But the news isn't all bad.
You can catch a sniffle, but you can also catch a smile. You can catch a stomach bug on a cruise, or take Econ 101 and catch…greed? Indeed, that's what science shows us, and author Lee Daniel Kravetz explores the subject in his new book, Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.
His impetus to write the book was sad and terrifying: a string of teen suicides in Palo Alto, California, the heart of prosperity in Silicon Valley. The scary part: Over a period of months, the kids were killing themselves in the exact same manner. "We're about to raise our family in this area where it feels like there might be something in the air, so to speak," he says. "I'm a science writer, so it was natural to start asking questions."
Kravetz learned that "social contagions" are very real and very, well, contagious. Here, he tells us how it all works—and how to know just how susceptible you could be to a whole new concept of going viral.
Talk about a freaky way to get inspired to write a book. What happened?
Seriously. My wife and I moved to Palo Alto because she got a job at Google. We're about to have our first kid, and right around the corner from us is Gunn High School, one of the top public high schools in the country. For the first time ever for some inexplicable reasons, one of the kids who was very popular, had a girlfriend, all that, walks in front of a train one morning on the way to school. Three weeks later it happens again with another student, then three weeks later it happens again. Over the next six months there are 5 students from this school who wind up dying by suicide. And nobody knows what to do about it.
People would assume that it's a great high school, so there's a lot of pressure to perform.
It's not just pressure. That didn't seem right because there's a lot of pressure in life and in schools all over the country. Why is this happening here? I'm a science writer, so I figure there's gotta be something going on. There's a phenomenon called suicide contagion. That didn't feel right, either. The vast majority of suicide takes place in lower income, depressed areas. This was a very wealthy area. The more research I did the more I realized this isn't just about one emotional contagion, or behavioral or psychological contagion, but a lot of them. Like a perfect storm.
So really it comes down to people not realizing that emotions and social cues can be contagious?
It turns out that behaviors, emotions, and thoughts are highly contagious. Most of the time we have no idea that we're being exposed to them or catching them, or, of course, spreading them. There could have been seven or eight or more social contagions at play that led some of these vulnerable kids to do this.
There are innumerable social contagions. When I yawn, if you're watching me you can catch my yawn. If I smile, you can catch my smile. Now take this on a macro level and we can actually show that social contagions can influence political revolutions, or gun violence, or products we buy. If you're really attuned to these things you can manipulate a situation or environment to convince people to do things that aren't necessarily in their nature to do.
That's scary—and explains a lot of things, actually.
Fear is also highly contagious. So is hysteria. Even work ethic is highly contagious, and you would think that work ethic is not a bad thing, but in Palo Alto, the work ethic can drive young people to burn out. And burnout is another thing that's highly contagious for students, teachers, parents, anybody.
There's also transmissible zeal, excitement. As wonderful as that is, you can spread zeal in your workplace or school, but for some highly ambitious people, failure is very painful. That's where transmissible zeal becomes a problem.
So basically I can spread any emotion I have to others, and vice-versa.
Some things are more contagious than others. For example, greed is highly, highly, highly contagious. It's crazy, but what's even crazier about greed, you can catch it in the most innocuous way. I was interviewing Adam Grant at Wharton. He teaches economics at one of the best business schools. When you come into any business curriculum, you have to take a basic economics class. And he told me there are studies showing that just by cracking an economics book and learning the ABCs of economics, that alone can make you greedier.
But greed is good.
(laughs) We can even catch a goal that isn't intrinsically our goal and wind up pursuing it for the rest of our lives. We can catch these things without ever realizing we've caught them. Different cues in your environment can cue you to pick up all these thing that were in play in Palo Alto.
Intelligent people pride themselves on being independent and self-aware, so is preventing this really just a matter of knowing what's going on?
In a way. The goal is to build up some self-awareness. Understand that you can catch these things. It may seem like you're doing something that seems so out of character for yourself, but get this: You can't be convinced to do something that isn't already in some way shape or form part of your personality. For instance, I can't show you something that will influence you to walk off a cliff, or rob a store unless it's already somewhere in your mind. That's why greed in particular is really pervasive. But that's what makes it so easy for us to catch so many emotional contagions, so many of them are programmed into us already. Even self-harm. On some level we all have tendencies to do things that don't benefit us.
Especially when a lot of other people are doing it.
