrote that he saw a list of three thousand witches that had been put to death during the time of the Long Parliament alone. In this reign of demonophobia the psychological phenomena of the craze are well illustrated. The exciting cause was a widespread contagious and epidemicfear. The result was a recrudescence of the barbaric instincts of cruelty, torture and homicide, accompanied by a loss not merely of reasoning power, but apparently of common sense, so that intelligent men seemed to believe that old women blasted the crops in the fields and the offspring of animals, and raised storms and whirlwinds. The cruelty characteristic of the savage is again noticed in this case. In the witchcraft persecutions, the victims were commonly weak women, particularly the more helpless old and young, while the character of the inflictions was such as is peculiar to primitive people, viz., torture and burning alive. The perfidy of the savage is also noticed, as in innumerable instances the victims were led to believe that they would be spared if they made a confession, and were then put to death. To elude a legal requirement that torture should not be repeated, the most horrible tortures were 'continued' from day to day.

The psychology of crazes is clearly seen in certain of its aspects in the homicidal manias that have swept over communities or whole countries at frequent intervals in the world's history. The homicidal impulse itself is one of the most primitive and basal of all impulses. The reason for this is apparent. The history of man has been a history of warfare and of struggle for existence. It has been man against man, tribe against tribe, nation against nation. Habits like these are not quickly unlearned, and reversion to them in times of social disturbance is not strange. In the massacre of St. Bartholomew we-have a typical instance of the homicidal mania. The necessary conditions were, first, great emotional excitement caused by religious fanaticism acting as an inhibitory agent upon the higher brain centers and allowing the primitive impulses to act unchecked; second, the removal of external and customary restraints, effected in this case by the royal decree; and third, the mental effects of imitation and suggestion. These conditions being all supplied, the French people resolved themselves speedily into assassins and cut-throats, and enjoyed a homicidal debauch. Begun in Paris, the massacre spread in true epidemic form throughout France, until fifteen or twenty thousand people had perished.

These homicidal manias have, of course, been very frequent in history. The decivilizing influence of the craze is, however, most perfectly illustrated in the various scenes of the French Revolution. Here the overturning of the social and religious order itself acted in part as the unsettling and emotionally exciting cause. The usual results followed. The effect of social excitement in paralyzing the intellect was shown in this case in the wholesale and useless destruction of women and children. Furthermore, this reversion to the manners of the savage carries with it its appropriate mood. The slaughterers are not like demons, as we imagine demons to be, but rather like thoughtless children. There is merriment and much gayety, and there is dancing and singing around the corpses, and seats are arranged for the ladies, who are eager to enjoy the spectacle; and finally the victims are made to pass through a double row of executioners, who carve them into pieces gradually, so that all can saturate themselves with the sight of the bloodshed.

Although in some cases wars may be coolly planned by the people's leaders for personal or political reasons or for purposes of national conquest, still they all depend for their successful issue upon the homicidal impulse in the masses of people. This is called.the war spirit and is always of an epidemic character. It may have any degree of ferocity or mildness. It has a tendency to be periodic, so that if it has slumbered for a considerable period a very slight cause is sufficient to awaken it. A mere boundary line in Venezuela, in which this country had but a remote interest, was sufficient a few years ago to excite this war spirit in a milder form, when a curious craze for a war with Great Britain flowed like a wave across this country.

Any war will furnish instructive material to the student of social psychology. In the late Spanish-American war, for instance, we all felt the war spirit which flowed in epidemic form across the country and engulfed it. The first motive of the war, the altruistic desire to free an oppressed people, was of the ideal glittering kind, well fitted to excite the emotions of the masses. A dramatic event further fans this emotional flame, and at once the aggregate personality of the nation is in a condition of automatism, where primitive instincts, such as revenge and lust for the paraphernalia of war, are no longer checked by the more lately acquired moral principles. Congressmen, editors, members of peace societies, ministers of the gospel, forget their long and patient efforts to establish means for settling national differences by arbitration and join lustily in the war cry, and the psychologically curious spectacle is presented of a great nation, priding itself as a leader in the world's morals, giving to the appeal of a weaker nation for the arbitration of a dispute the answer of shot and shell. Although the motive of blood for blood is a moral motive belonging to a bygone age and in individual ethics has long been outgrown, yet collectively, under the influence of the war craze, we revert to it, and it is shamelessly proclaimed from platform and editorial room and vigorously applauded by the people. We have seen that cruelty and the persecution of the weak by the strong were among the reversionary symptoms of the social epidemic in many instances. We may notice curiously enough a trace of these qualities here, where the fact that our enemy was a greatly inferior power does not detract in our eyes from the brilliancy of our victories, though in the ethics of the individual such a circumstance would put us to shame. In all this we proceed strictly in accordance with international law, but international law itself is only international custom and is the mere expression of the wonted behavior of the aggregate personality, particularly in times of war. As such it does not represent the highest ethical development of man, but that lower stage of development to which he reverts in times of social excitement. From this point of view it is possible to understand why international ethics is so far behind individual ethics. Personal disputes were once settled by brute force as international disputes are now settled. There is no reason to doubt that the latter will, somewhat later in the history of civilization, be settled by courts of arbitration and enforced by a system of police as the former now are.

