Skip to main content

Mass Phenomena

Mass Phenomena


The varieties of mass phenomena

Explanations of mass phenomena


The term “mass phenomena” as it is used in this article is intended to cover the same range of behavior as that denoted by two frequently used similar expressions: “collective behavior” and “mass behavior.” Under this general rubric a number of more specific terms have commonly been employed to refer to the five major subtypes of mass phenomena: (1) apathy, (2) panic, (3) mob, (4) craze, and (5) social movement. These major subtypes are in turn divisible into still finer subclassifications, denoted by a miscellany of terms which have come to be used conventionally to describe local varieties of unique forms. Thus some mob situations are commonly labeled “riots,” as in “race riots,” and certain others are referred to as “lynchings” some social movements are called “revitalization movements,” and these are still further classified by local terms, such as “cargo cults” (Oceania), “nativistic move merits” (American Indians), etc. The nomenclature for mass phenomena is so vast and so intricately related to varying criteria that there is no reason to review or attempt to rationalize it in detail here. It should be noted that there are also other terms, like “mass hysteria,” which crosscut this natural historian’s nomenclature. These terms draw attention to certain psychological or social attributes which several types of mass phenomena have in common and which they sometimes share with behavior that is not included under the category of mass phenomena.


Although there seems to be an intuitive recognition by most observers that all of these forms of human behavior have something in common which justifies treating them as a unit, the efforts to define this commonality are not always in agreement. Smelser has provided a definition in his book, Theory of Collective Behavior: “we define collective behavior as mobilization on the basis of a belief which redefines social action” ([1962] 1963, p. 8). Brown (1954) in his discussion of the varieties of mass phenomena suggests a set of dimensions for their classification (size, frequency and regularity of congregation, frequency and regularity of polarization of attention, and continuity of identification of individuals with the group), but he provides no definition. Any definition must not only state common features of the various referents of the term but must also state common features which non-members of the class do not possess. Certainly the term “mass phenomenon” cannot be taken to refer to all attributes of a large group of people (however “large” may be defined); otherwise, we should have to include culture, acculturation, culture change, population growth, voting behavior, rumor circulation, and many other social and cultural attributes and processes under the rubric of mass phenomena. Neither can we comfortably include all situations in which a large group of people is collected in one place, or in which many people are simultaneously the target of communication : not all audience or crowd behavior will fall within the intuitive boundaries of the concept. Nor can we be satisfied with a definition that emphasizes a single psychological or social process—such as fear or mobilization—without regard to the size (or “mass”) of the group involved.

If we keep these considerations in mind, it would appear that Smelser’s definition is nearly adequate to our needs. But its emphasis on mobilization makes it difficult to include the disaster syndrome (including shock, apathy, disorientation, and the very opposite of mobilization of a group for action). Thus I suggest the following, somewhat less analytical, definition: “Mass phenomenon” signifies that class of social event in which a large number of people at the same time behave in a way which constitutes a notable interruption of their routine, socially sanctioned role behavior.

The varieties of mass phenomena

Let us now consider how the characteristics recognized by the above definition are manifested in the subclasses of mass phenomena to which I have referred.

Apathy and the disaster syndrome. The disaster syndrome occurs after a major catastrophe, usually physical, has destroyed important features of a group’s natural and/or cultural environment, frequently with severe casualties. In this case the interruption of routine behavior implies the virtual cessation of any kind of adaptive behavior. Initially, the surviving population appears to be in a state of shock: people are passive, emotionally numb, relatively insensitive to physical pain, apathetic, disoriented, unable to understand the magnitude of the disaster, and unresponsive beyond minimal survival action; little mutual aid is under-taken, and remedial action is often trivial. After minutes or hours—and perhaps longer—as aid enters from outside the disaster area, the survivors become less apathetic and enter into a suggestible stage in which, under leadership, they can begin to engage in rescue, repair, and other useful activities. Eventually the syndrome moves into a euphoric stage of mutual aid in reconstruction, and at last it tapers off into the culturally standardized routine. [See alsoDisasters. For discussion of the disaster syndrome see Wallace 1956a.]

Panic. Panic occurs when a group is subjected to an overwhelming and imminent threat to which escape appears to be the only effective response, and when escape routes are perceived to be inadequate to accommodate all of the group before the impact of the threatened event. In such a situation, the group structure disintegrates into an “every-man-for-himself” state of anarchy: individual escape tactics are apt to be chosen impulsively, with little foresight and with restricted attention to the real environment; jamming is likely to occur at the exits from the situation, with attendant injury, loss of life, and increased slowing of the escape flow. The interruption here is twofold: first, the abandonment of group structure by individuals (even though the group itself may have had a plan for handling the problem by reducing the threat or by orderly escape); and second, the severe constriction of perceptual and cognitive functions of individuals under the stress of fear.

