Heightened social anxiety explained through moral panics and amplification feedback loops.

‘Large Hadron Collider could spell doomsday for Earth in nine days!’ (News track India 2008). Exaggerations, misinterpretations and lack of knowledge can lead people in a society to believe things such as black holes that could potentially consume and destroy the Earth being created by the Large Hadron Collider. This is often the beginning of a phenomenon known as a moral panic unless it proves invalid by the masses or not profitable for institutions or organisations. First coined by Jock Young (1971:37) in his book ‘Images of Deviance’, edited by Stanley Cohen, his peer and colleague. It was Cohen (1973:9) though, in fact, who brought the phrase to the forefront of sociology and defined it when he said:


Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media (Cohen 1973:9).


This paper assess’ Cohen’s’ ‘moral panic’ as a useful notion for explaining increased social anxiety about criminal behaviour using his work on ‘mods and rockers’ and Wilkins (1964:90) ‘Deviancy Amplification Feedback Loop’, a cyclic process that alienates perpetrators and increases sensitization to their actions creating more frequent arrests and often harsher punishments. Moral panics come and go and more often than not the ‘problem’ has been around for many years before it becomes accepted as a phenomenon that requires attention and reform. Often these moral panics are scapegoats of bigger issues in society (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2002:26). Such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in the 1980’s being blamed for youth suicide in America after James Dallas Egbert III and Irving Pulling shot themselves in 1980 and 82 respectively, leading Pulling’s mother to set up B.A.D.D (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, which incited that D&D promoted suicide and devil worship) (Holysmoke.org n.d).  Cohen (1973) states that there are three key stages in a moral panic ‘(i) Exaggeration and Distortion (ii) Prediction (iii) Symbolisation’.  In the first stage the media use emotive language to emphasise and often mask the reality of a situation, for instance in 1988 Edwina Currie said “Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella,” interpreted by the media as most eggs produced, causing sales to plummet and eventually her having to resign from her post as health minister (BBC 2005). This exaggeration and distortion causes the public to view the problem with tinted glasses and so causes a panic in this case the sale of eggs to plummet overnight. These events are often brought into light by newspapers or induced by a certain body that may wish to engage in “manipulation for ulterior ends” (Thompson 1998:9). This stage can be explained by Chibnall’s (2001:23) eight Professional imperatives. These imperatives, Immediacy, Dramatization, Personalization, Simplification, Titillation, Conventionalism, Structural Access and Novelty influence reporters to portray crimes in a specific way (Chibnall 2001:23). Summed up by Young (1974:241) newspapers ‘select events which are atypical, present them in a stereotypical fashion and contrast them against a backcloth of normality which is over typical’. For example during the Whitsunday of 1964 in Clacton one news story claimed ‘in one resort, the windows of “all” the dance halls by the beach were smashed’ (Goode 2002:25). Which when first read sounds like a large proportion of windows being smashed, but note that not ‘all of the windows’ were smashed instead ‘windows of all the dance halls were smashed’ a subtle difference that could be easily misremembered and exaggerated by the public, there was only one dance hall and so this sentence was in fact truthful if designed to be a little misleading. The second stage, of prediction, with regards to the events in 1964 come from a mixture of journalists and from the ‘mods and rockers’ themselves. The conflicts between the two rivals occurred in other places such as Margate and Brighton and they expected to reoccur with one youth reported as saying “It will get difficult here and so next year we’ll probably go to Ramsgate or Hastings” (Cohen 1974:39). This kind of reporting led to many persons from the general public as well as those who would be associated, in societies eyes due to garments worn such as leather jackets, turning up at the predicted time and place to ‘witness the fun’ not, as it was reported, to make trouble (Goode 2002). Along with an increase in public sensitivity to the predicted events and hence increased spectators, anxiety regarding trouble was also heightened by the attendance of journalists, insinuating that something dramatic and newsworthy was going to happen (Cohen 1974). This kind of prediction that leads to an event is a classic example of the ‘self fulfilling prophecy’. The self-fulfilling prophecy as coined by Merton (1949), described as a situation that’s initially false in its definition but this notion induces persons to think in this way then to act in this way so making the original definition true. Along with the public an increase in police forces expecting trouble also occurred which only served to stoke the flames, when asked to move on the crowds become more irritable due to wanting to see the event and so began to resist the police, building tension. The self-fulfilling prophecy described earlier can be related to Wilkins (1967) ‘Deviancy Amplification Feedback Loop’ (DAFL) where:

Less tolerance leads to:

