Psychic Contagion

The term psychic contagion is often thought of as merely figurative.

It is, however, quite literal. Many minds are influenced by what they

see happening round them and induced to imitate the activities of

others. The term psychic contagion is so thoroughly descriptive of

what happens that it deserves the place that it has secured.

Everywhere and at all times we find historical traces of psychic

contagion compelling people to perform in crowds or groups the most

curious and inexplicable and sometimes the most horrible things. Even

in the old myths before the times of the Trojan War, we have the story

of hysteria spreading among the daughters of King Proteus, so that the

famous old physician, Pelampus, had to administer white hellebore in

goat's milk in order to relieve them. It is probable that this rather

heroic remedy with its definite effect upon the bowels produced such a

revulsion of feeling as to cure the hysteria. Anyone who has read the

awful tragedy that Euripides has written in the Bacchae will have

had brought home to him a typical example of psychic contagion. The

queen mother in the midst of one of the Bacchic orgies kills her own

son in the frenzy that has come from the religious excitement

exaggerated by the association of a number of women in the religious

rites of the god Bacchus. It is well understood that this was not a

case of drunkenness, but of psychic intoxication.

Phrygian Bacchantes are described as overcome from time to time by

paroxysms of curious uncontrollable automatic movements with or

without disturbance of consciousness. This represents the earliest

form of what came to be known afterwards as St. Vitus Dance when it

spread among a number of people. Such manifestations were not at all

uncommon in the East in the earlier days and they have continued

during all history. In Hindustan epidemics of automatic movements,

evidently choreic in character, have been known for many centuries

under the name of lapax. Outbreaks of this kind were common in the

Middle Ages and Paracelsus has described them as happening early in

the sixteenth century. At any time the occurrence of an hysterical

seizure in a crowded hall, and especially in a schoolroom, will lead

to other hysterical manifestations. A case of chorea will induce

imitative movements in susceptible bystanders that may be quite

uncontrollable. Tics of various kinds are readily picked up by

children and special care must be exercised to prevent their spread.

In general the state of mind is extremely important in all these

conditions and they can be influenced favorably only through the mind.

Contagions Trifles.--Perhaps the extent to which psychic contagion

influences us can be seen better in little things than anywhere else.

Everyone knows how contagious yawning is. Again and again observations

have been made while actors were yawning upon the stage. Nearly

everyone in the theater begins to yawn in a few minutes and, in spite

of the most determined efforts, every now and then even the most

serious-minded elderly gentleman in the audience finds himself

unconsciously joining in. It seems foolish and to an onlooker appears

almost prearranged. It is only necessary, however, to yawn a few times

in a street car, especially at night, to have many imitators. Nearly

the same thing is true of all respiratory phenomena. Sighing, for

instance, is quite contagious. Coughing is often as much the result of

imitation as anything else. At certain pauses in church services a

preliminary cough is heard and then some scattering coughs here and

there, like the musketry of scouts, and then a whole battery of coughs

is let off, especially if it is in the winter time, because nearly

everybody within hearing is tempted to cough. To talk about yawning or

coughing or sighing before some people is almost sure to produce a

tendency to these manifestations. These apparently trivial happenings

help to explain many phenomena of human imitation in more serious


Most of the phenomena associated with expression are liable to be

initiated as the result of imitation. Laughing, for instance, is

particularly contagious among young folks and is especially likely to

be insuppressible when they wish to be particularly solemn. At

religious services it takes but little to make people laugh and

giggle, no matter how much they may wish to be dignified and

reverential. A few giggling girls will sometimes disturb a serious

service. Extremes are particularly prone to meet in this matter and

the sublime easily becomes the ridiculous. A titter will set off even

the best intentioned of young folks in spite of resolutions to the

contrary. Crying has something of the same contagious nature, though

it is not quite so strong, but among women tears are particularly

likely to evoke tears. The epidemic of curious manifestations of

expression, usually of an hysterical nature, that we know by tradition

to have spread in communities in the Middle Ages and much later, are

only typical examples of this tendency for modes of expression to be

contagious to an exaggerated degree.