Mob. The mob is an angry group which attacks and attempts to injure or destroy an object (usually a person or persons or some item of material culture identified with some human being or group). It differs from a military or police force insofar as the members of the mob are not performing socially sanctioned roles and insofar as the attack is not undertaken as an implementation of a rational policy concerted by the mob’s members (although, to be sure, there may be a leader who, unknown to the rank and file, is exciting and directing the mob, carrying out a policy of his own or of some other group). The interruption of routine behavior here is the abandonment of the socially sanctioned roles of peaceable, law-abiding private citizens and the assumption of primitive judgmental and punitive roles which are carried out with minimal concern for justice (as locally defined) or for long-term consequences.

Craze. The craze is a short-lived rush, by many persons, to worship, to touch, or to acquire some object (human or material) or characteristic of value. In its milder forms it may be referred to as a “fad”—a clothing style, a type of haircut, a dance; in more extreme expression it may be termed a “craze” (proper)—such as the adulation of a popular singer by thousands of screaming fans, a kind of financial investment, or a rush to settle new lands or to exploit unclaimed mineral resources. The interruption here is the abandonment of previous objects of interest and the substitution for them, by many people at the same time, of a standardized object. [SeeFashion.]

Social movement. The social movement (or revitalization movement), whether religious or political and whether revolutionary or reformative, is by definition an organized effort to induce the members of a community to abandon certain customs or practices and to adopt different ones. The participants in the movement, starting with the prophet or leader, then his disciples, and eventually at least some followers, do in fact change their ways and the distribution of their energies. In every social movement, therefore, there is an interruption of a routine and the substitution of a new pattern of behavior, rationalized by reference to an ideology. The aim of the movement, of course, may be to accomplish a much more extensive interruption and to institute a much more pervasive new system than ever is accomplished. [SeeSocial movements.]

Phenomena not considered. It may be pointed out that in the above discussion we have left out certain phenomena which are included in some treatments. Thus, for instance, we have not treated crowds per se as examples of mass phenomena, because many crowds are engaged in perfectly routine, standardized activities. Thus, for instance, we do not treat as a mass phenomenon the audience at sports events, at theaters, and at religious ceremonials because it is an organized group inter-acting with another group (the performers) in a patterned, culturally institutionalized way, even in cases (as at political rallies, voodoo rituals, or Holy Roller types of religious revival) where the behavior is excited or hysterical in a technical sense. Similarly, crowds on arteries of transportation, in markets, or in military units, however poorly or well organized, are not treated as mass phenomena, because the behavior involved is perfectly explicable and predictable from a knowledge of the culture. Nor do we consider the gross characteristics and social activities of vast aggregates—like “the masses,” “the consumer,” “the proletariat,” “the Negro,” or “the Southern white”—as mass phenomena in themselves.

The reader may, however, note that while the behaviors which have been treated as mass phenomena do have in common the feature of interruption of routine, they range from the nonpurposeful, inactive, maladaptive extreme of the disaster syndrome, through grades of increasingly purposeful, active, adaptive behavior, to the social movement, which is eminently purposeful, active, and adaptive. In the next section we shall take up the question of explanation, not only for the mass phenomenon in general, but for the occurrence of its varieties.

Explanations of mass phenomena

Explanations—and predictions—of mass phenomena usually invoke a mixture of psychological and sociological principles. Sometimes efforts are made to provide purely sociological explanations; these efforts, however, are generally justified by pointing out the deficiencies of early psychological theories that postulated “herd instincts,” “the group mind,” and the atavistic vulnerabilities of civilized men. Although such appeals to supposed universal psychological tendencies are fruitless as guides for research, the “pure” sociological approach merely reintroduces psychology through the back door via definitions of “social” concepts in terms of sentiments, goals, values, needs, and so forth. It seems wisest to make use explicitly of both psychological and sociological variables, evaluating the utility of each by more or less operational criteria.

On the most generic level, the following conditions seem to be required for the occurrence of any mass phenomenon: (1) a certain type of in-formation must be presented to the members of the target group, approximately simultaneously; (2) the type of information which is presented must describe a difference between the individual’s present situation and that which either has obtained in the past or very probably will obtain in the future; (3) the difference must be sufficient to constitute a dramatic gain, or loss, of important values (such as life, health, or self-respect); (4) the present or future loss must be perceived as avoidable, or the future gain as achievable, if something is done. The resultant action is, in fact, the behavior described as the mass phenomenon.

Further conditions need to be specified before it is possible to predict what that action will be. Important classes of such conditions are, first, the precise nature of the threat, disaster, or future gain; and, second, the existing cultural system of the target group—its goals, its fears, its ontological beliefs, its social organization, and its modal personality structure.

