Lee Kravetz Strange Contagion
Today on the Truth Perspective we discuss Lee Daniel Kravetz's latest book Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.

When Lee and his wife moved to Palo Alto, California in 2009 they hoped for a bright future for their baby boy. Unbeknownst to them a tragic string of suicides was threatening to rock the entire county. What began with one tragic event in 2008 morphed into entire suicide clusters that claimed the lives of several hundred children. Shocked, Kravitz and others set out to investigate why so many of the youth - strangers to one another - would take their lives in affluent Silicon Valley.

What Lee discovered was a veritable contagion of ideas, emotions and behaviors that, like others in history, swept across their society. This social contagion, when at its most malevolent, threatens the vulnerable and shakes communities to their core. But at its most positive it can inspire courage, bravery, and point our way to a brighter future.

Are our goals, emotions and ideas really ours, or are we each at the mercy of this strange contagion'? And, if we are at the mercy of these forces, is it possible to turn their tide to our benefit? We'll be discussing these questions and more today, on the Truth Perspective.

Running Time: 01:22:32

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Here's the transcript of the show:

Corey: Hello everyone and welcome back to the Truth Perspective. Today is Saturday, September 29th and joining me in the studio are Elan Martin,

Elan: Hello everyone.

Corey: And Harrison Koehli.

Harrison: Hi everyone.

Corey: And as usual I am Corey Schenk. Today we're discussing Lee Daniel Kravetz's book The Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. Now for a little bit of background, the science writer Lee Kravetz and his wife moved to Palo Alto, California in 2009. They were expecting a baby boy and when they moved there they were shocked, they and the community, when a cluster of suicides struck the city. Lee set out to investigate why several children - strangers to one another - committed suicide by diving in front of a moving train.

Suicide clusters are defined by the CDC as three or more suicides in close proximity in regards to time and space. The first cluster struck Palo Alto in the spring of 2009 and a second one took place between March and October 2015 during which four more Palo Alto unified school districts students took their own lives. However Palo Alto was just one part of a much larger cluster occurring. The Silicon Valley suicides resulted in the deaths of 232 youths throughout Santa Clara County from about 2003 to 2015. The CDC found the mental health problems, recent crises, and problems at school were major factors in the suicides. They were also much more likely to have identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

But what Lee offers as an explanation as he dives in, is a strange contagion of emotions, ideas and behaviours that were not only responsible for this suicide epidemic but many other strange emotional epidemics throughout history. In discussions with Nicholas Christakas at Yale's Human Nature Lab he sets out evidence for the contagious nature of human emotions. He travels to Stanford and speaks with Al Bandura, head of the Social Learning Research Center and learns how we acquire new behaviours by picking up social cues from the people around us; to Peter Gollwitzer at the NYU Motivation Lab he introduces us to how goals spread, often contagiously and unconsciously.

So are our goals really ours? Are our emotions and ideas really ours? Or are they part of a strange contagion that sweeps through the environments that we live in? We'll be discussing this and much, much more today on the Truth Perspective. So with that, I was wondering what you guys thought about this idea of social contagion, how he lays it out in the book. Did you think it was a very compelling thesis that he laid out?

Harrison: Well I did. I was interested in this book because I heard about it in an article on gender dysphoria so that kind of sparked my curiosity because I had never really considered that something as seemingly complex as a disorder or an entire kind of personality thing could be part of a social contagion. I was already aware of emotional contagions like mass hysteria or you smile or you laugh and other people smile or laugh or yawn, things like that.

So I was aware of the components that go into the things that Kravetz talks about like the emotional contagion or a behavioural contagion where if you change your posture or you make a little movement you might be able to influence people around you with those movements, especially with facial expressions like smiles and laughter, like I said and then even intellectual contagion, the spreading of ideas. You see that in the media all the time where an idea will get a lot of play in the media and then people adopt it as their own even though they're just adopting it because of repetition, and of course a similar thing in advertising and subliminals.

You see something subliminally enough times, like an ad for a certain product, that will prime your behaviour in certain ways and make you more likely to buy that product when you see it and you'll think it's maybe just an impulse or that you really want it but you've maybe seen that logo three times in the past week or so or longer, so that will influence your behaviour. But here Kravetz was talking about something as seemingly complex and involving more aspects of your life as a suicide and in this article I've read about gender dysphoria. I guess I hadn't really seen it discussed like that before but it seems to be fairly well accepted and a common way of looking at these things.

So it was compelling to me, not just because of the case he makes for the suicide clusters but because of all the different types of phenomena that he brings into the picture. I'll start out with just a few of them. These are the famous cases. One is bulimia because bulimia didn't really exist as a disorder until 1980 or so and the guy who discovered it had a bunch of patients who were all showing the same symptoms so he gave it this label of bulimia and he published a paper about it, what the symptoms were, how to recognize and diagnose it and that got published. Then the more mainstream pop science journals and magazines and newspapers picked up on this so now bulimia became a household word to a certain extent. Well eventually it did become a household word to the point where everyone knew about it and that was through cases in the media and even just publicizing of the existing cases.

What they found was that once it started getting media attention, once people started realizing what it was, more people started getting it. They did enough research and study to be able to rule out that it was just more recognition of it. So these weren't existing cases. It's not like all these people had bulimia from the time before there was a name for it. It was actually that the number of cases skyrocketed. So the conclusion that Kravetz draws from this and others have too, not only in regards to bulimia but numerous other disorders and other phenomena, is that it was actually the media attention, it was actually becoming aware of it as a disorder that gave the disorder to all these people. So without the media, without his paper, there wouldn't have been this rise in bulimia cases.

