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Collective Behavior

It Roots On False Belief, Misinformation

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Md. Shafiqur Rahman, PhD :
In all societies and civilizations, people have demonstrated episodes of dramatic, often melodramatic behavior. Dispersed Collective Behavior (DCB) refers to a special form of social action, in which people depart from everyday routines, responding to events, things, or ideas in an unconventional way that emerges spontaneously often leading to unpredicted outcomes. The dispersed collective behavior roots on false belief, misinformation, stress….
Episodes typically affect small, tightly knit groups in enclosed settings such as schools, factories, convents and orphanages. Collective behavior can be widespread and can take the form of 'a classic blame-the-victim strategy' in cases where authorities or experts can find no explanation for puzzling or frightening events. It can also manifest in situations where there is a problem that is endangering their society, but the people want to find a scapegoat and take out their frustrations on someone instead of looking for the cause of the problem.
Chronology of global major episodes of DCB:
o During fifth to fifteenth century, dozens of different dispersed collective behaviors (e.g. biting) were reported among repressed nuns in cloistered European Christian convents.
o In 1630, a poisoning scare terrorized Italy, coinciding with pestilence, plague, and a prediction that the devil would poison the city's water supply.
o In 1639 at a girls' school in France, pupils were convinced by their overzealous teacher that they were under satanic influence.
o In 1692, Massachusetts was the scene of a DCB that spread throughout the region and involved witchcraft accusations which led to trials, torture, imprisonment, and executions.
o In 1761, two minor earthquakes struck London on two consecutive months, incidentally on the same date. This led to a belief that the tremor on the subsequent month would destroy the city.
o    In 1806, based on a report of a hen laying eggs inscribed with 'Christ is coming', a panic spread through parts of England that the end of the world was at hand.
o    In the war-scare setting of British South Africa in 1914, local newspapers erroneously reported that hostile monoplanes from adjacent German South West Africa were making flights as a prelude to an imminent attack. Despite the technological impossibility of such missions at that time, thousands of residents misperceived ambiguous, nocturnal aerial stimuli as representing enemy monoplanes.
o In 1937, a head-hunting rumor-panic swept through a village in Indonesia. According to traditional belief, government construction projects would soon crumble without an offering of a head.
o In 1938, a live fictional radio drama was broadcast across much of the United States. It depicted an invasion by the Martians who had landed on earth and had begun attacking with heat rays and poison gas.
o In 1944, the Illinois police received a phone call that a woman and her daughter had been left nauseated and dizzy after being sprayed with a sweet-smelling gas by a mysterious figure lurking near their bedroom window. The incidence received extensive media coverage. Over the next two weeks the police received several reports of similar incidence.
o In 1947, a pilot while flying over a mountain in the United States observed some shining objects which he described to news reporters as saucer shaped. The news report detailed it as 'flying saucer'. Since then, the flying saucer wave has been going on.
o In 1954, reports appeared in United States newspapers of damaged automobile windshields. People started noticing mysterious pits in the windshields, which was attributed to nuclear fallout and some other phenomena. Actually, the pits were there since its manufacture, but since people look through the glass rather at the glass, the pits evaded notice.
o In 1956, residents in Taiwan lived in fear that they would be the next victim of a crazed villain who was slashing people at random with a razor.
o During 1968-71, people reported observing Virgin Mary apparitions above a Church in Egypt. These apparitions were in the form of small bright short-lived lights, or more enduring, less intense glowing light.
o In 1975, reports circulated in Puerto Rico of a mysterious creature attacking domestic and farm animals, draining their blood and scooping out chunks of their flesh. Residents became so distraught that some had to be taken to hospitals.
o In 1979, a kidnapping rumor-panic suddenly broke out in an island of Indonesia. The scare was triggered by rumors that the government was constructing a bridge in the region and needed a body to place in the foundation to strengthen it.
o In 1983, mostly female residents of the Israeli-occupied Jordan reported various psychogenic symptoms. The episode was precipitated by rumors of poison gas and a long-standing Palestinian mistrust of Jews.
o In 1990, several thousand residents in Kosovo were struck down by a mystery illness. An outbreak of respiratory infection appears to have triggered fears that Serbs may have dispensed poison.
o In 1990, an episode of 'vanishing genitalia' caused widespread fear among males across Nigeria. This was usually triggered by incidental body contact with a stranger in a public place, after which the 'victim' would feel strange scrotum sensations and grab their genitals to confirm that they were still there.
Local episodes of DCB in recent past:
o    During the 1960s, there was a delusion that a head was needed to complete the construction of a bridge. This was a cause of acute panic among the youngsters of the days.
o During 1989-90, mostly the elderly females experienced zinjhibaat, manifested by tingling and paresthesia of extremities followed by unconsciousness. It was believed that it occurred due to bite of an insect that lives on dhol-kolmi plant.
o In 2005-2007, and in recent times, DCB has been experienced mostly by the teenage schoolgirls in different parts of Bangladesh as various illness manifestations.
Suggested outline of response:
- Responsible and credible persons to communicate and reassure people on the situation and elaborate on measures taken.
- Public sector agencies, specially law enforcers, to remain alert and take prompt action to stop/contain any untoward incidence, or benefit seeking tendency of the people.
- Media can play a positive role, rather than stimulate negative messages. They can convey positive awareness messages, and connect the public sector with the people aiming to contain the situation.
- Identify triggering factors or index cases to find modalities to stop further events at the very onset.

[Md. Shafiqur Rahman now working as Consultant, Communicable Disease Control Unit, Directorate General of Health Services, Dhaka, Bangladesh]

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