Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


26.2.2  Panic and Mass Hysteria

A televised news conference with the ETs following a Direct Contact encounter would be the media event of the century. Xenologists believe that a large majority of Americans will display "news hunger," many remaining glued to the TV set for word of the latest developments. The credibility controversy will deepen this hunger and even those who suspect a hoax will be following events closely in an attempt to determine who is trying to fool whom. As tension heightens and ambiguity remains high, rumors will begin to fly concerning the nature of the aliens' visit, their intentions, their possible economic, philosophical and religious beliefs, and even their sexual practices.

According to the Yale social psychologist who participated in the 1973 study mentioned earlier:

The main behavioral consequence of all information-seeking and misinformation spreading will be absenteeism. While few workers and clerks will stay home during the day to watch TV, many of them will engage in mental absenteeism in the factory or office. Large numbers of people will be too busy talking to each other about the news, listening to transistor radios, and reading newspapers to do more than a small fraction of their normal daily work. How long this will last will depend partly on how long the story is kept alive by the mass media and partly on how long the major ambiguities persist. If the whole thing is promptly exposed as a hoax and the perpetrators are identified and their intent made clear, public interest will die. Or if the supply of fresh news quickly becomes exhausted, public interest will soon subside -- as in the case of the moon shots in the late 1960s. But otherwise for quite some time after the upcoming TV show, interest in [the ETs] will upstage the impeachment proceedings in the House and the trial in the Senate. Even Nixon’s resignation speech on the eve of the Senate vote will receive less attention.1640

It has often been suggested that the arrival of visitors from other worlds, or even the admission that they had already arrived, would give rise to widespread unreasoning panic. But studies of public reactions to wars, disasters, epidemics, and other similarly frightening events indicate that such will not normally be the case. Mass panic rarely occurs except under certain very usual circumstances.3642,3575 A number of key factors have been identified which, when present in a single event, may give rise to the most virulent forms of mass panic:

1. People are suddenly made aware of clear and present danger of overwhelming magnitude -- personal, physical danger -- that is rapidly approaching;

2. People perceive that all possible escape routes soon will be closed, leaving them trapped with the danger within a very short time (as in a crowded theater or nightclub on fire);

3. There is a lack of opportunity to engage in vigorous self-protective action under extreme conditions of potential entrapment;

4. People experience a loss or lack of contact with members of the family or with other primary socially supportive groups;

5. Ambiguity exists as to the extent and precise character of the danger; and

6. There is a lack of reassuring communications from esteemed persons or responsible authorities.

According to the Yale psychologist:

It should be noted that panic is not a likely response to verbal warnings that are ambiguous with regard to authenticity or that create uncertainty as to whether there might be severe, mild, or no danger at all in the offing. The disaster literature indicates that ambiguous warning messages are likely to be discounted and ignored by all except a small percentage of people, mainly hyperanxious neurotic persons.1640

Another misconception that is current in the popular press is that people are likely to wander about aimlessly like zombies on the heels of a major disaster. While it is true that stunned, dazed, near-psychotic withdrawal has been observed at the scene of catastrophes, studies show that this is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, most victims of large-scale disasters expect their neighbors to panic or to become zombie-like, and are genuinely surprised when they do not.3603 Usually it is only those who have been severely traumatized (e.g., serious personal injury, injury or death to close family member) that suffer the most extreme forms of psychological disorientation.

None of the primary or contributory factors to mass panic or stunned psychotic behavior should be present in any reasonable Direct Contact scenario. The hallmarks of such an encounter, and its subsequent disclosure to the general public, will be safety, certainty, and control. (Indeed, the less exciting it is, the higher is the ethical content of the encounter, according to the rules of thermoethics.) Even. in a typical Surprise Contact any minor panics which did erupt would be confined to the locality in which the clear and present danger to physical survival existed.1876

Of course, widespread panic is possible if the extraterrestrials come not as friends or neutrals but as enemies of humankind. The immediate threat to personal safety might be deeply etched into the minds of every person on Earth if the ETs performed some spectacularly destructive act -- such as blowing up the Moon -- to demonstrate conclusively the invincibility of their weaponry. This, followed by a general announcement that specific metropolitan areas around the world would suffer similar treatment if certain demands were not met, could give rise to hysteria, mass panic and deep psychoses in the designated areas. Within the doomed areas, notes one commentator, wild panic might become widespread "unless extraordinarily skillful leaders took command of the situation, giving impressive reassurances, organizing the evacuation, and mobilizing other protective actions."* Indeed, such a scenario has already been rehearsed once in some detail -- Orson Welles' Mercury Theater invasion-from-Mars broadcast, which took place on Halloween night, 30 October 1938. The incident is of great xenological and historical interest, and is worth discussing in some detail.