There was a similar phenomenon in the '80s with satanic ritual abuse and in the '90s I believe with multiple personality disorder. With a lot of these things it's not that any of these disorders didn't exist at all beforehand, but they might have been really rare. For example multiple personality disorder, it probably has existed for a really long time, if not forever, but there were never very many cases at any one time but when it started getting media attention all of a sudden you had a whole bunch of cases of MPD. Then once it wasn't as popular in pop culture, the numbers went down again. So it was almost like this big cluster of bulimia cases and satanic ritual abuse accusations and MPD in the same way that there are clusters of these suicides.

It's common enough that there's a name for it. There are such things as suicide clusters and he gives examples of other ones, not directly related to Palo Alto. I can't remember the details, but he gives the example of some celebrity - I can't remember where he was - who committed suicide and in the weeks after that you were getting at least five people committing suicide a week. Let me see if I can find that.

He was an Austrian businessman and he committed in 1984 and that sparked a cluster that lasted for almost a year; five suicides per week. So once the newspapers started removing any mention of further suicides, because they realized they had a role in this - the more they published, the more suicides there were - then the number of copycat suicides dropped by 80%. So Kravetz writes that in light of this phenomenon - and this goes back to the bulimia epidemic as well - that the news coverage shouldn't make suicide look viable or attractive to susceptible people. This would include not giving details of certain types of cases, not putting them on the front page, making them small news items because when it's front page news and it's hyped up as fear porn, then that just sparks more copycats. It's a strange phenomenon.

Like he says in the book, there is this dual aspect of awareness because on the one hand just being aware of it will actually make things worse because by becoming aware of it more people get whatever it is that's going around, but on the other hand it seems like there's a positive aspect of awareness too, that if you know what's happening maybe you can better protect yourself. But that might be something we'll get into a little bit later.

Corey: That reminds me of something he wrote in the book about one aspect of how social contagion works is through automatic attunement through unintentional mirroring someone else's emotions, thought and registering all of this information in an unconscious way. So if you're reading a news article that is completely factual and is not ramping up any sort of emotional information, then you're going to read it quite differently, get a different awareness of the event than you would from a sensational article which is delivering a completely different message, even if it is geared more towards prevention. But if it has an element of fear and hysteria in it, it's going to trigger that person in a way that, if they're susceptible, they'll say "Oooo, I could get this kind of attention if I did this kind of a thing" and it's not necessarily conscious. We all know that teenagers don't have the higher brain functioning to be completely conscious of what's going on within them, which is why I think that a lot of cases that we saw just reading the book and in recent years has just swept like a wildfire.

It's kind of crazy to think of a couple of hundred teenagers committing suicide. That environment that they did it in was so highly geared towards prevention. It was in Silicon Valley. It's all of these people who are social justice warriors. They have all of these different prevention centers. They have of these different counsellors. There are all these movements. But at the same time, on one level that is not actually the kind of prevention that you want if you're actually trying to get to the root of the contagion.

Harrison: Right. Just one thing Corey, I think he makes clear that some of those interventions they make can potentially be harmful in and of themselves because if we don't know what the cause it, it could be that these things are actually reinforcing the ideas that might make suicide clusters a thing. So by introducing all of these safety measures and all of these therapists that come in, maybe they have a good effect for some but at the same time it reinforces the idea that they need protection and that there is something wrong. So that will just let the emotional thought-based cause continue and potentially lead to even more suicides.

Elan: I was just thinking that the particular environment and culture that Palo Alto and Silicon Valley produce made it rife for these young kids to be vulnerable to begin with, in a sense, because of the incredible amounts of what he calls spoken and unspoken pressure to perform. All of these kids who may have wonderful, supportive families, great classes, a great environment, opportunity for advancement, are experiencing a kind of unspoken pressure to achieve, to be a part of this environment of geniuses that are innovating and coming up with new businesses and technologies. He points out that this has been the history and the culture of the area for decades.

So there is a firmament, a substratum, a background, a context of expectation and stress that is by any standard abnormal for most counties, areas, schools and regions in the US that I think left these kids open to a vulnerability that once triggered by this first suicide, spread out and continued for quite a few years.

Harrison: Yeah. And this is the way that all of these contagions seem to work. I can't remember if he gets into school shootings at all. I think he might just mention them briefly. I started reading a book a week or two ago called Columbine by Dave Cullen who is a journalist who covered the Columbine shootings for years. He was there right at the beginning and he followed the story for 10 years. So he wrote a book putting it all together. I want to read a couple of paragraphs because Columbine was in April of 1999 and in this background, I'll just read this. He says,

"A terrifying affliction had infested America's small towns and suburbs-the school shooter. We knew it because we could see it on TV. We had read about it in the papers. It has materialized inexplicably two years before. In February 1997 a 16-year-old in a remote Bethel, Alaska, brought a shotgun to high school and opened fire. He killed the principal and a student and injured two others. In October another boy shot up his school, this time in Pearl, Mississippi; two dead students, seven wounded. Two more sprees erupted in December in remote locals. West Paducah, Kentucky and Stamps, Arkansas. Seven were dead by the end of the year, 16 wounded. The following year was worse. Ten dead, 35 wounded in five separate incidents.

The violence intensified in the springtime as the school year came to a close. "Shooting season" they began to call it. The perpetrator was always a white boy, always a teenager, in a placid town few had ever heard of. Most of the shooters acted alone. Each attack erupted unexpectedly and ended quickly. So TV never caught the turmoil. The nation watched the aftermaths, endless scenes of school surrounded by ambulances, overrun by cops, hemorrhaging terrified children. By graduation day 1998 it felt like a full-blown epidemic with each escalation, small town and suburbia grew a little more tense. City schools had been armed camps for ages but the suburbs were supposed to be safe. The public was riveted. The panic was real but was it warranted? 'It could happen any place' became the refrain. But it doesn't happen any place just as Policy Institute director Vincent Schiraldi argued in the Washington Post and it rarely happens at all.

