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][6] belief in ritual abuse by satanic cults of women and children,[7] scaremongering of the spread of AIDS,[8] and the War on Drugs.[9]

Use as a social science term[edit]

Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964.[10] According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972),[11] 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[edit]

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.[12][13]

British criminologist Jock Young used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969.[14] 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." [15]


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:[7]

  • 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 toward 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[edit]

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.[16][17][18][19]

1990s–present: Sex offenders[edit]

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,[20] has led legislators to attack judicial discretion,[20] 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[edit]

Main article: 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.[7][21][22][23] 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.[21]

1980s–1990s: Dungeons & Dragons[edit]

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.[24] 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[edit]

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.[8]

1970s–present: Video games and violence[edit]

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.[25][26] 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.[25] According to Christopher Ferguson, sensationalist media reports and the scientific community unintentionally worked together in "promoting an unreasonable fear of violent video games".[27] 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."[27]

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.[25] 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.[25][27]

Ferguson and others have explained the video game moral panic as part of a cycle that all new media go through.[27][28][29] In 2011, the U.S. 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."[27]

1970s–present: Crime increase[edit]

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.[30]

1970s–present: War on drugs[edit]

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."[9]

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.[31][32][33] 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.[32] 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.[34]


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.[35]

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."[36]

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.[37] 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.[37]

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.[38]

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.[39]

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.[40]


