Scenes of red-faced, finger-pointing, hopping-mad people at health care town hall meetings have been repeated dozens of times across the country this month.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who was berated nose-to-nose by an opponent of the health care reform this week, had to shout over a group to be heard in a 200-person town hall meeting again on Thursday.
"I've had hundreds of town meetings over the course of my career," Specter said after the meeting. "I've been to virtually every county virtually every year, and I've never seen anything like this, or anything near this."
While members of Congress try to strategize around the uproar for future town meetings, psychologists versed in group dynamics are simply scratching their heads: Is this really about health care, a contagious group fear, or an eruption of smoldering anger over the direction of the country in the past year?
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., managed to keep the uproar to a minimum at four town hall meetings Wednesday. He started with a presentation of the bill by health care professionals, gave his view in opposition, and opened it up to the crowd with alternating pro-con comment sessions afterwards.
But even after avoiding all but one outburst, Coffman could sense a seething anger.
"I would go speak at events, and the people on the left would be angry at me, but they tended to be more civil -- and the people on the right tended to be angrier," said Coffman. "The ground felt like it was shifting after the stimulus bill and the tea party protests just a little bit."
Although Coffman is against the reform measure and leans to the right politically, he said some people against the heath care bill "would say, 'You people in Congress,' 'You people in Washington.'"
"It was almost like it was an eruption in the distrust in government," Coffman said. "To them, I'm as much as the enemy as anybody else."
Theresa Rose, a specialist in group behavior and a psychologist based Kansas City, Mo., also saw an undercurrent of distress leading up to the fury of the current health care debate.
"In the context of the economy, the stock market, the bitterness of the political battles that have raged," said Rose, "at this time in our country, I think people are often feeling powerless and unable to have an effect."
Is Smoldering Anger, or Group Dynamics Feeding Health Care Screaming Matches?
Robert Lipgar of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and a diplomate in group psychology, agreed it was a smoldering undercurrent of distress lending to the health care ruckus. But he had a different view of the source of unrest.
"My impression is, is that this whole thing is totally irrational. It has very little to do with the issues," said Lipgar.
Lipgar was particularly disturbed that many of the outbursts were connected to myths, such as the rumor that the bill would include "death panels" to decide whether the elderly would live or die.
"People are responding to something that worries them, that frightens them," he said. "People are responding to changes in their lives."
Although the anger may be smoldering, Rose said it might take the anonymity of a large group such as those in town hall meetings to bring out the rage.
"Being in a group and being anonymous, you feel more protected to be very direct in a way that you would not if you were speaking to one of the senators one-on-one," said Rose. "It's not the same exactly, but it's kind of like road rage -- most people wouldn't swear like that face to face."
Yet, other psychologists see all this uproar as more of an example of group dynamics than a smoldering anger waiting to flare.
"You also got the situation with these groups -- large groups -- of people packed together and the sense of people already being aroused," said Stephen Worchel, a professor of psychology and expert in group dynamics at University of Hawaii, Hilo.
Once a group reaches a certain level of intensity, Worchel said it only takes one or two outward expressions of a particular emotion to cue the crowd into a shared passionate feeling.
"You could take the same arousal, and if they were in an environment where a person was angry, they'd label their feeling as angry and if some people were euphoric, they'd label their feeling as euphoric," he said.
How Group Dynamics May Change Your Opinion
Greg Burns, a psychiatrist at Emory University and author of "Iconoclast," said that passionate groups can alter more than feelings. People may even subconsciously adopt the opinion of the group around them.
"Anytime you get in a group [of four people or more], we see that the group opinions get mixed in with individual opinions, whether talking about art or music or financial decisions," said Burns.
"A lot of these things are subjective and personal judgment, but when you hear other people's opinions, it changes your opinions and we can actually see this in the brain. The individual is not even aware of it. They believe that it's their own opinion," he said.
Yet among the clashing opinions at town halls currently, it's not clear which opinion individuals may subconsciously adopt.
Luckily, some of those in Congress have managed to keep the meetings civil.
"I think for the most part people are concerned and have questions, but the shouters and yellers; they're the exception rather than the rule," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who held multiple town hall meetings on health care Thursday.
"We didn't have any of that the senior center meeting today," he said.