A New York Times editorial made the same point. CDC data pegged a child's chances of dying at school at 1 in a million and holding. The trend was actually steady to downward, depending on how far back you looked. But it was new to middle class white parents. Each fresh horror left millions shaking their heads, wondering when the next outcast would strike and then, nothing. During the entire 1998-1999 school year not a single shooter emerged."

So he doesn't talk about it there and he doesn't get into it, but right there you can see the kind of features of a social contagion as Kravetz mentions. They came in waves. So there was the first school shooter in 1997 and that sparked a whole bunch of kids over the States to do similar things. Then it happened again the next year to the point where they called it shooting season. But the next year there was no instigator, there was no first spark to set off all these other kids. He doesn't get into it and I forgot to look it up but I'm wondering if there were any immediate copycats after Columbine. I can't remember for sure.

But now we see that school shooters have become a phenomenon in and of themselves to the point where a lot of the school shooters that go on these rampages like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, admire them and they want to get a higher kill count. They idolize these guys and want to use them as models for their own shootings. So it's become a cultural phenomenon where like you were saying Elan, there's an existing condition, there's an existing mindset and when you have that first person to do the deed then that sets off all of these other guys who are seemingly just waiting for that spark and whatever it is that triggers them does trigger them. At least with the school shootings it seems now that it's fairly regular. Actually I think the stats are still steady. I think I read an article to that effect recently.

Things aren't getting super worse and in fact the media actually are stoking the fear more than they should because there was one statistic that a whole bunch of newspapers have been citing, the statistic for the number of school shooters in the last 10 years or something, and it turns out that the number that they're giving is fake news essentially. The number includes things that aren't school shooters. This will include anyone on school grounds or in the vicinity of the school who has a weapon or discharges a weapon.

So this can even be a shooting class that's on school grounds where someone misfires their weapon or a teacher who has a gun at school who accidentally discharges it in the parking lot or something. Those aren't school shooters. A school shooter is someone who, like Cullen has said in the passage I read, is someone that goes to school with the intention of killing people. It could be targeted or it could be indiscriminate like it was in Columbine. But the actual numbers are inflated by the media and that probably makes things worse and probably influences kids to become school shooters when they might not otherwise. Of course there's more factors than that, but that's an important one.

Corey: There's something interesting about the contagion itself because you have positive emotions and positive things are contagious but they have such a different nature, such a different character that we're drawn much more to these mass outbreaks of hysteria and the ways that they shape society. When you look at the complexity of it, it seems to me you have to factor in a society's emotional geography, their ideas and how they respond to stress and threats and just the general level of confusion tolerance that people have. One thing that I was thinking about when I was reading about the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley was the time, which was around 2009 through until 2016 and the fact that they were some of the oldest members of the "I" generation, those kids who were born in 1995 or later and their whole lives all they've known is the internet. They had an Instagram page before they started high school. They're on Facebook. Two out of three I think is the statistic, have iPhones by now.

You're looking at this group and the kind of vulnerabilities that they would face in terms of being in constant contact with their peers, being constantly judged and the dumbing down that this easy access to fake news and fake thrills that this generation has and the fact that they are in Silicon Valley, they're in the ground zero. That's what their parents do. That's what's glorified, the idea that this was really setting them up for a culture that was open to a contagion of a negative kind, a very nasty kind that erupted in these suicide spikes that we've seen, even though it has happened throughout history. But I imagine if you look through history, you have to see some amount of that hystericization process going on in terms of how people cope with the contagion itself because it seems to me it's just like a flu outbreak or something else. If you have control over your emotions, if people are relatively rational, you're able to combat these outbreaks as they rise up. But if you don't then they flare up into these massive, gnarly outbreaks.

It reminded me of the racist banana peel incident back in I think August 2017. It was at the University of Mississippi. There was this fraternity retreat that ended early because a student threw his banana peel away in a tree and some of the students who saw it got frightened and thought it was a sign of the KKK or white supremacy and they thought it was a threat, that they were all going to be killed.

So then what began as an instant retreat and even after the student through his banana peel up there said he didn't mean it in any such way, that there wasn't a trash can, he just threw it up into the tree, they ended up shutting down the retreat and having a whole safe space getaway so they could talk about their feelings and what it meant for race relations on campus.

So you think about that banana peel. It was symbolic for these kids because apparently in another university at some other place at some other time there were banana peels that were hung from trees as a sign of racism and that automatically triggered the contagion spread and pretty soon you have calls for more racial justice and sensitivity training at this campus. It's absolutely bizarre how contagious and how fast this thing spreads.

Elan: Well that kind of brings home the point that social contagion is very specific to a given time and place and the mindset of the people that have been subject to their own self-forming social contagion and hysteria. So Kravetz points out that there is a town somewhere in the mid-west that in 2004, a few years after 911, suddenly became gripped with the fear of terrorism and Homeland Security, the CIA, the FBI came to the town to work with the people allay their fears and even train some of them in a kind of anti-terrorist maneuver.

