Why Aren’t We Talking More About Social Contagion?

“Throughout history, outbreaks of social contagion have typically spread in small, close-knit groups, most commonly in schools and factories. Investigators are often able to identify an index case—the first person to exhibit symptoms—which then spreads to other group members. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, the index case is often suffering from a medical condition. There is a common saying in the social contagion literature that mass psychogenic illness is spread by sight and sound—that is, by hearing or watching others who are affected. But what would happen if outbreaks could spread over the internet and on social media sites by a virtual index case? This appears to be exactly what has happened in the current outbreak. It represents a major shift in the presentation of psychogenic illness. In the past, most episodes of mass psychogenic illness were limited to a specific location or community, but this is no longer true in the Internet Age.”

— Robert Batholomew, Psychology Today

Social contagion, or mass psychogenic illness, is the rapid spread of an irrational or pathological activity, behavior, belief, or perception in a population. Thoughts and actions can move rapidly through social networks of like-minded people or those who share similar traits, such as age, gender, and so on. Individuals calibrate their self-image to align with those with whom they identify or have an affinity; when one individual adopts a certain attitude or behavior those in her social network catch the pathogen. Girls and young women are especially susceptible to social contagion because of greater innate sociability compared to men. But men are susceptible to psychogenic illness, as well. Adolescence is a risk factor because of rapid changes in cognitive, emotional, and physiological developments occurring during puberty make a person vulnerable to suggestion. But, as we see with the COVID-19 and white guilt hysterias, people of all ages can suffer from mass psychogenic illness.

Pathogenic thoughts and behaviors spread rapidly across social networks.

We see this social phenomenon at work in the appearance of fads, or crazes, which are intense and popular albeit often short-lived enthusiasms for some activity, style, or thing. Many crazes are harmless; while they are irrational, they are not always pathological. But some crazes are pathological—they are literally crazes. For example, adolescents who learn that peers have engaged in self-harm, such as cutting, are more likely to cut themselves. We see the phenomenon in anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Self-harm is not always a random personal event, but often a social phenomenon. The power of social forces in corrupting reason and causing self-destructive attitudes and behaviors has been known for more than a century at least (see, e.g., Émile Durkheim’s Suicide).

Those suffering from social contagion are more likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis and treated as medical patients by a profession that doesn’t typically consider the social causes of disorders for which there is no objective physiological evidence. This is not to say that the effects of psychogenic illness are not real. Remember the Thomas Theorem: “If men define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences.” Hysteria is a crippling disorder. But it is to say that, just as placebos can make a subject feel better, medical intervention can produce in a person’s mind the belief that he is actually unwell—or confirm for him what he suspected all along.

Last fall, Robert Batholomew, a medical sociologist, penned “The Girls Who Caught Tourette’s from TikTok,” in Psychology Today. He cites several studies concerning the rise in Tourette’s syndrome, what researchers call “functional tic-like behaviors,” in users of TikTok and social media generally. Bartholomew’s article is a useful thumbnail sketch of the phenomenon and a taste of what is a vast literature on the subject. He concludes his brief with this: “In the future, we can expect more outbreaks of social contagion in which the primary vector of spread is the internet and social media.” (See also Jonathan Haidt’s writings concerning the effect of social media on the emotional and mental wellbeing of America’s youth.)

The body of scientific study one can bring to bear on this matter goes well beyond self-harm and the Tourette’s contagion. Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or, as it’s now called, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a disorder about which mental health officials are highly skeptical, is spreading across networks of social media users. One source of MPD is iatrogenic, that is caused by the therapeutic experience. When it occurs outside the therapeutic context it is often pseudogenic, its cause an invention of the subject. A young woman with a diagnosis or who imagines trauma and learned than DID can be an outcome may spread her symptoms to other women in her social circle.

Despite their being such a vast literature on the problem of social contagion, and the significance of the problem, one almost never hears about the phenomenon in the media or from policymakers or politicians. Noting the character of these exceptions is part of understanding the politics of the silence. When an individual suspects there is an organized attempt to gaslight, mob, and terrify him, authorities, professionals, and influencers are eager to portray him as a delusional paranoid and schizophrenic (see The Psychiatrization of Gangstalking). When individuals are on to something about the world that threatens power, then they’re crazy. This is how authorities and the corporate media portrayed claims made by the Black Panthers before COINTELPRO came to light (see The Black Panthers: Black Radicalism and the New Left).

However, when the person’s is actually delusional, or several people share an illusion, and these false beliefs are useful to some group with power, as profitable or enabling social control, then the pathogen is normalized or treated as unremarkable. I suspect that if the problem of social contagion ever becomes the topic of popular conversation that it will be censored and its proponents cancelled. Indeed, when the related phenomenon of mass formation psychosis drew the attention of the public thanks to Dr. Robert Malone’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, the corporate media launched a comprehensive delegitimization campaign before dropping the subject entirely. (See The Future of a Delusion: Mass Formation Psychosis and the Fetish of Corporate Statism.)

