Tag Archives: social contagion

Bad Behavior Goes Viral

Social psychologists often point out how human behavior is contagious. Laugh and others will join in. Yawn and all those around you will yawn as well. In a bad mood at home? Well, soon, chances are that the rest of your family with join you on a downer as well.

And, the contagion doesn’t end there, especially with negative behaviors; study after study shows the viral spread of suicide, product tampering, rioting, looting, speeding and even aircraft hijacking. So too, are mass shootings. Since the United States is a leading venue for mass shootings, there is now even a term for a mass shooting that happens soon after the first — an echo shooting.

From the Washington Post:

A man had just gone on a shooting rampage in Kalamazoo, Mich., allegedly killing six people while driving for Uber. Sherry Towers, an Arizona State University physicist who studies how viruses spread, worried while watching the news coverage.

Last year, Towers published a study using mathematical models to examine whether mass shootings, like viruses, are contagious. She identified a 13-day period after high-profile mass shootings when the chance of another spikes. Her findings are confirmed more frequently than she would like.

Five days after Kalamazoo, a man in Kansas shot 17 people, killing three by firing from his car. To Towers, that next shooting seemed almost inevitable.

“I absolutely dread watching this happen,” she said.

As the nation endures an ongoing stream of mass shootings, criminologists, police and even the FBI are turning to virus epidemiology and behavioral psychology to understand what sets off mass shooters and figure out whether, as with the flu, the spread can be interrupted.

“These things are clustering in time, and one is causing the next one to be more likely,” said Gary Slutkin, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who runs Cure Violence, a group that treats crime as a disease. “That’s definitional of a contagious disease. Flu is a risk factor for more flu. Mass shootings are a risk factor for mass shootings.”

The idea is not without skeptics. James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor who studies mass shootings, said: “Some bunching just happens. Yes, there is some mimicking going on, but the vast majority of mass killers don’t need someone else to give them the idea.”

Confirming, disputing or further exploring the idea scientifically is hampered by the federal funding ban on gun violence research. Towers and her colleagues did their study on their own time. And there’s not even a common database or definition of mass shootings.

The Congressional Research Service uses the term “public mass shootings” to describe the killing of four or more people in “relatively public places” by a perpetrator selecting victims “somewhat indiscriminately.”

In the 1980s, the violence occurred in post offices. In the 1990s, schools. Now it is mutating into new forms, such as the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that initially appeared to be a workplace shooting by a disgruntled employee.

Researchers say the contagion is potentially more complicated than any virus. There is the short-term effect of a high-profile mass shooting, which can lead quickly to another incident. Towers found that such echo shootings account for up to 30 percent of all rampages.

But there appear to be longer incubation periods, too. Killers often find inspiration in past mass shootings, praising what their predecessors accomplished, innovating on their methods and seeking to surpass them in casualties and notoriety.

Read the entire article here.

Yawning and Empathy

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

You can tell a lot about a person from their body. And I don’t just mean how many hours they spend at the gym, or how easy it is for them to sweet-talk their way out of speeding tickets. For the past several decades researchers have been studying the ways in which the body reveals properties of the mind. An important subset of this work has taken this idea a step further: do the ways our bodies relate to one another tell us about the ways in which our minds relate to one another? Consider behavioral mimicry. Many studies have found that we quite readily mimic the nonverbal behavior of those with whom we interact. Furthermore, the degree to which we mimic others is predicted by both our personality traits as well as our relationship to those around us. In short, the more empathetic we are, the more we mimic, and the more we like the people we’re interacting with, the more we mimic. The relationship between our bodies reveals something about the relationship between our minds.

The bulk of this research has made use of clever experimental manipulations involving research assistant actors. The actor crosses his legs and then waits to see if the participant crosses his legs, too. If so, we’ve found mimicry, and can now compare the presence of mimicry with self-reports of, say, liking and interpersonal closeness to see if there is a relationship. More naturalistic evidence for this phenomenon has been much harder to come by. That is, to what extent do we see this kind of nonverbal back and forth in the real world and to what extent does it reveal the same properties of minds that seem to hold true in the lab?

A recent study conducted by Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi and published in the journal PLoSONE has found such evidence in the unlikeliest of places: yawns. More specifically, yawn contagion, or that annoyingly inevitable phenomenon that follows seeing, hearing (and even reading) about another yawn. You’ve certainly experienced this, but perhaps you have not considered what it might reveal to others (beyond a lack of sleep or your interest level in their conversation). Past work has demonstrated that, similar to behavioral mimicry, contagious yawners tend to be higher in dispositional empathy. That is, they tend to be the type of people who are better, and more interested in, understanding other people’s internal states. Not only that, but contagious yawning seems to emerge in children at the same time that they develop the cognitive capacities involved in empathizing with others. And children who lack this capacity, such as in autism, also show deficits in their ability to catch others’ yawns. In short, the link between yawning and empathizing appears strong.

Given that regions of the brain involved in empathizing with others can be influenced by the degree of psychological closeness to those others, Norscia and Palagi wanted to know whether contagious yawning might also reveal information about how we relate to those around us. Specifically, are we more likely to catch the yawns of people to whom we are emotionally closer? Can we deduce something about the quality of the relationships between individuals based solely on their pattern of yawning?  Yawning might tell us the degree to which we empathize with, and by extension care about, the people around us.

[div  class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Alex Gumerov/iStock / Scientific American.[end-div]