Can the Power of Social Suggestion Make You Physically Ill?
Social psychology, groupthink, and why the simplest answer isn’t always correct
Posted February 3, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The power of social suggestion and groupthink can make you believe that you're ill.
- Mass hysteria is partially the result of groupthink and social psychology.
- The more similar you and your friends are, the more susceptible you are to peer influence.
- Being in a group can squash your independence, creativity, and willingness to speak up for yourself.
It Was as if Elvis Had Entered the Building.
"Bend your knees," the music teacher mouthed to the 150 sixth-graders singing on stage.
"Bend your knees!" she repeated; words that had started as a quiet reminder were now a desperate cry of alarm as the first child fainted.
The floral pattern on her skirt seemed to crumble as I watched her dissolve into the stage. I was struck by the notion that just a moment ago, there had stood a child, and now there was none.
The chorus continued to sing. Another child dropped.
Children were holding up other children, desperately waiting for adult reinforcements to help the fallen off the stage.
The conductor turned to face the audience of parents and admitted, "I've actually never seen anything like this happen before, but I have to say, these children are very brave."
The children sang on, many close to tears. They sang, and they bent their knees as if their lives depended on it.
By the end of the 20-minute performance, 12 children had to be helped off the stage.
According to the Cleveland Clinic of Pediatrics, approximately 20 percent of children will experience one fainting episode between the ages of 10 to 17.
The Cleveland Clinic details many reasons children of this age might faint, and yes, heat, stress, and standing too long in one position in a way that might reduce blood flow are all on this list and could all explain what happened on the stage that day—but not from a statistical perspective.
And yet, in less than one hour, 12 children fainted in rapid succession.
The answer is not in how much we bend our knees.
What Happened in That Room?
In May 2006, a teenage epidemic broke out in Portugal that doctors could not explain. Symptoms included widespread rashes, severe dizziness, and difficulty breathing that often resulted in fainting episodes or loss of consciousness. The disease spread quickly, and before long, there were over 300 afflicted at more than 14 schools; nearly half of those schools were forced to close temporarily.
The Portugese National Institute for Medical Emergency did a thorough investigation and was able to trace the disease back to its origins: an episode of a popular television show in which a disease with the same exact symptoms—starting with a strawberry-colored rash—began to disrupt the lives of the main characters and became a central plotline for that season.
The episode was called "Strawberries With Sugar," and this incident of mass hysteria has since become known as "The Strawberries With Sugar Virus."
The dangers of television! The vulnerability and susceptibility of teenagers! This must be the real problem!
But it's not just children.
Perhaps you have heard of the Salem Witch Trials? What about the ghost of Aaron Burr that haunts a restaurant in Manhattan? Do you recall the story of when Orsen Welles, in 1938, read a fictional account of an alien attack on the radio, and suddenly an entire population was preparing for doomsday?
The problem isn't our age or our intelligence. The problem is whether we are alone or with others.
Social Psychology, Groupthink, and Why We Don't Act as Smart in Groups
Let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start.1 When life was a fight between man and beast, herd mentality served us well. It was better for the group to agree and make decisions as one unit because we were stronger when we were a larger presence, when there were more of us together.
But somewhere along the way, we developed what social psychologists now refer to as "groupthink." Quite simply, we must always think as one. Harmony above all else.
Groupthink occurs both consciously and subconsciously. Some of the best ideas in problem-solving are usually pushed aside simply because they are different. Those who think or act differently put themselves in danger of being pushed out of the group. Now, to be clear, pushing people out of the group is actually wonderful for the group because once you have an enemy or an "out-group," it simply serves to make the "in-group" feel as if they are more strongly knit together.
To be clear, groupthink isn't a good thing. In fact, it is something that a good leader should always be on the lookout for since it limits creativity, productivity, intelligence, and individuality.
How can you tell if you are in the throes of groupthink with your friends, co-workers, book club, or even your local volunteer organization? Is there pressure to conform? Are those who don't agree with the group seen as being "bad" or "wrong" rather than merely having a different point of view? Do you find yourself hesitant to share thoughts or ideas that are outside the group's majority opinion? If the answer is yes, maybe it is time to take a step back and re-think how much group-ness you actually need or want in your life.
What About All Those Fainting Sixth-Graders?
Just as they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to groupthink is paved by like-minded people who have finally found people who understand them. The more similar the group members are, the more likely groupthink is to take hold of the group. And since harmony within the group is the goal at all costs, it becomes extremely important, consciously and subconsciously, to blend in and be liked.
As a psychologist who works with adolescents, as well as a parent of one music kid and one tech kid, I am constantly reminded how important that moment is when they find their own people.
Once one fell, more were going to follow, no matter how much they bent their knees. They didn't want to be part of the group in that moment, but groupthink doesn't allow much room for choice.
Cleveland Clinic (2021, January 27). Health Essentials: What you should know about fainting in children. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-you-should-know-about-fainting-…
1 Extraneous music joke referring to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Doe-Re-Mi" included for any parent of a music kid who will now never be able to get these two sentences unstuck in their brain, thanks to repetitive exposure as well as the release of cortisol before performances