In Hadley Cantril’s book The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic he examines the effects of the CBS War of the Worlds broadcast. His work used direct but inaccurate examples to analyze the after effects of the broadcast. After the broadcast he analyzed responses from interviewees to conclude that the reality of the fictional alien invasion was based upon the education and the ego of the individual listening (Laughey, 2007).
Hadley Cantril, a Princeton social psychologist, started his work on the psychology of panic after the War of the Worlds broadcast on October 30, 1938 (Laughey, 2007). The broadcast covered a dramatized performance of the H.G. Wells novel starring a cast of actors, including Orson Wells. Some listeners of the broadcast believed CBS was broadcasting a live alien invasion in New Jersey. While Cantril is credited for the psychology of panic, Paul Lazarfeld and Frank Stanton were also focusing on measuring the spread of panic at the time (Socolow, 2008).
After interviewing 135 listeners Cantril concluded that there were five main reasons listeners were so vulnerable to the reality of the broadcast (Laughey, 2007). The five reasons were the pedestalization of radio, the prestige of the speakers, the dramatization of the speakers’ voices, the use of notable locations in the area, and the overall tension added to the radio performance (Laughey, 2007). After conducting the interviews Cantril invested himself in the psychology behind listeners susceptibility.
In The Public Opinion Quarterly Cantril defined the psychology behind mobs and panics. Mobs begin as crowds of people that take a course of action to achieve a certain goal (Cantril, 1943). Members are characterized by having a common need or desire for someone to explain their hardships (Cantril, 1943). Listeners of the War of the Worlds broadcast were brought together by the alleged alien invasion. Panics occur when people are in a group and do not address the catastrophe at hand (Cantril, 1943). Panics are often attached to personal psychological issues.
After analyzing the personal lives of his interviewees, Cantril found seven characteristics of susceptibility. The personal characteristics found were: social insecurity, phobias, amount of worry, lack of self-confidence, fatalism, religiously, and frequency of church attendance (Laughey, 2007). Cantril found that education was a defining factor in listeners’ understanding of reality during the broadcast (Cantril, 1943). He attached the higher percentage of vulnerability in southern states to the large amount of poor and educated listeners in the area (Cantril, 1940). An educated listener would have likely sought out other news sources for validation of the alien attack. While education played a role in understanding reality, the underling cause of panic comes from “a perceived threat to an individual’s Ego” (Laughey, 2007, p. 18). A threat to one’s ego would cause a high degree of susceptibility, which would send the individual into panic. The relationship between the individual and their ego mediates their susceptibility to mass panic.
Cantril’s theory was subject to criticism from other scholars due to his methodology. He greatly exaggerates the ‘widespread’ panic across the nation when only 2% of all American’s experienced the ‘mass panic’ described in his work (Laughey, 2007). His work is heavily based on estimates and manipulation. Upon realizing many interviewees could have lied Cantril manipulated the numbers so that they would work in favor of his argument (Socolow, 2008). Cantril’s interviews were also biased because all the individuals interviewed were New Jersey inhabitants (Socolow, 2008). Of the 135 interviewees, 100 were known to have been upset by the broadcast (Socolow, 2008). Therefore, Cantril did not examine a diverse pool of listeners. His original colleagues, Stanton and Lazarsfeld, were not pleased with Cantril’s finished work. Both scholars believed that Cantril’s publication was based of off assumptions (Socolow, 2008). The issues with Cantril’s methodology were resolved throughout the evolution of his work.
Cantril’s emphasis on radio as a key factor in the realism of the broadcast influenced Marshall McLuhan’s theory that the medium is the message. This theory gives power to the medium instead of the message itself (Laughey, 2007). Therefore, without the proper medium a message could lose its value. The War of the Worlds broadcast could have had different effects if it had been broadcast on another medium because of radio’s high authority during the time. According to Cantril, “radio was – and still is – an accepted medium for important announcements” (Laughey, 2007, p. 17). In America radio was used to broadcast important news such as election returns and war updates (Cantril, 1940). People, especially in lower income and educational brackets, began to rely on radio for news instead of print newspapers (Cantril, 1940). During the 1938 broadcast listeners reliance and belief in the radio modified their ability to further investigate the ‘alien’ invasion. Technological naturalism, or the evolution of new media, makes change invisible to society (Czitrom, 1951). As listeners adapted to radio news they avoided validation from other sources to confirm the alleged invasion.
Hadley Cantril’s psychology of panic focused on listeners’ reactions to the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. His theory on the mental causes and effects of mass behavior can be applied to historical events such as the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s and the Satanism Panic in the 1980s.
The Salem Witch Trials began in 1692 in Massachusetts after a slave named Tituba was said to have performed acts of witchcraft on two young girls (Billings, 2013). The Puritans believed the two young girls and concluded that any strange mark on the body of an accused women was the mark where the devil sucked the blood of a witch (Billings, 2013). Colonists experienced hysteria after learning they could be living among witches. The Puritans began searching women’s bodies for physical signs left by the devil, which led to the immediate execution of six women (Billings, 2013). Alleged ‘witches’ were forced to accuse other women of witchcraft. The witchcraft fever spread quickly and the judges revived an old law to make witchcraft a capital offense (Billings,
2013). Judges began to accept confession as regeneration and were merciful to witches who did confess, however, as Puritans many ‘witches’ were not willing to lie even if it could save their life (Billings, 2013). By the time the panic was over twenty women convicted of witchcraft had been executed (Billings, 2013). Like listeners of the War of the Worlds broadcast, the Puritans did not seek out evidence to validate claims during Salem Witch Trials, but instead relied on accusations from the public.
The satanism panic in the 1980s revolved around alleged satanic cults that were terrorizing the nation. One of the most publicized cult cases was the McMartin case. The McMartin Preschool trials began after a young mother insisted her 2-year-old was raped by a male employee at the daycare upon finding his bottom red (DeYoung, 1997). The mother took her son to multiple physicians before finally getting a reluctant diagnosis of
sexual abuse (DeYoung, 1997). Soon all parents of children enrolled at McMartin were contacted and panic began in the California town (DeYoung, 1997). The sex crime was labeled as satanic ritual abuse and began widespread hysteria during the 1980s (DeYoung, 1997). The children being interviewed soon learned what investigators wanted to hear and began accusing everyone they knew of assault, including their parents (DeYoung, 1997). Panic swept across the nation as numerous day cares were accused satanic ritual abuse. The McMartin case and the satanism panic in the 1980s was based largely on assumptions and unreliable interviews, like Cantril’s study.
DeYoung, Mary. (1997). The Devil goes to Day Car: McMartin and the Making of a Moral Panic. In Journal of American Culture (pp. 19-25). Great Britain: Wiley–Blackwell.
Billings, W. & Manning, K. (2013). Salem Witchcraft Trials. In Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Cantril, H. (1940). The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Cantril, H. (1943). Causes and Control of Riot and Panic. In The Public Opinion Quarterly (pp. 669-679). Oxford University Press.
Czitrom, D. (1982). Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. The University of North Carolina Press.
Laughey, D. (2007). Modernity and Medium Theory. In Key Themes in Media Theory (pp. 30-53). New York, NY: Open University Press.
Laughey, D. (2007). Behaviorism and media effects. In Key Themes in Media Theory (pp. 7-29). New York, NY: Open University Press.
Socolow, M. (2008). The Hyped Panic Over ‘War of the Worlds’. In Chronicle of Higher Education (pp. B16-B17). Washington D.C.
Image Attribution: The images used in the entry are in the Public Domain.
Written by Jacklyn Russo, 2018.