  • More acts being defined as crimes

Leads to

  • More action against criminals

Leads to

  • More alienation of deviants

Leads to

  • More crime by deviant groups

Leads to

  • Less tolerance of deviants by conforming groups

This positive feedback loop then repeats itself, the DAFL combines Becker’s (1963a) labelling theory, the process by which society defines a specific person and so then views them as such for example having a prison record would inhibit the chances of achieving a position of authority in society once the time is served. And Berger and Luckmans (1966) social construct theory, with an outcome that feeds itself by a society that initially recognises a ‘problem’. Most tolerance decreases in society are brought about by institutions or organizations with ulterior motives in mind but there are cases where a ‘moral entrepreneur’, someone who Becker (1963b) says acts out of righteousness for the good, even if society is not aware of it and may consider them an advocate due to some personal trauma, of society. Such as the case of Candy Lightner in America when her daughter died after being hit by a drunk driver, Lightner then started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D) and was able to, in all U.S states, raise the drinking age limit from 18 to 21 and increased strictness on drunk driving (Goode. 2002). In a history of M.A.D.D, Davies (2005) says that before 1980 drink driving was not on societies radar yet statistics showed there was a problem and Lightner brought it very much into the public eye rallying other grieving mothers as she went through means such as classified ads. Soon the media was involved and this exploded societies awareness, this coupled with the passion of Lightner lobbying for harsher sentences, and within three years 129 new anti-drunk driving laws had been passed. To summarise society recognises there is a problem and a specific act is defined as a crime this then leads to the police becoming more sensitized to these criminals hence more arrests. In this case societies anxiety increased justifiably as the statistics show a major decrease of fatally injured passengers, as much as a 49% decrease between 1982 and 2003 with the bulk occurring between 1982 and the early 90’s (Williams 2006). A more recent example of a DAFL would be ‘hoodies’ worn by youth populations, first popularized in the 1970’s in the ‘Rocky’ films but only recently in the 90’s where the increase in C.C.T.V and socio-economic backgrounds lead ‘youths’ to delinquent behaviour has led to society focusing it’s anxieties of criminal behaviour towards hoodies (Marsh and Melville 2011). This symbolization of the hoodie as a delinquent is the final stage of Cohen’s’ (1973) three key stages of a moral panic. This stage itself, Cohen (1973) says, can be segregated into three process and really finalises ad pushes social anxiety to a much higher level due to objects, names (place and persons names) and times being stripped of their neutrality and given wholly negative connotations. The three processes of symbolization are (i) a word, such as Islamist, comes to symbolise a status, such as terrorist. (ii) An object, such as the Burqa, comes to symbolise the word and finally (iii) the word therefore is associated with the status (Cohen 1973), in this case society sees a Burqa and immediately identifies the person wearing it as a terrorist. As suggested the ‘object’ can just as easily be a proper noun such as Columbine or Bulger likewise it can be a time in history such as 9/11. It is during this final stage that the media can really come into it’s own to create a ‘moral panic’ because images can be used, for instance newspapers in 2012 reporting on Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ initiative, pictures depicted unidentifiable persons in hooded tops showing that just the image having been polarized is enough to spark a negative emotion in society although it is worthy to note Cameron was trying to help these people become more integrated into society.

A moral panic is a concept then that increases awareness of the problems of society and so helps bring about reform for the good of societal values albeit in an, often, extreme and unmoral way by labelling persons or groups as ‘folk devils’ (Cohen 1973) and exaggerating their actions to bring about this change through stoking the flames of social anxiety by the means outlined in this paper. This action is much more a means to an end and so it would be difficult to assess and justify if the process is fair, the end result is more often than not of good to society as we have seen with moral entrepreneurs such as M.A.D.D. However as Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2002:20) argue that ‘concern and fever are not strictly a product of the magnitude of the threat, and therefore that the steps taken to protect the society from that threat may be somewhat misplaced’ for example the 18th amendment in America prohibiting alcohol, which lasted thirteen years was amended due to an increase in organised crime and a decrease in industry capital of somewhere in the region of $2,000 million (BBC. 2013). Also as Thompson (1998:3) points out, upon analysing a ‘leader comment’ from the houses of parliament, that moral crusades initiated by moral entrepreneurs rally up society into a state of frenzy over a subject that is often, as mentioned earlier, a scapegoat for the real causes of societal breakdown and hence leave the real problems not being addressed, it is with this in mid that I say that a ‘moral panic’ greatly increases social anxiety. This is not however to say that they are void of addressing issues, instead issues closely related have rules and regulations constructed. I feel, an area possible for some further development, that the issue one particular panic is truly about may not be dealt with but something close to it will and then in the future that issue will be dealt with but have a different panic as it’s scapegoat so building a moral society in a typically, too polite to address the real issue, British fashion. This could just as well be the nature of society and some basic comparisons with other social evolution would give an indication of this.
















  • Becker, H.S. (1963a). Labelling Theory revisited: In: Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free press. pp.177 – 208


  • Becker, H.S. (1963b). Moral Entrepreneurs: In: Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free press. pp.147 – 162


  • Berger, P. L. T, Luckman. (1966). The Social Construction of reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. England: Penguin


  • Chibnall, S. (2001). Law and Order News: An Analysis of crime reporting in the British Press. London: Routledge. p.23


  • Cohen, S. (1973). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Paladin.



  • Goode, E. N, Ben-Yehuda. (2002). Moral Panics, The Social Construction of Deviance. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell.


  • Holysmoke.org. [no date]. B.A.D.D. stands for Bothered About D&D and other harmful influences on children [online]. [Accessed 2 March 2013]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.holysmoke.org/wb/wb0017.htm



  • Merton, R K. (1949). Social Theory and Social Structures. Glencoe: Free press.



  • Thompson, K. (1998). Moral Panics. London: Routledge. p.9.


  • Wilkins, L T. (1967). Social Policy, Action and Research. London: Social Science Paperback. p.90


  • Williams, A F. (2006). “Alcohol-impaired driving and its consequences in the United States: The past 25 years”. Journal of safety Research. 37(2) 128-138


  • Young, J. (1974). ‘Mass media, Drugs and Deviance’, in P. Rock and M. Mackintosh (eds) Deviance and Social Control. London: Tavistock.


  • Young, J. (1971). Images of Deviance. Harmondsworth: penguin. p.37
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