Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Great Fears

“The panic is the crudest and simplest example of collective mental life. Groups of gregarious animals are liable to panic; and the panic of a crowd of human beings seems to be generated by the same instinctive reactions as the panic of animals. The essence of the panic is the collective intensification of the instinctive excitement, with its emotion of fear and its impulse to flight”

William McDougall

Raw Panic and other Fear Based Alarms

The panic reaction is undoubtedly one of the most frightening manifestations of all irrational mass responses. The ethologist Konrad Lorentz has given a vivid description of just such an event in which he was personally involved - ‘a great crowd, inaccessible to reason, were rushing blindly along, closely huddled, all in the same direction, with eyes protruding and chests heaving, trampling underfoot everything that came in their way’. These occurrences, of panic-stricken animal-like stampedes, are fortunately rare; in fact they are dependent on very particular circumstances. The classic location for such events are burning buildings, sinking ships, encircled battle situations etc., all of which are settings in which a perceived danger is critically intensified by the apprehension of entrapment. In these circumstances reactions are narrowed to a single impulse, namely, to flee. All rational thought is suspended; all sense of time and place is curtailed; self-preservation is the paramount emotion.

In panic situations the mood-transmitting effect of group emotions is particularly intense. Expression of fear, seen on the faces and heard in the voices of others, greatly add to the contagion of terror. In effect, the ‘higher’ brain functions of those caught up in a panic appear to be short-circuited, and more primitive brain functions (in the hypothalamus) take over the controls. As a result, those involved become entirely possessed by the urge to escape the situation. The intelligent, reasoning part of their mind/brains, together with their normal memory function and experience, are simply abandoned. This is the most extreme version of collective tunnel-vision; one image is dominant, and one intention precludes all others. It is frequently the case that the majority of injuries and fatalities caused by a panicking crowd are due to trampling and smothering, rather than the original cause of the disturbance.

The preconditions for this reaction are, as I’ve indicated, fairly specific - the main factor being the perception of sudden and imminent danger. However, if the routes of escape are clear and open, panic does not usually break out. Panic does not occur either if all exits are sealed, or are conceived to be (an immobilising state of terror is the more typical reaction in these circumstances). Other collective feelings, such as enthusiasm or hostility, can also spread ‘contagiously’, but fear is the most potent of the primary emotions that can be transmitted in this way – and it can take hold with great rapidity.

There is, then, a pattern to panic. It is usually initiated by a perceived danger, which induces a general anxiety. These fears are then accentuated through the group by a circular interaction of suggestion and hysterical contagion, increasing in the process. In the classic panic situation, this culminates in a common mobilisation, where the collective will is dominated by the impulse of flight. There are, however, many variants, many lesser ‘panics’ that follow this general pattern, which, although serious enough in their own right, are essentially attenuated versions of true panic. There are moral panics, financial panics and religious, or enthusiastic panics, and there are those driven by revolutionary or military fervour (all of which feature later on in this section). Fear is usually an underlying, if not dominant, emotion in these episodes; the context is generally one that is in some way threatening or perilous. Movements of this kind can take various forms, depending on which primary emotion is brought to the fore (although these may change in the course of events). The prevailing mood of anxiety can be modified by feelings of hostility, sorrow or greed. But epidemics of exaggerated fear are the most common of all.

La Grande Peur

The prior conditions are all-important in establishing the initial character of any agitated mass movement, and although there is a certain commonality in fear/anxiety-based mass expressions they usually acquire a momentum of their own that give them a particular flavour. One of the great classics in the field occurred in France during the early period of the Revolution, and it certainly had its own peculiarities and energies. La Grand Peur (The Great Fear) offers a textbook example of the circular, generative anxiety that can break out when an emotional environment is particularly vulnerable to suggestion. At such times rumours can arise from almost nowhere and spread like wildfire, carrying fear with them.

In the late summer of 1789 much of rural France was in just such a nervous state. The peasants were constantly receiving news of the extraordinary revolutionary events in Paris, often in distorted and exaggerated versions. These reports gave rise to all kinds of fantastic rumours that contributed to a general, but unspecified sense of apprehension. People all over the French countryside became afraid, but could not objectify their fears. Rumours went back and forth, and every further account ratcheted up the anxiety level. There was much talk of aristocratic conspiracies, of foreign invasion, and of great armies of desperate brigands – which were, for some reason or other, about to be unleashed on the peasantry.