Drawing from the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells of the same name,1951 Mr. Welles opened his "War of the Worlds" with a harmless weather report. The announcer stated that the program would continue from a hotel, with dance music. For a few moments a dance program was heard, but soon there was a break-in with a "news flash" about a professor at an observatory who had seen explosions on the surface of Mars. Then the music came back for about half a minute, interrupted again by another news the landing of a "meteor" near Princeton, New Jersey. On-the-spot reporters at the scene of the fall noted that the object was a strange metallic cylinder. All of a sudden, the lid unscrewed and out popped Martians with death rays, killing 1500 persons including military personnel, members of the press, and innocent bystanders. As the story slowly unraveled, more martian warships began to land all over the United States; people were dropping like flies before an alien assault force armed with deadly gas; Martians were reported entering New York; and so forth.

Long before the fictional broadcast had ended, people across the nation were "praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from the Martians." Some ran to rescue loved ones; others telephoned farewells or warnings, hurriedly informed neighbors, sought information from newspapers and the radio, and summoned ambulances and the police. In Indianapolis a woman ran into a church screaming: "New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I heard it on the radio." Services were dismissed immediately. In North Carolina, five Brevard College students fainted and others fought for telephones to call their parents to come and get them. One telephone caller in Kansas City said he had loaded all his children into his car, filled it with gas, and was going somewhere. "Where it is safe?" he wanted to know. A farmer near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, took pot shots at a neighbor’s water tower, thinking it was an invading Martian war machine. A Pittsburgh man returned home in the midst of the broadcast to find his wife with a bottle of poison in her hand, screaming: "I'd rather die this way than like that."1756

According to Princeton social psychologist Hadley Cantril, who studied the Martian invasion broadcast in some detail, at least 6 million people heard the show, 1.7 million thought the broadcast was a valid news bulletin, and about 1.2 million were "excited" by it.738 According to Cantril, the unusual realism of the performance may be attributed to the fact that the early parts of the broadcast "fell within the existing standards of judgement of the listeners." Radio had become an accepted vehicle for important announcements, and polls indicated that three times more people thought radio was freer from prejudicial reportage than newspapers. During the weeks before the broadcast, everyone had been glued to their sets awaiting news of the outbreak of war in Europe, and the "news flash" technique had become the accepted practice to inform the public of fast-breaking news. The authorities who supposedly participated in the event were highly respected -- military and local Civil Defense commanders, astronomy professors from Princeton and other major universities, the Vice-President of the Red Cross, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and so forth. Another factor of importance was that specific places were mentioned, lending immediacy to the invasion, and informal colloquialisms and skillful background sounds added in to impart realism. Finally, the fact that all observers seemed baffled by events increased the credibility of the reports in the minds of many listeners.

Cantril found that critical rational ability could be overpowered either by emotions generated by an unusual listening situation or by an individual's own susceptible personality. The trait of susceptibility was more frequent among economically insecure people, persons with phobias, people with less education, and among those having a lack of self-confidence, fatalism, and a high degree of religiosity and church attendance. People who thought at first that the broadcast was a regular news report (28.3% of all listeners) could be classified into four major categories, based on their response:

1. Those who analysed the internal evidence of the program and knew it could not be true. (6.5% of all listeners)

2. Those who checked up successfully with external sources to learn it was a play. (5.1% of all listeners)

3. Those who checked up unsuccessfully and continued to believe it was a news broadcast. (7.6% of all listeners)

4. Those who made no attempt to check the authenticity of the broadcast. (9.1% of all listeners)

Cantril also found "that the greater the possibility of checking against a variety of reliable standards of judgement, the less suggestible will a person be." This is an excellent argument for reasonably full disclosure by the appropriate authorities during a genuine event.

