Review: A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall


2015, Prometheus Books

This is indeed a fascinating and comprehensive collection of “deluded” crowd behaviours. It includes over 100 well-documented and referenced examples of such behaviours, grouped together into a taxonomy of 14 different ‘categories’. Those categories include rumours and gossip, urban legends, fads, crazes and manias (each has a different definition!), stampedes, panics and riots, and the more intriguing anxiety hysterias and classical mass hysterias.
In each chapter, the authors first take us through their definition of a given category, and then present a group of well-referenced historical examples, describing the circumstances of each mass delusion from start to finish.

Some of the cases revealed are truly fascinating. There are witch hunts, UFO and Big Foot sightings, the urban legends of alligators in sewer systems, and various disturbing cases of ‘motor hysteria’, in which those affected suffer tremors and fits as a result of their mass delusions.

There is also the case of the (in)famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast – this did indeed cause a major community panic, and even loss of life – but not in the United States as I (and perhaps many others) had always understood. In 1938, Orson Wells gained some notoriety by broadcasting a contemporary version of H.G. Welles’ story of invading Martians. The incident was re-popularised in the 1970s made-for-TV movie “The Night that Panicked America”. But the authors of the current book give that incident barely a passing mention as a rather limited ‘small group’ panic. Obviously it caused a stir, but was by no means an actual panicking of all of America.
The story of real significance actually occurred in Ecuador in 1949, when a similar realistic-sounding broadcast of invading aliens was made by a radio station that truly panicked the city of Quito. When the locals learned they had been deceived, they became a rioting angry mob, trashed the radio station and brought about the deaths of 20 people. The impact of the South American incident was clearly more profound than the Orson Wells broadcast, but the former seems to be all but unknown today.

The book is not without its flaws and weaknesses, however. Here are three, in order of importance, beginning with the trivial.

Proofreading. I’ve come to expect the occasional typo in just about every piece of professional writing I read these days. This book seems to have more to its fair share, especially in the first half. And there is also at least one howler where the concluding sentence of a paragraph appears to contradict the original point being made. These editing errors aren’t so numerous to be that big a deal, of course. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. But I found they occurred just often enough to be an annoying distraction.

Referencing. The liberal use of references is a testament to the authors’ expertise and depth of research in the field. However, I was still bugged by a couple of points. When a book contains citations, I’m the type of reader that keeps one thumb in the references and the other as a current page marker, flipping “in real time” between the two whenever a citation appears.
To repeat: The references are one of the strong points of the book. But I was disappointed by (a) the high degree of reliance on secondary sources (many of which didn’t feel fully accurate or persuasive), and (b) the over-use of ibid. If there are only one or two pieces of source material describing a particular event, we only need one or two citations at the end of the paragraph. We don’t need one every second sentence pointing back to the same source.

Treatment of Religious Beliefs
While we have here a well-curated collection of irrational human behaviour in tribes and crowds, I feel that the mass delusions of religious beliefs are let off far too easily. Sure – there is certainly coverage of some religious-inspired oddities, like self-flagellation, the Salem witch hunts, worshiping the image of Jesus in a tortilla, and the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown mass suicides. However, the field of religious beliefs and practices – the traditions, the psychology, the counter-intuitive rationalisations – is rich for further expansion, and much has been left on the table that could have been explored in this context.
One might fairly argue that dealing with religious beliefs wasn’t the intention here. But if that is so, then the error is in the title of the book itself. Rather than being A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, a more accurate label might have been A Colourful Collection of Irrational Crowd Behaviour. After all, not all rumours and pieces of gossip, or fads, or stampedes or riots, for example, are necessarily driven by “delusion”. On the other hand, why should it be assumed that poisoning oneself in order to board a comet to heaven is any more delusional than, say, the belief that a piece of bread is an actual (not metaphorical) piece of the body of Jesus Christ, or that Muhammed actually ascended to heaven on a winged horse? Delusions of this type are some of the most popular of all time, and are sadly all but neglected here – not simply by example, but as representative of some of the most powerful aspects of human tribal psychology.

Despite its limitations, this is still an excellent collection of material that I can see myself dipping back into from time to time, whenever I want to recall examples of popular, irrational crowd behaviour.
3 out of 5.