Harrison: They have Erran Morad. {laughter}

Elan: They should have. That's a reference to Sacha Baron Cohen's newest incarnation which is quite funny. So thanks for that Harrison. This is actually a pretty heavy topic in some ways. We can get back to some of the points you made earlier Corey about a kind of positive pro-social contagion that exists as well. But just to get back for a moment to the idea that there are hysterical outcroppings or experiences among groups of people that are very specific to their own predispositions seems to be an important thing here because throughout this book I just kept thinking about the vehement, vitriolic hatred and expressions of hysteria that we've been seeing projected against Donald Trump in the US, to name just one of the things that we're seeing nowadays and how this has formed an hysterical phenomenon that almost has no redress, almost has no ability to be stopped or held back in any way. It's gone to such lengths that the irrationality that we're seeing on display at this time is I think one of the worst I've seen in my lifetime, if not one of the worst.

So this topic that we're discussing has all kinds of implications. One of the points that Kravetz drives home in his own thinking on the suicides in Palo Alto is that there are many ways that social contagion have been addressed, some of them successful in some contexts and some successful in others and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any of them, that each one has to be taken for its own life, its own existence and special properties before it can be correctly addressed.

Harrison: I wanted to take off on one thing you just said there, specifically the reference to the vitriol directed at Donald Trump. You can see a similar thing with any kind of mass public demonization of an outsider or a foreign leader. It's been going on against Vladimir Putin for years and any time that the US has a big enemy it's the same thing. The general public just adopts the mentality, the whole emotional, intellectual picture as if it's their own. They adopt it for themselves without any kind of modification or critical thinking. That thought becomes their thought. One of the best things that made that clear for me, even though I'd been thinking about that in those terms for years actually, was seeing my 12-year-old nephew telling me how much he hates Donald Trump when he knows nothing about politics. He's just a 12-year-old kid that's just obsessed with superheroes. But just from what he manages to see on the news, maybe from the few things that he manages to hear from the adults - and he's a Canadian mind you so Donald Trump isn't even his present - but there's media saturation even in Canada with Donald Trump. He's got very strong opinions on Donald Trump when he has zero political awareness.

You can scale that up and really most people, I'd say even in the elite establishment, are no different than a totally unaware 12-year-old. They don't think about why they believe what they believe and the ideas that they have, not internet memes but Dawkins' memes, just the thought complexes, the collection of opinions and beliefs and hatreds and likes. They all come fully formed and they're just adopted without any questioning, without any critical thinking. That's what you have in the media. We've had several conversations here and on Behind the Headlines in the past year or two about what is behind the anti-Russian sentiment, for instance, in the American establishment. Is it a vast conspiracy or is it that these people believe it?

Well I think for the most part, for the vast majority of people, they actually believe it and it's because of this social contagion phenomenon. They are part of a group and it's this group think type mentality too, it's the mob mentality. Everyone else believes it so they believe it. You can see it on both sides too and it's not just the States. It happens in every country. In any country you can find the people within that country will rally around the dominant ideas, especially in a time of war. That leads me to another thing.

Kravetz has a discussion on hysteria in the book so I found that this book was actually a really good supplement to the chapter in ponerology on the cycle of hysteria. One of the things that Kravetz points out is that he makes a connection between the paranoia and anxieties with periods of rapid social and economic changes. In 19th century Europe for instance, 20% of French people were sent to institutions for hysteria. He writes that "hysteria, according to Bernheim" - who's a researcher psychologist maybe - "takes on the qualities of a social contagion with the ability to manifest and spread over populations by way of mere suggestion."

So hysteria is also an example of a social contagion as we've said already on the show today. There's a connection. Not only is is specifically tied and catered to the unique mentality and conditions of the group in question like you were saying Elan, it's also catered to that specific time. This is what Lobaczewski got into; there's a cycle to history where in a certain period there will be a mass hysteria and that will open up a culture or a society to catastrophe and it could go really bad, depending on what happens. This is also the idea of the guys that wrote The Fourth Turning which is that book on American history but also with reference to the history of other nations, looking through the cycles of history within American history and they identify a four-generation cycle or a 90-year cycle that seems to repeat every four generations. There's one period of social stagnation and then a period of crisis and catastrophe. It seems that hysteria is associated with those two periods. It's the hysteria that opens up a society to the catastrophe and in those periods of time you will get these mass contagions that are spreading.

The scary thing is that Lobaczewski thought that the US had reached its peak hysteria in the '80s. I was a baby in the '80s so I can't directly compare. We could speak to some people who were adults in the '80s and today, {laughter} what the levels of hysteria were, if they were comparable or if they're worse today because if they're worse today, that's bad news is what I'm saying.

Elan: Well I wasn't an adult in the '80s but I've been around for a few years. Like I was saying earlier, what we're witnessing today is incomparable to anything else I remember anyway, being a child of the '70s and '80s and somewhat of a child in the '90s.

But speaking of hysteria Harrison, there was another passage here that I'd like to read from Strange Contagion which speaks pretty well to how it's an appeal to emotions in the way that people don't even realize. Kravetz writes,

The historian Norman Cohn writes that true believers can endow hysteria with such confidence, energy and ruthlessness that will attract into its wake vast multitudes of people who are themselves not at all paranoid but simply harassed, angry or frightened. I believe this is true. Yet to really understand mass hysteria, we have to look at the nature of human behaviour, the way logical people become overwhelmed by fear and caught up in the snare of excitement, how easily we can fashion and twist frenzy, how effortlessly it moves from person to person, untethering the most stable of us, cracking the foundations on which we so heavily rely.

Hysteria legitimizes the improbable and supersedes the logical. In so doing, it becomes a self-replicating system. A daycare crisis creates the need for an organized response. It generates jail sentences and produces media attention. It creates hysteria that reinforces the belief in a problem that never existed in the first place. The process cascades in a never-ending loop, a mirror-like recursion. Our responsibility to one another is to seek out the facts rather than so easily give in to the frenzy.

