What is Moral Panic?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Moral panic is an interesting social phenomenon that can have tragic results. The term is used to describe a state of panic induced in a large group of people, who feel that a societal norm or an aspect governing the safety of people is being seriously threatened. The term is the creation of sociologist Stanley Cohen, who examined the way that Mods and Rock and Roll fans were perceived as a threat to society in the 1960s and early 1970s. Moral panic clearly existed prior to Cohen creating the term. Virtually every dance style introduced in the 20th century created such panic; even the waltz was condemned much earlier as a sure path to sin because the couples embraced each other.

When a state of panic is induced in a large group of people who feel that the safety of people is being threatened, it is referred to as moral panic.
When a state of panic is induced in a large group of people who feel that the safety of people is being threatened, it is referred to as moral panic.

Most new music styles, and the fans of such styles, have induced — at least in small scale — moral panic. From ministers condemning the evils of rock and roll to significant news coverage of the hippie culture and from Kurt Cobain’s death to the Goth movement, people may become significantly afraid that a corruptible influence is likely to cause harm to their children and their way of life. These concerns are often inflated by excessive coverage in the media of a few events that would indicate all children who picked up a Nirvana album would commit suicide, or all children who donned black eye shadow would decide to worship vampires.

New dance styles introduced in the 20th century created moral panic.
New dance styles introduced in the 20th century created moral panic.

Media coverage is often key to producing moral panic, because certain stories get done to death in the media. This is because the press will tend to latch onto anything of a bizarre nature as more interesting than standard crimes. For instance, a few instances of accusations of Satanism in the 1970s and early 1980s created significant moral panic. Many people truly feared that Satan was being worshipped in just about every town in the US, and that their children would “fall in” with a satanic cult. Though virtually every instance of satanic ritual has been largely discounted after significant investigation, this is still something that concerns many, and their fear grows from an inflated view of the danger.

The Holocaust may be referred to as a moral panic.
The Holocaust may be referred to as a moral panic.

Another example of moral panic was created by kids who played Dungeons & Dragons® in the early 1980s. Again, though much of these games were significantly innocent, and many D&D players are now excellent contributing members of society, it was thought that reference to “demons” or monsters would corrupt the moral behavior of children. If someone who’d ever played a game of D&D committed a crime, the media was sure to discover and report it, creating excess fear that D&D was an incomparable evil and a sure sign children would be corrupted if they played it.

There are several news hooks that currently have received so much coverage they induce significant fear. One particular news show devotes its time to catching sexual predators, at least once a week. Another example is the Nancy Grace Show on CNN, which appears to feature in the main the most horrific crimes against women and children that can possibly be committed. While Grace is not making up these stories, her coverage of them can inflate fear that these evils happen constantly, and that especially women and children are under constant threat of horrible murder or abuse.

Lastly, since moral panic may be aimed at a particular group, it can lead to mobs attacking members of that group, or mistakenly attacking people who are supposed members of the group. It has also led to mass killings of people who seem to threaten the very fabric of society. The Salem Witch trials and mass executions, the Crusades, McCarthyism, pogroms, and the Holocaust can all be called moral panics.

The media plays a major role in the development of moral panic.
The media plays a major role in the development of moral panic.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


It's so scary how something simple like a new dance form or a new kind of music can cause moral panic.

Is it because we are scared of change? Or is it because small things are exaggerated in America?

There are some things that scare me too. But I think that moral panic should not be such an issue here. America was founded upon differences and opened its doors to the unwanted and mistreated peoples from everywhere. Have we become such a homogeneous nation that anything new is scary to us now?

I don't think that we are. What do you guys think? Why is there so much moral panic in America?


Such a good article! I agree that the media and moral panic go hand in hand.

I remember from an assignment I did about ethnic conflict. What I learned was that sometimes politicians want to ignite moral panic and cause hatred and discrimination towards certain groups because they gain from it politically and economically.

For example, if an ethnic minority is stealing business and making a lot of profit, leaders might use the media to convince people that this group is a threat to them. The moral panic might push people to attack this minority's businesses and even harm them physically. This actually happens a lot in India when there are riots between religious groups and castes.

I think these examples are proof that moral panic can be such a dangerous thing to ignite. Especially if it leads to violence and there are retaliations. Things can get out of hand very easily.


I think that the terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims are also causing moral panic in many different countries.

I remember when the September 11 attacks happened, lots of Sikhs were targeted because people thought that they are Muslims.

One thing I'm curious about is whether Stanley Cohen also differentiated between rightful moral panic or unnecessary moral panic. I think it's safe to say that sometimes society is really threatened by something and it's normal for there to be moral panic. Other times, the threat is not really there or is very small in which case the moral panic is unnecessary.

The tricky part is, how do we know and who determines it?


Homophobia - thousands of homosexuals are killed everyday because of hatred and prejudice. Some countries punish it with prison or death penalty by law. A very cruel moral panic that somehow made the love of two human beings a demonized act, a sin, a perversion.

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