Moral panic

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Preparing to burn a witch in 1544. Witch-hunts are an example of mass behavior fueled by moral panic.

A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.[1][2] A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as "the process of arousing social concern over an issue - usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media."[3] The media are key players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.[4]:16

Examples include the belief in widespread abduction of children by predatory pedophiles,[5] belief in ritual abuse by satanic cults of women and children,[6] scaremongering of the spread of AIDS,[7] and the War on Drugs.[8] The term first appeared in the English language in 1830 in a number of Christian journals.

Historic use of the term

In 1830 in the religious magazine, The Millennial Harbinger, an article was published[9] regarding a sermon entitled Regeneration, and the Manner of its Occurence given at the Synod of New York, by the Presbyterian minister Samuel H. Cox.[10]:250 The Harbinger's article remarked on the how differently the sermon was received by contrasting two reviews, one in The New Princeton Review,[10] and the other in the New Haven Christian Spectator.[11] "[F]or", stated the Harbinger "there always has, and must continue to be, a variety of sentiments on religious subjects in the same body."[9]:549–550

First, the Harbinger printed a transcript of Dr. Cox's speech, in which he states that regeneration of the soul should be an active process:

  • "...if it be a fact that the soul is just as active in regeneration as in any other thing ... then, what shall we call that kind of orthodoxy that proposes to make men better by teaching them the reverse? To paralyze the soul, or to strike it through with a moral panic is not regeneration.",[9]:546 and,
  • "After quoting such scriptures as these, "Seek and you shall find," "Come unto me, and I will give you rest," they ask, it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic?""[9]:548

Next, the Harbinger reproduced an abridged version of the review by The New Princeton Review.[9]:546–547[10] In opposition to Dr. Cox's sermon, they quoted the Presbyterian clergyman Stephen Charnock:

  • "He [Charnock]... states... first, that there is "an immediate and supernatural work on the will:""[10]:263
  • "His second proposition is, that "this work, though immediate, is not compulsive and by force""[10]:263
  • "His third position is, that this immediate work, "is free and gentle." "A constraint not by force, but love.""[10]:263

Criticising Dr. Cox, The New Princeton Review asks, "Is this [Charnock's views] "to paralize the soul, or to strike it though with a moral panic?""[10]:263 They go on to say, "... there are some metaphysical opinions utterly inconsistent with it [Dr. Cox's sermon]; that indifference is necessary to the freedom of the will, is one, and that morality consists in acts only we fear, is another."[10]:266

The Harbinger then contrasted the Princeton Review with a review of the same sermon published in The Quarterly Christian Spectator,[9]:547–549[11] which, according to the Harbinger, "speak of Dr. Cox's sermon in very different terms."[9]:547 They supported Dr. Cox saying:

  • "Perhaps the solution of this single question, whether the souls is active or passive, may be the pivot on which shall turn whole systems of divinity..."[11]:348
  • "When saints of old speak of the actual process of regeneration, they speak as all other moral agents speak, when they are active."[11]:348
  • "There is not a single point relating to the application of christianity to the soul; not a single statement recognizing the actual contact of any part of that system with the heart and producing effect, in which they do not employ language denoting activity. department of the moral man in which christianity obtains a lodgment, that is not expressed by language describing man's own agency."[11]:350

Use as a social science term

The phrase was used again in 1831, in the same way it is used today:

Magendie a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops which as "a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is".[12]

Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964.[13] According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972),[14] a moral panic occurs when "...[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests".[4] Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as 'folk devils'.