And that's largely what we're missing in our national debate, in our dialogue with ourselves, the facts. We're given emotionally charged information that is by design injected into our awareness to cause a certain reaction, a certain response and we're being played and manipulated in ways that we don't realize quite often.

So that really calls for a level of awareness that reflects our understanding of how vulnerable we are ourselves, that we are susceptible to emotional hooks in ways that we don't even realize. I think ultimately the value of the book is in encouraging people to reflect upon their own hooks, their own sacred cows, their own emotional weaknesses and to just be aware of how easy it is to fall into the trap of a particular ideology or mode of thinking that isn't our own.

Corey: I think that it's like hypnosis. It brings new meaning to being swept away by the crowd. It's fundamentally a form of hypnosis. I thought it was interesting that in the book he quotes Gustave Le Bon. I think he was a French philosopher. He wrote the book The Crowd which was the dawn of psychological science, of understanding crowds of people. In that book he writes that "The part played by the unconscious in all our acts is immense and that played by reason very small. The unconscious acts like a force still unknown."

Just over the past few episodes, we've done episodes on the genetics and DNA and evolution and if you listen to those shows, the undercurrent is that our minds, or what we believe to be ourselves are made up largely of bacteria and viral DNA, just so many different aspects of nature that have very little to do with what we would call our human idea, which would be the rational animal, if we defined mankind in that way, which is the traditional definition which is very succinct in the sense that we're rational, but with much more emphasis on the animal part.

So in the book Le Bon talks about the characteristics of psychological crowds which he differentiates from a crowd of people that just gathers together without any specific relationship with one another. But a psychological crowd has a number of different factors involved. He says "However like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual would think, feel and act were he in a state of isolation." He writes that "One fundamental characteristic is contagion which is a phenomenon which is easy to establish the presence of but is not quite easy to explain".

I think that's one of the things you get a sense of throughout the book, that by the time the book is done Lee Kravetz has basically said "We can't fight this. This thing is so much bigger than all of us. It's time to just pack our bags and move to the next town." But contagion is just one of the hypnotic elements in a crowd that's triggered by a crowd's suggestibility because as Gustave Le Bon would say, the crowd is a lower level on our evolutionary stage. When we get together in a psychological crowd that's charged with this negative infectious material, then we are much more likely to be that much more suggestible and hypnotized and to do what in our own conscience we would never, ever feel justified to do.

I think that when you flash forward to today, it sounds like he's writing about an internet forum. It sounds like he's writing about Facebook or something.

Harrison: Yeah.

Corey: It's very similar dynamics at work except that we have children that are growing up immersed in that. That is their understanding of what it means to be human, is to be a part of this psychological mob.

Harrison: Maybe one of the reasons why it seems to be so much more hysterical today than in the'80s when there was also an outbreak of hysteria is because of the internet, because of the connectivity, because we are so connected with a vastly larger number of people than we were even in the '80s where we get news 24/7 from all over the world and that all filters in and we're emotionally connected with an even wider circle of our close companions in life and then an even wider circle of people that we aren't so close to because even Facebook transmits emotions. There's the Facebook study that showed various ways in which happy or sad emotions influence the people just reading on their Facebook feed.

So we're vastly more connected and we have more access to the emotional contagions that are around us. But at the same time I think one of the big conclusions to draw from this, like you've already said in so many words is that this is pretty much one of the things that makes us human. This is a default mode of human behaviour and human consciousness. When we look at it in that sense, it's scary but it's also the raw material we have and it isn't necessarily all bad. So maybe in a few minutes we can get into the opposite side of emotional contagion, the solutions and the positive aspects. But before that I just want to get a bit more into this idea of how this is a human trait because like you said Corey, when Gustave Le Bon is looking at the crowd, the crowd is like it's own organism. An observation that Kravetz makes in the section on one of the possible solutions to social contagions and that is emotional intelligence.

Basically the more emotionally intelligent you are the more you will be aware of the feelings going on within you and therefore you might be able to recognize that it isn't your feeling, right? This is something extrinsic to you that is influencing you and therefore you might have more control over it. But the catch in this is that he also points out that people with more emotional intelligence are more susceptible to social contagions. Because they have this emotional sensitivity they will pick up on those emotions to a greater extent than the people who aren't aware of them. So there's actually a greater danger as well as potentially a greater mode of mitigating the effects. So that's an interesting paradox.

The second thing is that when you look at it terms of - I lost my train of thought for what the second was. I think I was going to make a point that when you look at crowds and this response, it's like this automatic attunement to the crowd. This comes back to Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration where he points out that there are actually three factors when you're looking at human nature and human behaviour. Usually we only think about two. We traditionally call them nature and nurture. That would be like our biological, hereditary substrate, our bodies, our primal instincts, everything that makes us human on the biological and animal level. And not just that, our personality structure, the personality traits that we have are all largely heritable. So everything from the processes going on in our body to the psychological traits, our susceptibilities, our proclivities, our talents and our weaknesses are all biologically determined. But there is also the nurture angle. So this would be society and this is really what Kravetz is discussing, he's discussing the second factor. These are all of the social influences that determine our behaviour. One of the scary thoughts is where he quotes one of the researchers that he talked to in the research for and creation of this book who said - I think it was the guy who did the research on primates - the idea that if you prime someone with a certain image or a certain word that contains a certain emotional valence, that will influence the people's behaviour totally outside of their knowledge. They'll think that they had the idea themselves but really it was from the prime. They wouldn't have had this thought or done this thing if they hadn't been primed to do it.

