Thursday, July 6, 2017

Strange Contagion

Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz
HarperCollins: 6/27/17
advanced reading copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062448934

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 of 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 subject.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins for TLC

TLC Book Tour Schedule


Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

The idea of social contagion in today's world of social media is truly scary. I feel that books like this should be required reading.

Thanks for being a part of the tour!

Lori L said...

You are so right, Heather! Everyone would benefit from reading Strange Contagion.