Apathy and the disaster syndrome. In a major disaster or in a situation of threat from which no escape route can at the moment be perceived, the mass action is, in effect, no action, or apathy: the only relief from the awareness of an unchangeable contrast between good past and bad present, or good present and bad future, is denial or withdrawal from awareness of reality as thus defined. The disaster syndrome, the cultural situation of universal demoralized individual behavior resulting from anomie, and the fictional social condition of an impending world’s end described in Nevil Shute’s popular novel On the Beach are examples of the apathetic response. It is worth noting that panic does not occur under these conditions.

Panic. Where the catastrophe has not yet occurred and there is still a possibility—but a narrow and diminishing one—of escape, panic occurs in-stead of apathy. The action involved is frequently precipitate physical flight, but other activities may represent the appropriate mode of escape: the selling of property, as in a financial crash or in a neighborhood threatened with invasion by an unwanted social group; or the hoarding of food in anticipation of shortages.

Mob. Where a catastrophe may occur but is not imminent, and where its likelihood is believed to be increased by the actions or inaction of some other person or group who is not believed to be responsive to the fears of the threatened group, a likely response is mob action. Mob action is also likely where an important goal is believed to be achievable but blocked by the action or inaction of some nonresponsive social group. The critical factor here seems to be the group—s belief that the disparity between present and future (whichever way the balance lies—good present and bad future or bad present and good future) can be resolved only if some weak and evil persons are injured or destroyed. In the mob situation, furthermore, it is possible for the group to find relief for their feelings of guilt in scapegoating, that is, attributing to others those faults, often irrelevant to the precipitating issue, whose recognition in themselves would cause the members of the mob to feel further discomfort. [SeePrejudice.]

Craze. In the craze, the members of the group seem to be driven by both a hope for some desirable thing and a fear of being left behind while others enjoy themselves. In a sense the craze is a “positive” panic: the urgency of the situation lies not in the imminence of danger, escape from which becomes less likely with each passing moment, but in the availability of a benefit, access to which may be reduced in the near future.

Social movement. The social (or revitalization) movement is the most positive, most organized, and most deliberate of the mass phenomena. In polar contrast to apathy, the participants in such a movement must maintain an effective social organization over considerable periods of time. The social movement defines the present as a transfer point between an undesirable past and a glorious future. It mounts a carefully calculated campaign, by a mixture of religious and political procedures, to transform society from an evil to a good condition. In the social movement, the character of the existing culture is closely relevant to what happens. Prevailing beliefs about the mechanisms of change are apt to determine the form of—but not to precipitate—the movement. Thus, among Jews the belief in a Messiah, and among Muslims the belief in the Mahdi, have heavily colored the movements that have occurred among these peoples; the Melanesian “myth dream” of their ancestors returning with cargo and the Christian concept of the millennium have shaped many of the movements in their respective parts of the world. [SeeMlllenarism; Nativism and revivalism.]

It should finally be pointed out that mass phenomena of different types can follow one another in sequence in a given group. Thus, an apathetic phase following the awareness of disaster may be succeeded by a revitalization movement; a rioting mob may be swept by panic; an enthusiastic meeting of participants in a craze may turn into a riot if the object of the craze is withheld; and so on. It follows from the definition and from the general statement of conditions that a mass phenomenon, once established, can readily be trans-muted in form as the nature of the information given to the group is varied.

Anthony F. C. Wallace

[Directly related is the entry Collective behavior. Other relevant material may be found in Groups; Interaction; Social psychology.]


The bibliography on mass phenomena is extensive and diffuse. Smelser 1962 contains the most useful general bibliography on the topics considered in this article, except for the subject of apathy, which is not treated. The National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council has published a series of monographs on disaster behavior, including the apathetic reaction, and maintains a large card catalogue of works on disaster. See alsothe bibliographies of Collective behaviorand Disasters.

Blumer, Herbert 1957 Collective Behavior. Pages 127-158 in Joseph B. Gittler (editor), Review of Sociology: Analysis of a Decade. New York: Wiley.

Brown, Roger W. 1954 Mass Phenomena. Volume 2, pages 833-876 in Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Festinger, Leon; Riecken, Henry W.; and Schachter, Stanley 1956 When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Quarantelli, Enrico 1954 The Nature and Conditions of Panic. American Journal of Sociology 60:267-275.

Smelser, Neil J. (1962) 1963 Theory of Collective Behavior. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956a Tornado in Worcester. Washington: National Research Council.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956b? Revitalization Movements. American Anthropologist New Series 58:264-281.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mass Phenomena." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 24 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Mass Phenomena." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (March 24, 2017).

"Mass Phenomena." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 24, 2017 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.