So it seems to this researcher that the vast majority - I think he threw out the number 99% - of what we do is actually influenced by the primes that we see every day and throughout our lives. We basically have very little control over our own behaviours because so much of what we do is actually influenced by the people around us and the social milieu in which we find ourselves. This would be the media, our families, our friends, our social circle and our work environment and advertising and movies and music. All of these things are priming us with certain essentially subliminal messages - not intentionally for the most part. It's just the way life works and it would have been the same 10,000 years ago or 20,000 years ago but we would have been in smaller groups.

So these are the things that actually make groups cohere. It gives them a sense of group belonging and group identity. All the members of the group meet halfway until they achieve this level of coherence and similarity between all the members of the group because they're all attuned to all the other members in the group. Of course it gets a bit more complicated when our circle of people that we're involved with gets so big. There are a lot more contradictory messages for instance. But what it comes down to is that so much of our behaviour is determined biologically and socially.

Dabrowski added on a third factor and that's the factor that most scientists and researchers ignore but which some philosophers and psychologists and religious thinkers talk about. Dabrowski called that the third factor and that's the actual factor that is the self-determining factor which Dabrowski would say not even all that many people have. Maybe 30 or 35% have it a little bit but the fractions of humans who actually develop it to the degree that they can override their biological and social influences is tiny. You probably couldn't even count them in a percentage point, it's so small.

So that's the scary thing. But on the other hand, like I was saying, it's also a factor that makes us human and if we want to hijack that system it seems like that is possible. It's possible to use these what are called human weaknesses, for other purposes. They have been. One of the examples that he gives is telenovelas. These would be soap operas in Central and South America and Mexico. He gives the example of this one telenovela. This was accidental. The main character in this telenovela was a character that a lot of people watching it identified with, a lot of women and house maids and housewives. This main character sewed on a - what's the name of the sewing machine?

Elan: Singer.

Harrison: Yeah, a Singer sewing machine. And sales of Singer sewing machines saw this spike and it was a really big spike. So all of a sudden all these women were sewing with Singers. These guys noticed this phenomenon. I think they're Canadian. They started a program at the UN eventually. They were socially engineered. They engineered the scripts and the plot lines in such a way as to promote certain behaviours in target countries. Right away you can see that this can be used for some pretty nefarious purposes, but what these guys were using it for, that we know of, was for instance in one soap opera the purpose they had was to get people to use contraception. In another one it was to raise the literacy levels and they both worked pretty remarkably well. Enrollment in adult literacy classes shot up several orders of magnitude higher than it had been and that continued even after the telenovela wasn't on the air anymore. The same with contraception.

But one of the things they found is that some things worked, some things didn't. But the important thing was that they couldn't be straight propaganda. They wouldn't have had the same effect if the show was just bad and obviously moralizing to the point where it was just propaganda, if they were saying "You should use contraception" or "You should become literate.'' That's not the way people work. In a large group of people you can't convince people to change their behaviour rationally. The way to actually do it is to tell a story. You get them to identify with the character, to like the character and by them vicariously having experiences of that character, they will want to emulate some of those behaviours.

Of course you see that in all kinds of emulation of public figures, whether it be actors and actresses or musicians or people who start fads. And fads again are another type of social contagion. It just takes one person to start it but once enough people get onboard it becomes a fad and everyone's doing it. This is just one example, the telenovelas. It is possible to tell a story with a behaviour that you want to bring into the mass market that actually is effective.

Like I said, that can be used for very nefarious purposes. And that's the moral question, right? Is it right to introduce a behaviour that you want that would be better and you're doing it in such an underhanded way? Probably in the past I personally would have said "Yeah, that's wrong." But over the years and after reading this book in addition to others and just thinking about it, I don't think it's so wrong. People have been doing that all the time and that's what everyone does even if they don't realize it. Whenever you're reading a novel, you're assimilating behaviours and traits of the characters you identify with and that's how you teach people. If you want to instill virtues in people, you have to tell them a story. It's not necessarily underhanded or manipulative. It's just a teaching method.

Corey: You could almost say that it's the responsibility of people who can do such a thing to do such a thing for those who can't necessarily, by themselves, perform all these complicated historical calculations in order to understand what to do that would be best for their family, for everyone. Not to say that a small group of people should be judging what's the best for everyone because that's one way that that kind of plays out. But beyond that, in a more Jordan Petersonian sense where the one who can speak the logos does so and articulates truth in a way that others can understand it.

Harrison: Right.

Corey: It doesn't have to be in a lecture but, like you say, if it's in a telenovela and it achieves the same spirit of truth for the wellbeing of the target audience, then heck yeah, I think that's a great idea. That's basically what this contagion thing really boils down to. He writes in the book, "In a sense, imitation is a kind of rational response to our own cognitive limits. Each person can't know everything. With imitation people can specialize and the benefits of their investment in uncovering information can be spread widely when others mimic them." So it's just another way of sharing in that sense.

Harrison: Yeah. Another thought that came to me when I was thinking about the potential positive aspects or positive ways in which this works is that if you look at the examples of bulimia or school shootings, those are the negative examples. What you have is a kind of innovator who introduces a new behaviour, a new thing into the world. It may actually be an old thing, but a repurposed thing. People have been shooting each other ever since there have been guns but that mode of murder was repurposed in the form of a school shooting. The same thing with bulimia. There were eating disorders before and there was purging before but it hadn't necessarily achieved that level of diagnosable, unified disorder, that stage of whatever it is.

But if you look at it in terms of positive, similar things can and do happen where you have an individual who is the first person to introduce a new value into the world. This traditionally has been in the form of religious innovators, the people around whom religions have sprung up, whether it's Buddhism or Christianity or all the Hindu gurus, some of the at least. There's a certain something that they introduce into the world that is then picked up on and of course Paul was one of those. Julius Caesar was too because he introduced the concept and the actual practice of clemency in a brutal culture that would rape, murder and enslave everyone that they were fighting against in warfare and then post conscription lists on the doors of the forum in Rome to just kill all your enemies and then whoever did so would get a reward.