Expectoration is largely dependent on imitation, sometimes conscious,

of course, but often quite unconscious. In the recent crusade

organized to prevent the spread of tuberculosis the question of

expectoration as a diffusing agent of the bacilli has given a new

importance to observations on this subject. It is recognized that we

have "a spitting sex" and that men spit from force of habit, boys

imitate them, while women and girls almost never spit. There is no

reason in the world why when men and women are engaged in the same

occupations there should be any difference in this regard between

them, yet employers know how hard it is to keep corners and by-places

in the rooms where men work free from expectoration, while no such

difficulty is found where women work. We have a spitting sex because

of psychic contagion, and in spite of the fact that there are serious

dangers connected with the habit. What is true of spitting may also be

true of other habits relating to the respiratory passages. Hawking and

blowing the nose more frequently than is needed are spread by psychic

contagion and certain habits in these matters that are injurious to

the respiratory apparatus often require considerable effort to break.

Fads and Health.--Enlightened as we think ourselves, we have many more

examples of psychic contagion in the present than we would perhaps

care to admit, unless the facts were called to our special attention.

At a particular period in the modern time it becomes the fad to

do things in a special way. We write alike, we build our houses after

a common type. We take our recreation in a particular fashion.

Bicycling comes in and goes out; roller skating attacks nearly every

one of the young folks and then is abandoned. There are fashions in

everything and fashions, after all, are recurring instances of psychic

contagion. The mental influence spreads from one to another. It may be

that a particular fashion, as in houses or in clothes, is especially

ugly. That makes no difference. After a time taste revolts against it,

but in the meantime the psychic contagion is enough to overturn the

canons of taste. There are fashions in literature, or at least what is

called literature. The nature novel comes and goes, then the novel of

adventure has its place, then the detective novel, after a time the

little-country prince or princess and their romance comes into

fashion. After a time we realize that these are passing fancies, but

in the meantime they have influenced many people.

Some of these fashions bring conditions that are deleterious to

health. The moving-picture show in places that almost never have a

stime of sunlight in them and are, in their way, quite as bad,

especially for respiratory troubles, as the dust-laden atmosphere of

the roller-skating rink, become the fad of the moment in spite of

knowledge or ignorance of hygiene. Just now we are in the midst of a

fad for fresh air, that, unfortunately, goes and comes with the

centuries and we have no guarantee that people will not learn again to

live in closely sealed houses. High heels come and go, as do corsets

of various kinds, more or less injurious, in spite of the admonition

of the physician. In fact, one of the most interesting studies in

psychic contagion is the history of the fashions. A particular

fashion, especially in its exaggerated forms, will probably look well

on about one-fifth of the women at a given time. About four-fifths of

them, however, adopt it in spite of the fact that on three-fifths it

emphasizes certain qualities that it would be well to keep in the

background. It is woman's principal desire to please, yet this is

completely perverted by the psychic epidemic of fashion which causes

people to follow after others quite as much as did the medieval people

in various fads that attracted attention and have come down to us.

Our enlightenment, at least in as far as that word means general

diffusion of the ability to read, has rather added to the power of

psychic contagion. People accept ideas from others almost as

unconsciously as they catch disease from those suffering from it. The

psychology of advertising shows how easy it is to make people accept

things just by insisting on them and by frequent repetitions of

statements. The psychology of the proprietary medicine business in

modern times is about as typical an example of psychic contagion

induced deliberately as one could well imagine. Those who stop to

reason do not fall victims. Most people, however, do not stop to

reason. They have not the mental resistive vitality to render them

immune to the influence of certain irrationalities and so literally

hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on perfectly useless,

oftentimes harmful drugs, which people had become persuaded through

the psychic contagium of printer's ink were sure to do them good. The

psychology of the mob has been studied somewhat in recent years and it

shows how clear it is that men follow after one another in doing

foolish things even more than in doing wise ones. Psychic contagion is

a prominent factor in life, it always has been, is now, and evidently

always will be, and must be reckoned with by anyone who wishes

to recognize the principles that underlie psychotherapy.