British vs American

Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic for American and British sociologists. In addition to pointing out other sociologists who note the distinction, Kenneth Thompson has characterized the difference as American sociologists tending to emphasize psychological factors while the British portray moral panics as crises of capitalism.[15][16]

British criminologist Jock Young used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969.[17] In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of moral panic, Hall et al. theorized that the "...rising crime rate equation..." performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "...police the crisis." [18]


Moral panics have several distinct features (many of which are discredited in the sociological literature). According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:

  • Concern – There must be belief that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society;
  • Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become 'folk devils'. A clear division forms between 'them' and 'us';
  • Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the 'moral entrepreneurs' are vocal and the 'folk devils' appear weak and disorganized;
  • Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group;
  • Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another narrative.[2]


2000s: Human trafficking

Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the 'white slavery' panic of a century earlier as prompted passage of the Mann Act.[19][20][21][22]

1990s–present: Sex offenders

Some argue that sex offenders have been selected as the new realization of moral panics concentrating on sex, stranger danger, and national paranoia. People convicted of any sex crime are "...transformed into a concept of evil, which is then personified as a group of faceless, terrifying, and predatory devils...", who, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, are perceived as constant threats in our neighborhoods, habitually waiting for an opportunity to strike.[5] Consequently, sex offenders are often brought up by media on Halloween, despite the fact that there has never been any recorded case of abduction or abuse by a registered sex offender on Halloween.[5] Academics, treatment professionals[23][24] and law reformist groups such as RSOL[25] and WAR[26] have been vocal in their criticism that current sex offender laws are more based on moral panic and "public emotion than good science",[27] and have expanded over time to cover non-violent and low-level offenders, and treating them essentially the same as predatory offenders, often leading to disproportional punishment of being added on public sex offender registry, sometimes for life; and being subject to strict ordinances restricting their movement and places of living.[26][28] Critics often point out that, contrary to popular media depictions, abductions by predatory offenders are very rare[28] and 95% of child abuse offenses are committed by a someone known to the child; studies by the U.S Department of Justice found sex offender recidivism to be 5.3%[29] which compares as second lowest of all offender groups, only those convicted of homicide having lower rate of recidivism.[30] Critics claim that, while originally aimed towards the worst of the worst, the laws have gone through series of amendments, often named after the child victim of a highly publicized predatory sex offense, expanding the scopes of the laws to low level offenses.[28] The media narrative of a sex offender highlighting egregious offenses as typical behavior of any sex offender; and media distorting the facts of some cases,[31] has increased the panic leading legislators to attack judicial discretion,[31] making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws.

1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse

A series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse originated in the US and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s.[6][32][33][34] In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.[32]

1980s–1990s: Dungeons and Dragons

At various times Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games have been accused of promoting such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s and later, some groups, especially fundamentalist Christian ones, accused the games of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of demons.[35] Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.[citation needed]

1980s–present: AIDS

The theme of a meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study Group on 21 September 1985 was 'AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic'. This was prompted by the growing interest of medical sociologists in AIDS, as well as that of UK health care professionals working in the field of health education, at a time when both groups were also beginning to voice an equally increasing concern with the growing media attention and attendant scare-mongering that AIDS was attracting.[7]

1970s–present: Video games and violence

There have been calls to regulate violence in video games for nearly as long as the video game industry has existed, with Death Race a notable early example.[36][37] In the 1990s, however, improvements in video game technology allowed for more lifelike depictions of violence in games like Mortal Kombat and Doom. The industry attracted controversy over violent content and concerns about effects they might have on players, generating frequent media stories drawing connections between video games and violent behavior as well as a number of academic studies reporting conflicting findings about the strength of correlations.[36] According to Christopher Ferguson, sensationalist media reports and the scientific community unintentionally worked together in "promoting an unreasonable fear of violent video games".[38] Concerns from parts of the public about violent games led to cautionary, often exaggerated news stories, warnings from politicians and other public figures, and calls for research to prove the connection, which in turn led to studies "speaking beyond the available data and allowing the promulgation of extreme claims without the usual scientific caution and skepticism."[38]

Since the 1990s there have been attempts to regulate violent video games in the United States through congressional bills as well as within the industry.[36] Public concern and media coverage of violent video games reached a high point following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, after which videos were found of the perpetrators talking about violent games like Doom and making comparisons between the acts they intended to carry out and aspects of games.[36][38]

Ferguson and others have explained the video game moral panic as part of a cycle that all new media go through.[38][39][40] In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that legally restricting sales of video games to minors would be unconstitutional and called the research presented in favor of regulation "unpersuasive."[38]