It was a brutal culture to live in so it was pretty unprecedented for someone like Caesar to come along and introduce the concept of actually forgiving your enemies, giving them second and third chances and treating them as equals, as if there was something important and special about them as individuals. Then of course Paul did a similar thing with his creation of Christianity, introducing these values of a real kind of communal living where, again, you've got a group of people and you're actually treating them as if they have value inherent in themselves and that that's actually the most important thing. It's a thing that Christians have forgotten over the years, or at least a lot of them. It's definitely not a universal feature of Christians to think in that way. A lot of Christians, especially in the States still think that if you just believe in Jesus, whatever that means, that you're saved when that's so far out of the realm of what the early Christians were actually doing. That would be almost meaningless to early Christians.

For the early Christians it was "Okay, you've got these beliefs, now if you have those beliefs then naturally you will put them into practice". And that's what actually matters. It's putting them into practice. It's the actual behaviour and it's the actual adoption of this mindset. What that is, and what Paul himself did say, it's using Paul himself as a model and Paul himself was using the Christ mentality, the Christ mindset as a model and what it's modelling is exactly what we're talking about. It's a social contagion.

But it's a contagion that can be both partially second factor but third factor as well. It can be consciously chosen. It can also just be a result of melding into the group mindset. If you're in a group of people who are really virtuous and have a really good work ethic and behaviours and compose themselves decently, then that will rub off on you if you're open to it. It's harder, but you can make that choice on your own and do it on your own and make the willful effort to change yourself and become an actual better person in your actions, which will reflect that new mindset that you have.

That's one of the ideas I had. It's this idea people introducing a new value into the world in the way that these negative social contagions that are actually harmful are introduced often by this single cause. It's like patient zero. Is that the phrase in mass outbreaks of diseases?

Elan: Mm-hm.

Harrison: You've got that first patient from which it spread. It can also be a positive thing if the positive thing that's spreading is a positive, beneficial mindset and behaviour that is good for the individual, the family, the society, etc.

Elan: Well Kravetz gives a couple of good examples of how that manifests. He interviews a therapist in California who was a sufferer of bulimia who got out of it and gives her own therapy to others suffering from bulimia. Basically she attributes it to group discussion and what she says is that "Each one of the participants had modelled for the other the ways in which they were striving to overcome bulimia and were models for one another in the approaches that they took to get themselves better". So even though there's some information in the book that contradicts that approach, she says it works for her and it has worked for others she's gone to therapy with.

Another good example that Kravetz gives is the one of the work place environment where you had this one bad apple in a given office who had a terrible attitude and basically sucked the motivation and the morale out of the office. This was experienced once this bad apple left the office for a period of time on a trip where everyone became more friendly and cooperative and the whole experience of work was made into a more joyous and productive one.

So these are examples of just within your own circle or sphere of influence, how one can lift other people up. In the first case with the bulimia therapist it was a very focused, concerted and intentional process of making one better and helping others to do the same. But on an unconscious level you had that example of the workers in the office who, once this pathologizing influence was removed, were able to strengthen their own best inclinations, their own most constructive desires to make the business a better one.

So these are the kinds of prosocial - Kravetz calls it a companionate affection - where leaders are modelling for others in the way that they communicate with them and that example that you gave with Caesar Harrison, in treating the other as valuable, as an equal potentially, really come into play and are worthy of consideration in how we interact with people.

In my own work environment on my job, just having a friendly, open, constructive relationship with people who I work with is helpful to me. I know it is and I like to do that as much as possible for someone else because I know how much it helps make my job easier. So that's just bringing it down to a level that I know that this sort of works and it's something that I appreciate. How much of it is modelling leadership? I wouldn't begin to estimate. But there is a certain amount of awareness of one's self that I think is important, especially where emotional intelligence is concerned that can assist us in being better for others, even when you don't feel like it, even when it's something that isn't on your mind or when you're in a bad mood or not feeling particularly helpful. It's pushing forward in that certain direction, I think, that can help bring that out in others.

Corey: One thing that I found really interesting about the concept of a strange contagion was that I don't know of any infectious agent that isn't alive. You can be infected with a poison or something but you're not going to be contagious to somebody else unless you administer that poison to them, if you have it on your hands and then you touch their face with your hands or whatever. It seems to me a contagion has to be a living infectious agent. So when you look at these ideas and thoughts and behaviours and how they spread, it makes it seem all the more like people are just conduits for all of these different forces that go through us. You were talking Elan about 'what are you a conduit for' I guess, at work or just in your daily life. You don't have to call it good leadership or bad, but is it positive? Are you a conduit for something positive?

These things are probably not all higher than us. When you look at these contagious aspects of behaviour that are tremendously negative, clearly there are things that we infect one another with that are lower. But how do you raise it up? How do you become a conduit for something higher? That's really I think such an important part of the book that you grapple with a little bit. How can you be a conduit for something better than these crazy narratives from the media about school shootings and about this and that?

Elan: I think you raise a very important point Corey, and that is that the social contagion, the hysteria, is a thing in and of itself in a certain sense. Something that we've been trying to drive home here on the show these past number of episodes is that there is a non-material reality to life. Not everything exists through the lens of a microscope. Ideas and knowledge have some amount of substance that exists on a level that we're still trying to grapple with and understand fully. My first foray into this was actually through a science fiction book called The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson. In that book he posits that there is this malevolent force that exists in the universe that feeds on humanity through the mind, through ideas. Interestingly enough, the story begins with a suicide of someone who is open to the idea of mind parasites existing. He comes upon the realization through his research that it's a real thing but at the same time succumbs to its influence which is kind of what you were relating a little earlier Harrison in the way that people with the highest emotional intelligence can also be the most susceptible.