Suicide Contagions.--It is with regard to much more serious things

than fashions, however, that psychic contagion is most manifest. For

instance, there is no doubt that suicide is frequently the result of

such psychic influence. Seldom does it happen that a very queer

suicide is reported without there being certain imitations of it more

or less complete in various parts of the country afterwards. There is

no doubt that the reporting of suicides has a serious effect in this

matter. Perhaps the most striking example of this that we have ever

had in America was the well-known suicidal epidemic at Emporia,

Kansas, which reached its height just about the middle of June, 1901.

Two or three well-known people in town committed suicide at the end of

May and the beginning of June. A veritable epidemic of suicide broke

out as a consequence. Nothing seemed to stop it and the authorities

were much disturbed. Finally it was agreed that the most potent

influence in bringing about the imitation of the epidemic was the

publication of the details of the suicides in the papers. The Mayor of

the city, after consulting with the Board of Health, decided to issue

the following proclamation:

I have consulted the Board of Health, and if the Emporia papers do

not comply with my request I shall have a right to stop, and I will

stop summarily, the publication of these suicide details, under the

law providing for the suppression of epidemics. There is clearly an

epidemic in this city, and although it is mental, it is none the

less deadly. Its contagion may be clearly shown to come from what is

known in medicine as the psychic suggestion found in the publication

of the details of suicides. If the paper on which the local Journals

are printed had been kept in a place infected with smallpox, I could

demand that the Journals stop using that paper, or stop publication.

If they spread another contagion--the contagious suggestion of

suicide--I believe the liberty of the press is not to be considered

before the public welfare, and that the courts would sustain me in

using force to prevent the publication of newspapers containing

matter clearly deleterious to the public health.

Murder.--In almost the same way murders prove contagious. Especially

is this true of murder and suicide together. These occur notably in

groups. A man who is downhearted and for whom the future looks blank,

will, out of a sense of pity for those who are dependent on him,

murder them and himself; then the brutal story is reported and another

tottering intellect gives way and a similar story has to be told

within a few days. A mother who is melancholic about her health and

includes her children in her gloomy outlook makes away with them and

herself. Within a few days a similar story is reported because of the

influence of psychic contagion. Very often there are distinct

imitations of the methods employed in the first case. Often, however,

it is only the idea itself that has proved contagious. There is no

doubt that this suggestion brings about subsequent cases when

otherwise such an awful thought might not occur. The connection is too

clear for us to doubt the reality of it or to think that it is mere

coincidence. As in Emporia, doubtless the suppression of the

description of such events would have a beneficial effect. There are

many disequilibrated minds, apparently just tottering on the verge of

an insane act of this kind, that are pushed over by the suggestion

furnished by the details of another story.

Place of Psychic Contagion.--The physician who would treat nervous

patients successfully and use psychotherapeutics to advantage must

recognize the place that psychic contagion has in influencing the

generality of mankind. We know that direct suggestions are profoundly

influential. It must be constantly kept in mind, however, that

indirect suggestion, suggestion that does not come by any formal

method, but that is represented by the examples of those around, also

has great weight.

Favorable Influence.--Fortunately it is not alone for evil that

psychic contagion is manifest. People in a crowd stand fatigue better

than when alone. Soldiers marching in step do not notice their

tiredness to such a degree and even forget their sore feet. People

suffering from hunger, so long as there is a good spirit among them,

will help each other to bear it. The accidents in coal mines in recent

years in which men have been imprisoned for considerable periods have

shown that in groups they stand the hardships of confinement and of

lack of food and water better than they do when alone, men live

longer, they do not suffer so much or at least their suffering is not

so insistent, and they bear up better.

This has been particularly noticed in the cures at various watering

places. The very air of the place takes on a favorable suggestion that

is helpful to patients. The routine, the hopefulness of those who are

completing the cure, the stories of improvement, the evident

betterment, all these things combine to give a psychic contagion of

health. Health is, in this sense, quite as contagious as disease. This

must be taken advantage of just as far as possible for the advantage

of patients. On the other hand, ideas are contagious for ill and

patients may derive from their environment notions that prove

auto-suggestive and against which it is extremely difficult to work.