1970s–present: Crime increase

Research shows that fears of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics (Cohen, 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a populations' "herd mentality," continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate is rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.[41]

1970s–present: War on drugs

Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example, a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."[8]

Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 90's, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs.[42][43][44] News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998", for overstating the threat, and for excessively raising it in women's minds for the rest of their lives.[43] For example, showing excessive concerns extending even into the late 2000s, a 2009 Australian study found that of 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked, drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the cases.[45]


In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor.[4]

Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action.[4]:xxvi–xxxi Jarrett Thibodeaux (2014) further argues that the criteria of disproportionality erroneously assumes that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm. The idea that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm, but is a moral panic when it does not, is a 'constructionism of the gaps' line of explanation.[46]

In "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argue "that it is now time that every stage in the process of constructing a moral panic, as well as the social relations which support it, should be revised". Their argument is that mass media has changed since the concept of moral panic emerged so "that 'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were", and that 'folk devils' are not only castigated by mass media but supported and defended by it as well. They also suggest that the "points of social control" that moral panics used to rest on "have undergone some degree of shift, if not transformation."[47]

The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value.[48] Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.[48]

Another British criminologist, Steve Hall, goes a step further to suggest that the term 'moral panic' is a fundamental category error. Hall argues that although some crimes are sensationalized by the media, in the general structure of the crime/control narrative the ability of the existing state and criminal justice system to protect the public is also overstated. Public concern is whipped up only for the purpose of being soothed, which produces not panic but the opposite, comfort and complacency.[49]

Echoing another point Hall makes, the sociologists Thompson and Williams argue that the concept of 'moral panic' is not a rational response to the phenomenon of social reaction, but itself a product of the irrational middle-class fear of the imagined working-class 'mob'. Using as an example a peaceful and lawful protest staged by local mothers against the re-housing of sex-offenders on their estate, Thompson and Williams show how the sensationalist demonization of the protestors by moral panic theorists and the liberal press was just as irrational as the demonization of the sex offenders by the protesters and the tabloid press.[50]

Many sociologists and criminologist (Ungar, Hier, Rohloff) have revised Cohen's original framework. The revisions are compatible with the way in which Cohen theorizes panics in the third Introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics.[citation needed]

See also


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  2. 2.0 2.1 see also: Jones, M, and E. Jones. (1999). Mass Media. London: Macmillan Press
  3. Scott, John, ed. (2014), "M: Moral panic", A dictionary of sociology, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, p. 492, ISBN 9780199683581<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Book preview.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Cohen, Stanley (1973). Folk devils and moral panics the creation of the Mods and Rockers. Paladin. p. 9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Extein, Andrew (25 October 2013). "Fear the Bogeyman: Sex Offender Panic on Halloween". Huffington Post. Retrieved 26 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) [1994]. Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 57–65. ISBN 9781405189347.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gilligan J H and Coxon A P M (eds) 1985 AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic, Occasional Paper No 11, December, The School of Social Studies, University College of Swansea
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 "Dr. Cox on regeneration". The Millennial Harbinger. Bethany, West Virginia: W. K. Pendleton. 1: 546–550. 1830. OCLC 1695161.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Preview.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 "Review: Regeneration and the manner of its occurrence". The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review. Philidephia / Pittsburgh: James Kay, Jun. & Co. / John I. Kay & Co. 2: 250–297. 1830. OCLC 8841951.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Preview.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 "Article 11 - Review of Cox's sermon on regeneration". The Quarterly Christian Spectator. New Haven, Connecticut: A.H. Maltby. 2 (2): 345–358. June 1830. OCLC 8660240.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Original page numbers:44-47.) Preview, reprint page numbers: 201-384.
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  50. Thompson, W. and Williams, A. (2013) The Myth of Moral Panics: Sex, Snuff, and Satan (Routledge Advances in Criminology)London: Routledge ISBN 9780415812665

Further reading

Also available as: McRobbie, Angela; Thornton, Sarah L. (December 1995). "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds". British Journal of Sociology. The London School of Economics and Political Science. 46 (4): 559–574. doi:10.2307/591571. JSTOR 591571.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links