The considerations now before us show the futility of peace congresses in that part of their work which contemplates the enforced substitution of arbitration for war. Peace congresses are not social movements. They spring from the efforts of individual men, leaders in social reform. They belong to the upward ethical movements led by individuals, the slow, painful climbing towards higher moral and intellectual standards. These congresses may meet and discuss arbitration and perfect an international program, but they labor in vain, for they forget that social man has a double personality and that the personality that meets and deliberates in the peace congress is not the personality that, under the influence of the war craze, thrills with emotion and acts from ancient and deep rooted impulses and motives. When the war spirit sweeps over a country the social personality passes into a condition not unlike that of hypnosis and is ruled by a different set of moral principles. It should not be understood from this that peace congresses are useless. They are a part of an educative system whose influence in the end will be strong enough to react upon the secondary social personality and determine its behavior.

Among crazes of a different kind, we may notice financial crazes as an interesting type, falling under the same laws as those mentioned. Both in panics and in speculative manias we observe again a species of hypnotization. In the case of the latter the ordinary business shrewdness which characterizes the dealings of the individual in a normal state and which depends upon the activity of late developed association tracts in the brain, is to a large extent lost. The memory is impaired and what in general we may call prudence is lacking.

The psychology of the speculative mania is very simple. There is first, greed, furnishing the necessary emotional excitement; then imitation; then precipitate, unreasoning action. In the panic, the psychological sequence is the same, except that fear takes the place of greed. The stampede among animals may be taken as the type of all panics. It is a reflex phenomenon consisting merely of contagious fear and precipitate, unintelligent flight. Fear and flight constitute a most primitive form of mental action, equalled in primitive character only by that other form whose survival we have seen illustrated in wars and homicidal manias, viz., anger, and combat. Although-the individual has long outgrown these simple reflexes, yet in social excitement he reverts to them. The recrudescence of the first of these two forms is seen in the case of panics in theatres and burning buildings, where social fear is followed by unintelligent flight, there being a temporary paralysis of reason, prudence, the power of choosing means to ends, respect for women and consideration for the weak and feeble.

The limits of this paper permit me only to refer to other forms of the craze illustrating the same laws. In fads and fashions of all kinds, the behavior of the social personality is different only in degree from that already described in the more serious epidemics. The law of imitation is the same, but there is less excitement and emotional disturbance and consequently a lesser paralysis of the higher mental faculties and a lesser return to barbaric impulses. Whereas the others may be called forms of social paranoia, these may be called forms of social monomania. A single idea fills the public mind, and as a result this idea is unduly exalted as to its importance and worth. The higher mental powers are paralyzed only so far as that there is a perverted judgment as to the relative importance of things and consequently a more or less distorted view of the world and its values. Perhaps the simplest form of this craze is seen in the epidemic character of children's games. At different times of the season different games completely fill the social consciousness of the child-world, so that for the moment there is no interest in any other game. New and interesting sports, such, for instance, as golf, often fill the social adult consciousness in the same way. Then there are social and literary fads, crazes in musical airs, fashions in dress, furniture, houses and carriages, without number. Crazes of all kinds have found a prolific soil in America. The American mind is highly suggestible. One fad after another rages over the country and in some cases reduces the aggregate mind to a condition of idiocy. The Dewey craze in New York City last year is an illustration of this. Nothing but a sort of hypnotic distortion of intellectual vision could cause grown men to stand in line for an hour in order that they might sit for an instant in the chair in which the hero sat during the review, or to fight for shreds of the flags and awnings that decorated the platform.

Sporadic social reform movements take the form of crazes and illustrate the same laws. One recalls the Woman's Crusade in 1873, the result not of a rational plan but of imitation, and the Granger movement and the Farmers' Alliance and the greenback craze and the silver craze and many others.

Since Aristotle we have been told that man is a social animal and that to study him as he really is we must not isolate him from society. The evident truth of this may lead us to forget that it is but a half truth and the uncritical acceptance of it will lead us wholly astray in our sociological study. The inference which we seem compelled to draw from studies in social psychology is that social man is, in his ethical and intellectual development, many stages behind the individual man. The progress of civilization is a slow, painful, upward climbing, in which individuals are the thinkers, the planners, the promoters and the leaders. The mind of society, on the other hand, using the phrase in the sense defined, is an imitative, unreflective, half-hypnotic, half-barbaric mind, always acting as a drag upon the upward and forward movement, and, in times of crazes, epidemics and social cataclysms, gaining temporary dominance and causing disastrous relapses to a lower plane of civilization.