Clearly the news media must shoulder an enormous burden of public responsibility. A tone of hysteria, sensationalism or "media hype" in reports from the scene of a Direct or Surprise Contact could easily contribute to widespread mass hysteria,1759,1805,1747,740 although instances of classic panic will rarely occur except in certain very unusual situations, Dr. Cantril was confident that the press had learned its lesson:

The Orson Welles performance and its aftermath have instilled on the part of all major networks in the United States a deep sense of responsibility in seeing to it that such a situation does not occur again.738

A few writers have taken an even more extreme position than this, denying that a repeat of the Mercury Theater "panic" is even possible nowadays. According to Arthur C. Clarke:

The world has become much more sophisticated since the far-off days of Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast. It is unlikely that a friendly or neutral contact -- except in primitive communities, or by creatures of outrageous appearance -- would produce an outburst of hysteria like that which afflicted New Jersey in 1938. Thousands of people would probably rush to their cars, but they would be in a hurry to get to the scene of such an historic event, not to escape from it.81

Unfortunately there is some evidence to dispute this claim. The Martian invasion broadcast was not the first nor the last reported incident of fictional public danger to give rise to local hysterias. The most similar predecessor to the Mercury Theater incident occurred on 16 January 1926, during a period of particularly strong labor unrest. As Cantril describes it:

On that day the traditionally complacent English listener was startled by a description given by Father Ronald Knox (in the customary news broadcast) of an unruly unemployed mob. The mob was said to have attempted demolition of the Houses of Parliament, its trench mortars had brought Big Ben to the ground, it had hanged the Minister of Traffic to a tramway post. The London broadcast ended with the "destruction" of the BBC's station. After the broadcast, the newspapers, police and radio stations were besieged with calls from frantic citizens. However, Father Knox's broadcast did not cause either as widespread or as intense a fear as the Orson Welles program.738

In 1939 the script of the Mercury Theater broadcast was translated into Spanish and the settings changed to locales in South America. Broadcast in Ecuador that year, the program again generated widespread hysteria among the radio public. When listeners discovered the production had not been factual news but was instead a hoax, the hysteria turned into rage. Apparently a huge mob converged on the offending radio station, burned it to the ground, and then murdered six of the show’s cast.2598 During the 1950's a smaller scale scare erupted in London when a fake news bulletin again described a very specific and immediate threat, in this case a flying saucer holding an atomic bomb over the city.1001

There are still more recent examples on record. For instance, in November 1973 a Swedish radio broadcast described a fictional nuclear power plant catastrophe in a nearby community. Widespread hysteria and isolated local panics were the immediate result. The telephone network broke down, jammed with calls from fearful and excited people. Within a span of ten minutes after the conclusion of the broadcast an enormous traffic jam tied up main thoroughfares, and frantic citizens were reluctant to accept official assurances that no accident had taken place.1674 (In the real Harrisburg, Pennsylvania nuclear plant breakdown in early 1979, there was no panic but about 100,000 of the 650,000 local inhabitants hastily departed the immediate area.)

Another case occurred on 26 November 1977 in southern England. As the evening news drew to a close on a local TV network, the signal was abruptly interrupted by an ominous-sounding "message from space." "This is the voice of Asteron," the speaker began. "You have only a short time to learn to live together in peace. All your weapons of evil must be destroyed." The six-minute transmission from the "Intergalactic Association" caused a deluge of hundreds of phone calls to local constabularies and to the Southern Television studio.3556 One child who was severely affected began screaming, and her mother remarked: "I'm not easily frightened, but at the end I was shaking like a leaf."3555 In another instance a police car had to be sent to calm an hysterical woman. Recalled one patrolman: "Most people had taken it quite seriously. They were frightened and generally scared."

According to Cantril's study of the Mercury Theater broadcast, 20% of all listeners were "excited" by the program. There is no reason to expect this percentage, which derives from the psychological susceptibility of the general population and not from characteristics of the specific incident, to be much different today. It has also been estimated that approximately 1.5 billion people witnessed the first Moon walk -- an event of comparable importance to the first human contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings from another world. If an equivalent fraction of the viewing public became "excited" in the context of a Surprise Contact event due to inept reportage, more than 300,000,000 persons might be involved globally. Of course if there appears be no immediate threat to safety there can be no actual mass panic, but the implications even of moderate-scale hysteria in our world are staggering to contemplate.


*Psychologists are well aware that under such conditions of extreme threat, the need for affiliation and reliance on powerful leaders becomes very strong; see Gerard and Rabbie,3577 Hamblin,3578 Janis,3640,3641 Latane,3579 Rabbie,3580 and Schachter.3581


Last updated on 6 December 2008