Ideas derived from the general feelings of those around, without any

direct suggestion, may become obsessions. The physician, therefore,

must be ready to secure prophylaxis against psychic contagion and then

by counter-suggestion relieve the patient, who has become afflicted by

it, of the resulting disturbance of mind. It must not be forgotten

that, instead of being less susceptible as education and civilization

progress, people really become more susceptible.

Psychology of the Mob.--The most interesting instance of psychic

contagion is the tendency just hinted at for crowds to run away with

the sober judgment of serious sensible people that happen to be among

them and do things that may be extremely regrettable. A mob always

follows the suggestions of the worst elements in it unless perchance

there is some extremely strong character who asserts himself and

imposes his views on the rest. The tendencies to panic, to cowardly

flight, sometimes to destructiveness, that come over crowds represent

the power of psychic contagion to override reason. An alarm of fire

will, if a few persons lose their heads, lead to the most serious

consequences. Persons trample over one another, pull and maul one

another, sometimes even pulling out hair or pulling off ears in their

insane efforts to escape what is often an imaginary danger, though a

few moments before they were rational beings and they will be quite

reasonable a short time after. It is possible, however, to overcome

even the worst tendencies in human nature by the suggestive power of

discipline. Fire drills in schools enable children to get out in a few

minutes without confusion when without them the most serious results

could be looked for. Discipline and training, following commands

and observing tactics, helps an army almost more than the individual

courage of soldiers. The suggestive influence of the thought that now

is the time to do something that has often been done before at the

word of command is enough to enable the soldier to control his panicky

feelings. The difference between the trained soldier and the raw

recruit is great, but it consists only in this mental discipline and


Prevention.--Evidently, then, in the many circumstances in life in

which psychic contagion manifests itself it is perfectly possible to

overcome its influence by such discipline and mental training as gives

the individual control over himself. In children corporal punishment

is often not effective in breaking up habits and tendencies and the

motive of fear often lessens self-control and makes conditions worse.

In older people the fear of punishment is likely to be forgotten,

whereas the suggestion of discipline will assert itself powerfully.

Psychic contagion can be neutralized by psychotherapy, but its force

in life must be recognized and its unfavorable influence guarded

against. While it concerns mainly the less serious things of life, it

may affect the most serious and imitation leads even to such serious

criminal acts as suicide and murder. The modes of psychic contagion,

then, must be constantly under surveillance.

With this before us it is extremely interesting to realize how

unfavorably suggestive for human health and happiness are our

newspapers. They are constantly suggesting disease and suicide and

murder and sex crimes and crimes against property, by giving all the

details available with regard to these subjects. Such news can do no

good, only excites morbid curiosity which requires still further

satisfaction in the same line, and keeps thoughts with regard to these

things constantly before the mind. We have had many burglaries and

holdups and stealings of various kinds as a consequence of boys and

even girls seeing the pictures of crimes in the moving-picture show.

The saturation of mind with disease and crime produced by daily

reading of unsavory and sensational newspaper accounts is sure to

produce evil effects. There seems to be consolation for some people in

reading of the crimes and punishments of others because they feel

that, bad as is their own state, there are others who are worse. This

schadenfreude, "harm-joy" as the Germans call it, is not satisfying

to think of for human nature and it has an inevitable reaction through

the unfavorable suggestion of these crimes.

I have found over and over again that the prohibition of reading the

newspapers for a time did many nervous people much good. This is

particularly true for sufferers from such forms of psychasthenia as

bring down on them dreads and premonitions of evil in fears for the

development of disease and in general a sense of instability with

regard to the future, lest dreadful things should happen to them. At

first patients object strenuously and seem to be deprived of a great

satisfaction. After a time, however, they are invariably persuaded of

the fact that the absence of mental contact with human misfortune, in

this morbid way, is doing them good and that their dreads and

premonitory feelings of evil drop from them.

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