One of the arguments I have made (I suggested moments ago), and this explains both media silence and delegitimization campaigns, is that mass hysteria and moral panics are not always accidentally emergent but rather are manufactured for various purposes, from taking advantage of vulnerable populations (the medical-industrial complex is, after all, a profit-generating endeavor) to realizing political agendas. I discussed an example of profiting from delusions in my blog Disordering Bodies for Disordered Minds.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an instance in which profiteering from manufactured fear was functional to modern governments’s objectives to achieve greater social control over the populations they are meant to defend against subjection and tyranny. Black Lives Matter is another example of a political agenda functional to the installation and entrenchment of critical race theory and other corporate state ideologies. See Panic and Paranoia Deaden Humanity and Sabotage Its Future; By Learning to Let Go of Mass Hysteria, We Can Bring an End to the Destructive COVID-19 Panic; Sanewashing—It’s More Widespread Than You Might Think. A Fact-Proof Screen: Black Lives Matter and Hoffer’s True Believer.

In light of all this, there is good reason to be concerned that the sharply rising cases of rapid-onset gender dysphoria we see among young people, a phenomenon disproportionately affecting girls and young women, is the result of social contagion. In his article, “Why is Transgender Identity on the Rise Among Teens?,” Samuel Paul Veissière, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at McGill University, summarizes research indicating that the rise of rapid-onset gender dysphoria “points to a complex web of social pressures, changing cultural norms, and new modes of distress and coping that warrant further investigation.” He encourages parents, educators, and clinicians to be cautious in dealing with this growing phenomenon.

Referrals to the Tavistock Gender Clinic 2009-2019. The clinic was shuttered by the NHS in summer 2022.

Gender dysphoria, previously identified in the DSM as gender identity disorder, or GID, is defined as persistent and powerful feelings of discomfort with one’s “assigned” gender or sex, or identification with another gender or sex. Gender, according to social scientists, refers to the attitudes, behaviors, and feelings that one’s culture associates with sex, which is a biological and, in mammals, an immutable reality. Gender is related to sex but is culturally and social constructed. Gender is variable across time and space. Indeed, as the ideology metastasizes, the relation of sex to gender flips so as to see gender is fixed and a priori and sex as mutable. Some individuals come to believe that they are not the gender they are and this causes significant distress. This distress is medicalized and the individual is sent to the doctor. To qualify for the disorder the subject must present with feelings that cause significant distress or impairment. There is no objective criteria for determining whether a person is suffering from dysphoria; it relies entirely on the sufferer’s subjective perception. This subjective perception is feed by an ideology asserting that the patient is the gender he thinks he is.

Unlike anorexia and other disorders, the psychiatric community is not for the most part approaching gender dysphoria with caution, nor are sociologists linking the concept of social contagion to the rapid rise of the phenomenon, but rather the push is for the Orwellian-named “gender-affirming” treatment, which may result in individuals amputating their breast or their genitals, many losing forever the enjoyments of a normal sex life and most becoming life-long medical patients. Thus what makes this particular social contagion especially dangerous is that it is backed by popular academic theory and the authority cultivated by medical professionals, and pushed by politicians and social influencers in a way other crazes are not. There is no learned theory aggressively advocating cutting or anorexia as a solution to the distress that causes individuals to take a sharp object to their forearms or emaciate themselves, yet there is one enabling self-harm as “affirming care.”

Although the role social contagion plays in rapid-onset gender dysphoria does not enjoy public awareness, there is growing concern among some political leaders and health authorities that the approach taken by medical professionals to this disorder is the wrong approach. Texas recently passed a law to protect children from medical interventions in these cases (see State Action in Texas Concerning Medical Interventions for Minors Suffering from Gender Dysphoria Explained). Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been a leader in raising awareness about the problem (see the video below). And only a few weeks ago, on the basis of a damning report concerning the treatment of children, the National Health Service of Great Britain shut down the Tavistock gender clinic, prompting writer Douglas Murray to state, “We pretend that we protect children and that we want to help them—and actually it’s not just unhelpful but actively cruel to say to a child that is confused if you feel a bit strange in your body maybe you’re of the opposite sex.”

Social contagion, or mass psychogenic illness, the rapid spread of an irrational or pathological activity, behavior, belief, or perception in a population, is something that we need to talk more about. Because of the technological leap in communication, thoughts and actions can move rapidly through networks of like-minded people or those who share similar traits, such as age, gender, and so on, and profoundly affect their choices. Although girls and young women are especially at risk, other categories of people are susceptible to psychogenic illness. Adolescence is a special risk factor because of rapid changes in cognitive, emotional, and physiological developments occurring during puberty make a person vulnerable to suggestion. Parents need to limit their children’s use of social media and pay more attention to the things going on in the lives of their kids.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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