Yeah, there's something called "crowdthink." I call it toxic crowdthink. If I see someone else do it then I'm going to do it, too. It seems normal and the way to go. There was a study by Fritz Ridl back in the 1960s where he was at a boys summer camp and he watches a food fight break out. These things happen at summer camps, but he starts really looking at it and thinking, you know, most of these kids are good kids who would never join in a food fight like this—it got violent. It wasn't just throwing food, it was people pummeling each other, not fun and games. Most of the kids who did it never saw the guy who instigated it. Most of the kids had no idea why they jumped in. They just did.
So take that up a notch. A couple years ago in New York there was this sports club for rich businessmen. A fist fight broke out, like a barroom brawl in this high-end gym. It was like a movie, one guy throws a punch and everyone joins in beating on everyone else. You would think in real life that never happens, but it happened here. It was like everybody started catching social cues from everybody else to get up and start beating the crap out of each other. The police were called, there were hospital records that showed broken bones, broken eye sockets, broken noses. This was a big deal and it was reported in the news.
And today, when you combine a 24-hour news cycle with social media…
I love that you brought that up because it's so true. When the suicides in Palo Alto ended, 9 kids had died. After the first couple kids died, after each one there would be public memorials, people would tie ribbons on fences, that sort of thing to memorialize their friends. And psychologists came out and said, "No, no, no, don't do that! It can encourage other kids to do the same thing." So they stamped that out. But then you go online and it's everywhere. You can't stop the spread of ideas online. But here's the thing: It's not all negative. People find social support and community and help using social media. So the hope is they counterbalance each other, or that the right side wins in the end. There's more social support that helps people than harms people.
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The food fight story brings to mind Lord of the Flies. And then you have other books or movies like 13 Reasons Why and I remember when Natural Born Killers came out, the media chimed in about how works like those inspire imitators.
There are loads of studies that show that media can spread social contagion. There's no doubt. Example: Bulimia was rampant in the 1970s, it just spread everywhere. And then you've got Fiji. The island of Fiji was unique in the 1990s because it was one of the few places in the world that didn't have television. Not until like 1996. And at the time Fiji has no eating disorders whatsoever. In fact people on Fiji embraced this kind of larger body style. It's just part of the culture in this beautiful way. So all of a sudden TVs come onto the island in 1996 and three years later eating disorders on the island skyrocket. And people were saying I see things on TV that encourage this kind of body style. So media really does spread this stuff, there's no doubt.
But it's also the quickest way to spread cures, positive contagions. Not all social contagions are bad. Happiness, empathy, resilience, hope, all of these things can spread. So media can be used for good and ill.
Can you recall a time when you caught something?
Oh, that's a great question. One of the things about social contagions is that we sometimes never know, right? I could've decided to become a writer because of something I caught from somebody else. The fact that I wrote Strange Contagion might actually be because I was pulled under the spell of what was going on in Palo Alto.
But I have an even better example. My wife's at Google, and Google has this amazing childcare program. It's also really expensive. We did the math, it's a lot of money, but we thought it was worth it. So my son is in this room for two weeks and the head of the facility walks up to me and says, "One of the kids in this room, I can't tell you which one, has oral herpes, a cold sore." When kids are under the age of one, if they get this virus, it'll leave blemishes all over their body, be very painful, and every time they show symptoms, you have to keep them home for two weeks. And they keep it for life, of course. So all of a sudden I'm kind of freaked out. Should we pull our son, should we not pull him? They were good about it and going to clean the room, so we kept him there. But sure enough a couple months later another kid in his class comes down with the cold sores. I immediately pulled my son.
Looking back, I think I overreacted. In some ways I think I caused some hysteria because other people pulled their kids, too. That's the thing, you never really know: Are you overreacting? Are you getting caught up in toxic crowdthink?
So I'm sitting here wondering what I've caught from this interview.
(laughs) It's not all bad. There are scary contagions, but also really great ones. You have this amazing town where the unthinkable happened: Nine kids in four-and-a-half years from a high-end, well-functioning school die by suicide, eight of them on the train tracks. On the surface, that's a really scary, sad story, but the truth is, man, it is a story of resilience. This town has come up against the unimaginable and has fought it, turned it around, done this remarkable job of bouncing back and even forward in some ways—spreading hope and resilience and wellness and awareness. That's the real story.
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