Yawning can be contagious. Suicide, too, as this intriguing book shows.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Take bulimia, for instance. As journalist and psychologist Kravetz (co-author: Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, 2014) writes, once bulimia was separated from anorexia and described in the psychological literature, the incidence of the disease grew and even spread to places where it had been unknown. Said the author who first wrote it up, “once it was described, and I take full responsibility for that…there was a common language for it.” Now, it seems, psychologists are seeking a common language for epidemic suicide, the larger subject of Kravetz’s look at how harmful memes spread and to which he was introduced when, soon after moving to Silicon Valley, he was on hand to record instances of children killing or harming themselves in patterns that suggest social contagion in all its varieties of “thought, behavior, or emotion.” The author moves about in space and time to address this phenomenon, sometimes with a little definitional fuzziness (“if something as universal as economics can cue a social contagion like greed…”), eventually settling on the notion of primes, or cues “that unconsciously convince people to accept new thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.” Such cues surround us, thanks to the pervasiveness of advertising and political argument, and while some of them may suggest to the unwary that killing oneself is a cool thing to do, they also suggest that we buy things, vote for people, and suchlike things in subconscious ways—ways that succeed, notes the author, when it seems as if they are ideas of our own, formed without outside influence. Kravetz’s account is too first-personal at too many turns (“Beyond my journalist’s penchant for analysis, I personally need to understand if there’s a solution…”), but he has covered the bases well, raising provocative questions on whether social contagion can be contained in the way that we ward off leprosy and smallpox.
A worthy, only occasionally clunky treatise on matters of urgent concern.