Friday, January 25, 2019

Mass Hysteria Is Fun

A young woman cries at a Beatles concert in 1965.  Hordes of weeping, screaming female fans were a prominent feature of the early Beatles years.  As they were during the early Frank Sinatra years two decades earlier.  And the early Elvis years.  And the early One Direction years.  And the early... you get the idea.

Pity Thee poor Optimist.

He has spent most of his life laboring under a false (and in retrospect, rather stupid) assumption.  

For far too long, Thee Optimist has believed that despite their many failings, human beings are primarily rational actors.  That is, their behavior was (or could be) influenced by information, logic and reason.  

He believed that the quality of the information people had access to - combined with an innate ability to process and understand that information - was what guided human activity.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!


Thee Optimist appears to have believed this because he himself is rather robotic.  Indeed, he has sometimes been referred to as a cross between C3PO and the Terminator. 

While this sort of personality has been useful in some ways, it has been a terrible handicap when trying to decipher the behavior of his fellow earthlings.  

It took a while, but the scales have finally fallen from his eyes.  He is pleased to announce that human behavior is primarily irrational, largely driven by emotion.  And further, this emotionality is most obvious in mass group behavior, which is easily manipulated.

Elvis Presley meeting (very) young fans, dressed identically, after a concert, 1957.

Belief is Emotional

Earlier this month, I came across an interesting news article about a religious procession that takes place every year in early January.  It is called the "Traslacion," and it happens in the city of Manila, the Philippines. 

Each year, on January 9, people parade a black statue of Christ carrying the Cross (the so-called "Black Nazarene") through the streets of downtown Manila.  

And each year, as many as five million people come out to see and try to touch the statue.  Indeed, the streets become so choked with people, that the four mile parade usually takes about twenty hours to complete.

Each year, hundreds of people succumb to heat exhaustion during the parade, since Manila is hot in general, and January is summer in the southern hemisphere.  In past years, people have died in the crush of humanity.

Why do they want to touch the statue so badly?  

Naturally, because they believe the Black Nazarene, which is thought to have been carved from mesquite wood in Mexico sometime before the year 1600, is miraculous and has healing powers.  

Okay.  So far, so good.  People worship a four-hundred year-old statue of Christ, a statue that comes from uncertain origins.  They've been doing that since the statue arrived by ship in the Philippines in 1606.

Here comes the best part: it's not the original statue.  

The Black Nazarene wades its way through the crowds in Manila.  Notice the shirts.

In 1787, the Church commissioned a copy to be made, because they were worried the original was being damaged from too much fondling.  

The original was kept stored in a church, away from people's greasy hands, until it was destroyed in 1945 during the apocalyptic Battle of Manila.     

Not only is the current Black Nazarene not the original, it isn't even really the copy.  The 1787 copy was copied again during the 1990s, and made durable with coats of epoxy resin.  Then the head of the 1787 copy was placed on top of the modern copy.

Each year, millions of people brave heat stroke and massive crowds to touch, and be healed by, an ancient, mysterious statue of Christ, which for the most part is a little over twenty years old.

The Black Nazarene at night.

The Dancing Disease 

In July of 1518, in the city of Strasbourg, modern day France, a woman named Frau Troffea began to dance.

And didn't stop.

On and on she danced, right out in the streets, fervently, rapturously.  After a few days, other people began to join in.  Within a week, there were 34 dancers, mostly women, going nonstop.  By a month in, there were over 400.

Many of them danced until they died.  At its height, 15 people a day are thought to have dropped dead.  Yes.  From dancing.

Oddly enough, this was not an isolated incident.  There are at least eight major documented cases of dancing mania that took place in Europe during medieval times, and dozens of smaller incidents.  

The outbreaks took place across several centuries, at least as early as the year 1020, usually in times of hardship, famine or disease.  And thousands of people - men, women and children - were involved.

Dance at Molenbeek, by Peter Brueghel the Younger, depicting an outbreak of dance mania.  Often, musicians were encouraged to play for the dancers, in the hope that this would get them to stop.  The strategy tended to backfire, bringing even more people into the dance.

Social Contagion (is like a virus)

And that's not all, folks.  

On January 30, 1962, three girls at a boarding school in the village of Kashasha, modern day Tanzania, were joking around and began to laugh.  Then didn't stop.  

Soon, nearly two-thirds of the 152 girls at the school were laughing, some for hours at a time, and in the case of one girl, for 16 straight days.  

The school was shut down and the girls were sent to their home villages.  Where outbreaks of laughter quickly began.  Over a sparsely populated rural region, more than 1,000 people are thought to have begun laughing.  

And crying.  And farting.  And screaming.  This went on for 18 months, gradually dying out in the spring of 1963.  

There have been penis panics.  And fainting epidemics.  Everywhere you look, there are groups of people engaging in irrational behavior, all together, at once.  

What these panics, and epidemics and religious fantasms, as well as outbreaks of mob violence, copycat murders, and copycat suicides, have in common is something called Social Contagion.

Social Contagion is defined as the spread of ideas, attitudes, or behavior patterns in a group through imitation and conformity.  It has also been called a spontaneous, unsolicited and uncritical imitation of another’s behavior.”

My poor old gray-haired daddy used to have a little motto that aptly summed up not just the behavior, but the reason for it.  "Monkey see, monkey do," he would say.

At midnight on October 12, 1944, more than 30,000 teenage girls (nearly all of them wearing identical "bobby sox") descended on Times Square to try to wait in line for the Frank Sinatra show the next afternoon at the Paramount Theater, a venue with capacity for about 3,500.  The ensuing melee was billed "The Columbus Day Riot."  By the way?  There was a fucking war on.  WW2.  The Big One.  Did these ladies care?  No.  Not at that moment.

Are We Vulnerable to Social Contagion?

With all this talk of people getting carried away by the social weather, you might begin to wonder:

"Am I part of this?"

I mean, you're not like those other people, are you?  You're modern.  You're educated.  You're not a religious fanatic.  You're well past your teenage years.  Hell, you're halfway dead at this point.  At least.

This couldn't possibly affect you, could it?

Well, it turns out that it can, and it does.  But don't take my word for it.  Ask your good friends at Facebook.

In 2013, Facebook, in cooperation with Cornell University, and the University of California, carried out an experiment on 689,000 unsuspecting users of the social media site.

What's that old saying?  "If the product is free, you are the product."

In any event, what Facebook did was manipulate news feeds - updates from other users.  The idea was to see if they could use the apparent mental states of Facebook "friends" to control people's emotions - in a somewhat diabolical attempt to spark widespread feelings of anger, sadness, and happiness.  

Could they do it?  The answer was a resounding yes, they could.  Easily.

In other words, the big media companies - Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter - along with any and all major governments (or really, whoever is paying), have in their hands the power to manipulate large groups of people and create hysteria on a massive scale. 

If you're wired in, you can be targeted, and manipulated.  The fun part is it could be happening to you right now, and you wouldn't even know it. 

You (and all your "friends") would just be pissed off because, "You know, that evil bastard is at it again."

It's a good thing these media companies are as honest and above reproach as they are.  Otherwise, I might be a little worried.  

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1 comment:

  1. Three 6 Mafia DonaldFebruary 1, 2019 at 2:34 PM

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    Its the "blog about nothing."