Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz
advanced reading copy; 288 pages
Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz is a very highly recommended look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.
Kravetz began examining what lead to the outbreak of teenage suicide in
Palo Alto, CA, in 2009 and he realized that "social contagions, the ways
in which others influence our lives by way
of catchable thoughts, emotions, and behaviors was the only way to
understand and describe the events as they transpired." This thought is
the impetus that began his exploration into the phenomenon of social
contagion as a way to understand the suicides in an affluent community
concerned, aware, adults.
Certainly, if you have lived long enough you have seen where social
contagion exists. One could even argue that it is currently in full
display during and after the recent election. Kravetz points out that
thoughts, behaviors, and emotions all have flow, and thus "their
influence spreads beyond a single person to affect many others within
proximity to one another." This influence is not only limited to teenage
suicide, but can span a wide variety of occurrences, including voting
behavior, public health concerns, violence, and fear. He presents
several examples of social contagion, including eating disorders,
emotional burnout, hysteria, fear, violence,as well as suicide.
The outbreak and sudden increase of cases of bulimia is an interesting
example. "Once information about bulimia started appearing in the media,
the condition spread unrestrained. "This was fueled by the media and
the spread of information about the eating disorder, and certainly
encouraged to some extent by the unrealistic body image standards.
"[F]ear is a powerful social contagion from which no one is entirely
immune." The outbreak of concerns over Satanic ritual abuse and abuse at
preschools (i.e. McMartin) had all the earmarks of a social contagion.
Hysteria feeds on our capacity to imagine the worst and can take "on the
qualities of a social contagion, with the ability to manifest and
spread over populations by way of mere suggestions."
It is interesting to note that spreading violence and the outbreak of
school shootings can share the characteristics of bacterial spread.
People already have to be vulnerable in order to imitate the violent
actions and thoughts transmitted by the media, discussions, or
knowledge. People only seek a goal, whether it is suicide, bulimia, or
violent behavior, if it is already a part of their behavioral
vocabulary. This would, I imagine, also include violent rioting
Kravetz does recommend that we train people to become "interpreters of
the invisible who can identify warning signs of social contagions and
intercept the chain before it leads to tragedy." This could include
anyone in a work situation who is in the position to notice social
contagions and interrupt the chain before it leads to tragedy. We all
need to learn to take notice and responsibility for each other.
This provides profoundly vital information and an incredibly interesting
look at a social behavior that may likely be increasing with the
prevalence of social media today and how fast news of events can spread
across the world. Even as we express concern over a virus or a physical
threat to our health spreading worldwide, we also need to think about a
social contagion doing likewise. Kravetz includes Notes on Support
services available, and an extensive list of Selected Sources in this
excellent, thoughtful, highly interesting presentation on an important
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this
book from HarperCollins for TLC.
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