The term was used in 1830, in a way that completely differs from its modern social science application, by a religious magazine[41] regarding a sermon.[42]:250 The phrase was used again in 1831, with an intent that is possibly closer to its modern use.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Panics and Mass Hysteria". FormsOfCollectiveBehavior. Retrieved 10 November 2015. 
  2. ^ a b 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  Book preview.
  4. ^ a b c d Cohen, Stanley (1973). Folk devils and moral panics the creation of the Mods and Rockers. Paladin. p. 9. 
  5. ^ Lancaster, Roger (2011). Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 4, 33–34, 76–79. ISBN 9780520262065. 
  6. ^ Extein, Andrew (25 October 2013). "Fear the Bogeyman: Sex Offender Panic on Halloween". Huffington Post. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) [1994]. Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 57–65. ISBN 9781405189347. 
  8. ^ a b 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
  9. ^ a b "Drugs Report". Royal Society of Arts Action and Research Centre. March 2007. Retrieved 24 November 2014.  Pdf.
  10. ^ McLuhan, Marshall (1994). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.  ISBN 9780262631594
  11. ^ Hayes, Hennessey; Prenzler, Tim (2012). Introduction to crime and criminology. Frenchs Forest, New South Wales: Pearson Australia. ISBN 9781442545243. 
  12. ^ Thompson, Kenneth (2006) [1998]. "The history and meaning of the concept". In Critcher, Chas. Critical readings: moral panics and the media. Maidenhead England New York: Open University Press. pp. 60–66. ISBN 9780335218073. 
  13. ^ Thompson, Kenneth (1998). Moral panics. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415119771. 
  14. ^ Young, Jock (1971), "The role of the police as amplifiers of deviance", in Cohen, Stanley, Images of deviance, Harmondsworth: Penguin, ISBN 9780140212938 ; Young, Jock (1971). The drugtakers: the social meaning of drug use. London: MacGibbon and Kee. ISBN 9780261632400. 
  15. ^ Hall, Stuart; et al. (2013) [1978]. Policing the crisis: mugging, the state and law and order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137007186. 
  16. ^ Doezema, Jo (Ph.D. Candidate) (December 1999). "Loose women or lost women? The re-emergence of the myth of white slavery in contemporary discourses of trafficking in women". Gender Issues. Springer. 18 (1): 23–50. doi:10.1007/s12147-999-0021-9.  Pdf version. HTML version.
  17. ^ Weitzer, Ronald (September 2007). "The social construction of sex trafficking: ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade". Politics & Society. Sage. 35 (3): 447–475. doi:10.1177/0032329207304319.  Pdf version.
  18. ^ Milivojević, Sanja (2008), "Women's bodies, moral panic and the world game: sex trafficking, the 2006 Football World Cup and beyond", in Cunneen, Christopher, Proceedings of the 2nd Australian & New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference, pp. 222–242.  Milivojević, Sanja; Pickering, Sharon (2008). "Football and sex: The 2006 FIFA World Cup and sex trafficking". Temida. National Library of Serbia. 11 (2): 21–47. doi:10.2298/TEM0802021M.  Pdf version.
  19. ^ Davies, Nick (20 October 2009). "Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2009. 
  20. ^ a b Fox, Kathryn J. (28 February 2012). "Incurable Sex Offenders, Lousy Judges & The Media: Moral Panic Sustenance in the Age of New Media". American Journal of Criminal Justice. 38 (1): 160–181. doi:10.1007/s12103-012-9154-6. ISSN 1936-1351. 
  21. ^ a b Jenkins, Philip (1998). Moral panic: changing concepts of the child molester in modern America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 207–231. ISBN 9780300109634. 
  22. ^ Victor, Jeffrey S. (1993). Satanic panic: the creation of a contemporary legend. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. ISBN 9780812691917. 
  23. ^ Young, Mary (2004). The day care ritual abuse moral panic. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 9780786418305. 
  24. ^ Waldron, David (Spring 2005). "Role-playing games and the Christian Right: community formation in response to a moral panic". Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Questia Online Library.  HTML version.
  25. ^ a b c d Byrd, Patrick (Summer 2007). "Comment: It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt: the effectiveness of proposed video-game legislation on reducing violence in children" (PDF). Houston Law Review. Houston Law Foundation. 
  26. ^ Koucurek, Carly (September 2012). "The Agony and the Exidy: A History of Video Game Violence and the Legacy of Death Race". Game Studies. 12 (1). 
  27. ^ a b c d e Ferguson, Christopher (February 2013). "Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court Lessons for the Scientific Community in the Wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association". American Psychologist. 68 (2): 57–74. doi:10.1037/a0030597. 
  28. ^ Ferguson, Christopher J. (2010). "Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games Be a Force for Good?" (PDF). Review of General Psychology. American Psychological Association. 14 (2): 68–81. doi:10.1037/a0018941. 
  29. ^ Ferguson, Christopher; Coulson, Mark; Barnett, Jane (September 2011). "A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental health, academic and social problems". Journal of Psychiatric Research. 45 (12): 1573–8. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.09.005. 
  30. ^ Koichi, Hamai (October 2004). "How 'the myth of collapsing safe society' has been created in Japan: beyond the moral panic and victim industry (rising fear of crime and re-building safe society in Japan: moral panic or evidence-based crime control)". Japanese Journal of Sociological Criminology. NII Scholarly Services (29): 4–93. 
  31. ^ Jenkins, Philip (1999). Synthetic panics: the symbolic politics of designer drugs. New York, New York: New York University Press. pp. 20 and 161–182. ISBN 9780814742440. 
  32. ^ a b Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) [1994]. Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. p. 217. ISBN 9781405189347. 
  33. ^ Webber, Craig (2010). Psychology & crime. Los Angeles London: Sage. p. 67. ISBN 9781412919425. 
  34. ^ Quigley, Paul; Lynch, Dania M.; Little, Mark; Murray, Lindsay; Lynch, Ann-Maree; O'Halloran, Sean J. (June 2009). "Prospective study of 101 patients with suspected drink spiking". Emergency Medicine Australasia. Wiley. 21 (3): 222–228. doi:10.1111/j.1742-6723.2009.01185.x. PMID 19527282. 
  35. ^ Thibodeaux, Jarrett (August 2014). "Three versions of constructionism and their reliance on social conditions in social problems research". Sociology. Sage. 48 (4): 829–837. doi:10.1177/0038038513511560. 
  36. ^ 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. 
  37. ^ a b Jewkes, Yvonne (2011) [2004], "Media and moral panics", in Jewkes, Yvonne, Media & crime (2nd ed.), London Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, pp. 76–77, ISBN 9781848607033 
  38. ^ Hall, S. (2012). Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage. pp. 132–139. ISBN 9781848606722. 
  39. ^ Thompson, W. and Williams, A. (2013) The Myth of Moral Panics: Sex, Snuff, and Satan (Routledge Advances in Criminology)London: Routledge ISBN 9780415812665
  40. ^ Hier, S. (2011). "Tightening the Focus: Moral Panic, Moral Regulation, and Liberal Government". British Journal of Sociology. 62 (3): 523–41. 
  41. ^ "Dr. Cox on regeneration". The Millennial Harbinger. Bethany, West Virginia: W. K. Pendleton. 1: 546–550. 1830. OCLC 1695161.  Preview. Cox asserted that regeneration of the soul should be an active process, and stated: "...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." (page 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? (page 548)
  42. ^ "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.  Preview.
  43. ^ The Journal of Health Conducted by an Association of Physicians (1831) p. 180 "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".

Further reading[edit]

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. 

External links[edit]