Panic! Affect Contagion, Mimesis and Suggestion in the Social Field

Anna Gibbs


This essay describes the phenomenon of panic from both neurological and affective points of view. It draws on the work of Japp Panksepp, who argues for the importance of distinguishing between fear as a response to physical threat, and panic as a response to the loss of the attachment object. While fear flees, panic, perhaps contrary to appearances, seeks security. This view of panic throws a new light on classic analyses of crowd behaviour, among them those of Le Bon, Tarde and Canetti, but it also has implications for how panic takes hold via electronic media, and for how outbreaks may be calmed. Finally, the essay argues that mediatised panic is a distraction from fear—in which anything at all may represent physical danger, but which at least offers a range of possible responses for addressing the problem, and offers the opportunity for the transformative work performed by cognition on affect. Here the paper draws on the script theory of Silvan Tomkins to provoke questions of the social usefulness of fear in the face of some current arguments to the contrary.


Moral panic; affect theory; social usefulness

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