This uneasy state of alarm and suspicion created tinderbox conditions in which panicky chain-reactions were constantly breaking out. These usually followed the same pattern. Riders would appear in a village in an agitated state declaring that brigands had descended on their, neighbouring, village and were even now slaughtering everyone they could find. The villagers rarely waited for confirmation; this, after all, was just what they had been expecting. An alarm was hastily rung out on the church bells, women and children were bundled off to hiding places; money was quickly buried; the men would arm themselves with anything resembling a weapon – and someone was sent off to warn the next village. The terror spread unchecked by night and day; the dominant image of bloodthirsty ‘brigands’ drove the panic; any notion of verification, or of any more reasoned response to the threat was scarcely considered.

The identity of those actually perpetuating these imagined atrocities varied from province to province; ‘they’ could be Austrian troops, British marines, Swedish regiments or Spanish mercenaries. Most often they were simply ‘brigands’, in the pay of vengeful aristocrats, and hell-bent on creating havoc. Although there were conflicting accounts on the identity of the invaders, there was never any doubt that their arrival was imminent. The entire countryside trembled in anticipation of the dreaded phrase ‘The brigands are coming’. As a result of months of rumour the peasants knew exactly what to expect from this demonic crew – rape, massacres, dismemberment and the wholesale burning of homes and crops. So at the merest hint of the brigands approach, the inhabitants of villages and small towns all across France abandoned their homes and fled to the safety of the nearest forests or mountains. Others sought sanctuary in the great cathedrals, spending days there in a state of abject terror.

But the ‘brigands’ never did appear – to the relief, and bafflement, of many. In fact, there had never been the slightest basis for any of the rumours; the population had been terrified only by its own imagination. The sequel to the non-appearance of murderous hordes varied from place to place. Some came out of their hiding places in the days after the panic, others maintained a state of jittery alertness for a week or so before they crept home. A few provincial towns, like Lyon and Dijon, manned all entrances for weeks after the event. In many other provinces the ‘great fear’ was converted into a ‘great anger’, whose fury was directed against the local aristocracy. In these areas manor houses and chateaux were sacked and sometimes burned down, but this development triggered a new set of panics, with peasants in these areas expecting retribution. Town-dwellers, hearing of the various outbreak of rural violence, and making their own imaginative interpretation of events, spread the ‘brigand’ fear to other cities. Rumours of aristocratic conspiracies continued to circulate in both town and country. The authorities, in an attempt to reduce tension, and to quieten the rumours, made emphatic denials of the Kings involvement in any plots – but these protestations were ineffective, even counterproductive. In essence, the Great Fear was a prelude; very soon much of France was gripped by revolutionary fervour, and this state of agitated panic produced was soon subsumed into the greater drama of the Revolution proper. The general mood of collective anxiety was converted into one of collective rebellion, - another classic panic response

Although it was of exceptional duration (there were outbreaks of the Fear as late as 1793), La Grande Peur was not unique. There have in fact been many similar episodes of ‘brigand fever’ throughout history. Almost exactly a century earlier, England, in the wake of the Protestant Succession, was the scene of the so-called ‘Irish Fright’. In 1688 the entire country was swept by waves of wild rumours that an army of blood-thirsty Irish soldiers, intent on pillage and massacre, were advancing on London from the north. As with the Great Fear, these stories multiplied and fed on each other – but had no basis whatever in reality. There never was an army of Irish, or any other soldiers, advancing anywhere, but it was a long time before the population were convinced of the fact.

There was a similar ‘invasion panic’ in East Prussia during the early stages of the First World War, which saw a mass-exodus of refugees from the province on the basis of unfounded rumours of a Russian victory. The reality of that particular situation was that the German army had actually defeated the Russian forces, but neither reason nor threats could stop the exodus. Only very gradually, when all the newspaper were declaring a German victory, was the image of rampaging foreign troops laid to rest - whereupon, the collective mood swung from a state of irrational fear to one of triumph. As ever, hysterical beliefs, together with their accompanying images, proved notoriously impervious to reasoned argument. The analogy between these mass-delusions and those of hypnotised subjects seems particularly appropriate here.

All of these outbreaks, which involved a sort of collective paranoia, occurred at a time of great social change. When older certainties are challenged, as they were in those unsettled times, anxieties about the future easily come to the fore. Such collective moods can be extraordinarily infectious, and when they hold sway they seem to reduce individual capacity for rational judgement. The overriding impression gained from these accounts is that generalised stress can cause specific, if sometimes bizarre, fears to be conjured from the collective imagination.

There is another set of anxiety-based collective hysterias that are closely related to the ‘invasion’ paranoia’s; these typically involve fears of an alien, malevolent agent of some kind, acting within but against the community, for their own mysterious reasons. The ‘monkey-man’ panic that plagued Delhi in the spring of 2001 falls into this category, as does the extended episode of the ‘phantom slasher’ of Taipei; but perhaps the most famous, and certainly the best documented, account of this phenomena took place in the American Mid-west during the Second Word War.

see - The Mad Gasser & Other imagined monsters