In any case, it was a very interesting introduction to these ideas through fiction that brought home the point that thoughts are things. Social contagion and hysteria are real things. They may not sprout or come from any kind of evil entity per se but it seems the first step in understanding this is to take a step back and realize, again like you were saying Harrison, there are thoughts and impressions and emotions that just may not be our own, that we've adapted through rumination, by focusing on a particular idea or attitude or perspective that we take on for ourselves that needn't be part of our makeup. Which brings us to the idea that we really do have to take special care to prevent something from coming in, in a sense and not allow it to become part of our thinking and part of our way of being just because we've had exposure to it.

So that's where critical thinking and reason is quite important because, as much as we'd like to think that we are, in many cases we're not in control of ourselves in the sense that we've been taught.

Harrison: Well, are there any other interesting things from the book or directions we can go after that? I don't know if I have anything else.

Corey: I don't know if I have anything else either.

Harrison: I just had one more point. Maybe we can end the show early after this unless you guys have something to say afterwards. One of the things that it made me think of in reading this book - and this goes back to the stuff I was saying about modelling behaviour with the example of telenovelas even - it reminded me of something that Robin Collingwood had written in his book The Principles of Art. It's a theory of art, so what is art or what is it not? He distinguishes art from what he calls magic. What he calls magic isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. He calls magic anything that evokes an emotion in the production of a piece of what most people might consider art, so it might be music or dance or theatre or anything of that sort, or ritual, myth, or religion that evokes an emotion for the purpose of serving a part in the practical daily life of the people who encounter this piece of magic.

So as examples of magic he gives anything from a religious myth that instills courage in children and adults in the people of that culture, to a military war song that prepares soldiers for battle, war drumming for instance, or even the ritual of a ballroom dance. What's essentially happening in a dance with all its rituals and specific behaviours that must be engaged in, it's a training ground for mate selection. The same dynamic goes along with dinner manners. All of these things are shared behaviours that create a culture and that make living in a group livable and not only livable but they give it meaning.

So in a sense what magic is in these forms is a form of that hopefully positive social contagion. It is telling stories in a sense and telling stories is just one example but telling stories for the purpose of instilling positive values in the people who experience those stories, who read them and see them and who then act them out. So magic is essentially what brings value into the world. That's what Jordan Peterson has been saying for years through his study of myth, for instance. It's mythology that brings values into the world by exemplifying them and then acting as a model for the people encountering those myths to then put those myths into practice in their lives. It can be and often is and probably is as a default, an unconscious process.

It can also be conscious for those who are capable of that level of abstraction and self-control. But for those that aren't - and there are a lot who aren't - they need the story. They need the magic. They need the social rituals and stories in order to make those virtues an active part of their mental and emotional life. So one of the things that Peterson has called for that we're lacking and that we need is a grand narrative in which to place ourselves and in which to find meaning and Collingwood argued the same thing a hundred years ago. He was saying that what British culture needed then - because he was a British writer - was the same thing. They needed a system of magic to create the meaning system, to give life back its actual purpose and everything positive about society, that they needed magic.

One of the things that he'd observed back then is that the existing forms of magic had been stamped out. These were the folk songs, folk beliefs and folk practices that just got left behind and forgotten. This was in the wake of industrialization and so as many good things as had resulted from industrialization, a lot was lost in the process. Of course industrialization wasn't the only thing that contributed to that but today we find ourselves in a similar, if not worse position.

In actually reading the book it was very similar to reading his description of the bad things about what society was like back then. So I'm not even sure if I could say that it is worse now because in most ways it's actually very much the same. But we're in that condition where we're lacking our grand narrative. We're lacking actual magic in the world in the sense of meaningful music and dances and stories and shared behaviours that instill that common sense of meaning that then gives individuals the meaning in their lives.

So I guess one of the takeaway message of the book Strange Contagion was the same thing; we really need to figure out how to make use of strange contagions to get that magic in life back, to get that meaning back because that is the only way to do it that will have a large enough effect to have an effect because base propaganda doesn't work, just reading books doesn't work but reading a certain type of book and seeing a certain type of propaganda can work because not all propaganda is bad. The word propaganda comes from the Latin propagate. You can have truthful propaganda. It's just making widely known something that the person doing the propaganda wants to be known and nowadays it has acquired a negative connotation because the things that governments and intelligence agencies want us to know are lies for an ulterior motive. But the same principle goes for truthful things.

The Russians seem to have taken on the role of spreading positive propaganda in the sense of a lot of the things they say are true in the political sphere and they get fairly widespread coverage of that. It just so happens that the Americans are the ones spreading the bad propaganda nowadays. But propaganda in its original sense is basically educational. But it's not just limited to propaganda either. Like I said, we need all of these things. It's just up to some creative people to actually get it done in great contrast to what we have nowadays to a large degree when you look at the state of what's considered high art or popular contemporary art. There isn't a lot there that is actually socially and individually meaningful. That's my final thought.

Elan: In other words, be a good propagandist.

Harrison: Yeah, a good propagandist. {laughter}

Elan: In all senses of the term. Alright. Thanks everybody for listening in today. Join us next week as we bring you another show discussing some of the issues of our time and do tune into Behind the Headlines tomorrow and the Health and Wellness Show next Friday. Take care everyone.

Corey: Have a great week. Bye-bye.

Harrison: Bye everyone.