Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mass Sociogenic Illness

Yesterday a classic example of mass sociogenic illness occurred at a bank building in Fort Worth.

Initial reports indicated some sort of poisoning. Hundreds of workers spilled outside the building due to fumes. The fire department was soon on the scene with hazmat crews. Rapid assessments of local hospitals were made – How many beds did they have available for a possible mass casualty event? Early reports indicated that a carbon monoxide monitor was going off, and it was believed that dozens of people had been injured. More than one hundred workers were triaged at the scene for symptoms. Around thirty patients were transported to area hospitals for evaluation with chest pains and shortness of breath. When they arrived, the emergency rooms did not know the cause of the illness – hazmat teams still had not identified the source of the fumes.

Mass sociogenic illness is an interesting phenomenon. The power of suggesting in a group setting makes people develop symptoms consistent with illness. At the time, people truly believe they are ill, but in reality, it is all in their mind. That is exactly what happened in Fort Worth.

Apparently, this all began when two employees complained to a supervisor that they felt dizzy after a third employee sprayed on some perfume. According to media reports, their supervisor made an announcement throughout the building over the PA system that anyone else feeling dizzy from the fumes should exit the building.

Imagine this: You are sitting at your desk. An announcement comes over the speakers – there are fumes in the air and if you feel sick you should exit the building. What fumes? you wonder. You’re cubical mate gets up, says the fumes are giving her a headache. You notice others in your area leaving. Your heart starts to beat faster, have I been exposed to something? You stand up and look around. A woman is crying, she says she has chest pains. You decide you should go outside too, who knows what is in the air? On the way you realize you feel dizzy as well.

But you aren’t. At least not from any fumes. It is a psychosomatic reaction to the events around you. It is fear-induced.

Hazmat crews showed up and set up air monitoring units. Of course they could not detect anything because there was nothing in the air to detect.

There are multiple reports of this sort of behavior in the literature, and they are a source of interest to many sociologists who study collective behavior. Mass sociogenic illness can be a major social problem, particularly in an age of heightened anxiety over terrorism. Consider the cost of yesterday’s event, the large number of first responders involved, from the fire department, hospitals, and the public health department, not to mention the cost to the business of the day’s disruption. Not to mention the personal cost of having succumbed to one’s fears, the embarrassment (how would you like to be that poor supervisor?).

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