Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz

Approaching Infinity

FOTCM Member
I heard about this book from an article on SOTT arguing that the rise of gender dysphoria (especially among teenaged girls) is a social contagion. Like cases of bulimia, multiple personality disorder, the more awareness there is of the condition, the more people 'get' it. Strange Contagion is about these and related phenomena, focusing on the suicide clusters at Gunn High in Palo Alto. I found the journalistic narrative style very annoying, but there are some really interesting tidbits of science interspersed as Kravetz relates his research journey to discover what was happening with the Palo Alto students, and how it could be fixed or at least mitigated. Also annoying is the lack of footnotes, or even chapter-specific references - just a bibliography, but aside from a few main authors mentioned in the text, there's no way to find the sources for a particular bit of research aside from just scanning through the list of sources.

The phenomena covered in the book make a good supplement to the section on hysteria in Ponerology, and are good examples of Dabrowski's second factor. What follow are some of the pieces he puts together in the book and some representative quotes.

He divides the different phenomena into three categories: infectious ideas, emotions and behaviors.

Under the right circumstances, corralled within perfect conditions, thoughts spread, catch, activate, and - through certain people - proliferate to others. Like biological viruses, which begin to amass abilities, interact with our bodies, and replicate along the way, thoughts begin with random cues, gestures that harm nothing, and interact with the psychological characteristics of the host.

Kids wind up adopting the prevailing standards of those around them, an impetuous, unwelcome, and indiscriminating imitation, a mirroring of blind impulse. The more people there are who mirror a behavior within a particularly insular and dense community, the more these prominent features catch.

Media play a large role in spreading specific contagions, e.g. suicide clusters. For example, in 1984 an Austrian businessman committed suicide, sparking a cluster that lasted for almost a year - five suicides per week. Once newspapers started removing any mention of further suicides, the number of copycat suicides dropped 80%. Coverage should "not make [suicide] look viable or attractive to susceptible people." He doesn't mention it, but this should apply to coverage of terror attacks, terrorism in general, and mass shootings, too. But simply cutting back on media coverage doesn't solve the problem. The contagions still exist - there are still precipitating events and pre-existing susceptibilities.

Social contagions seem to spread by the mechanism of "unconscious attunement" (this would be sympathy as opposed to empathy in Dabrowski's terminology): contagions are perfect emulations of others' thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. It's the difference between empathizing with a friend's feelings of joy, and actually experiencing the same sensation... we have no idea we've caught these experiences, or that they are running our lives in the background like a computer's operating system.

...peer effect and interpersonal influence spread kindness, alcohol addiction, loneliness, and even political mobilization.

Ideas, feelings and behaviors flow within personal networks, e.g. "happiness connects people by up to three degrees of separation" and PTSD "cascades across no fewer than three generations" (I think Lobaczewski's paranoid characteropathy is related to this).

Bulimia combines the elements: ideas (body image, perfectionism), behavior (starvation, nutrient depletion), feelings (helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, depression). After first being identified in 1980, bulimia spread like wildfire (e.g., affecting 15% of all-female student groups, e.g. sororities, sports teams, etc.). It wasn't just a case of existing cases coming to light - the actual number of cases skyrocketed. There is "a near-perfect link between mass media and eating disorder symptoms." The incidence on Fiji shot up after the introduction of Western TV shows.

"The more we make people aware of the problem, the more we expose others to it." But the cure seems to be similar to the cause: "unconsciously registering subtle cues" - observation and unconscious mirroring. Group sessions help bulimia sufferers:

There was something about being in the presence of others who were trying to eat healthfully and also engaging in nourishing activities that began influencing healthy behaviors ... These tightly knit, highly influential social networks fostered ... motivation for positive behavior changes and stoked ... stamina ...

But paradoxically, such groups are also "primary spreading agents" for the same reason. Exposure to really bad cases allows "participants to catch more sever eating disorder symptoms, dangerous behavioral modeling, and harmful attitudes toward treatment":

...sitting within close range of others exposes people to the worst cases and leads patients to unintentionally contend for the worst symptoms. Treatment ... can do more damage than good by allowing the harsher and crueler strains to jump to new hosts.

Cases shot up again in 1992, when Princess Diana went public about her own struggle with bulimia.

Different contagions affect different groups in varying degrees:

Contagious weight gain spreads faster among women than men ... whereas gender matters little with social contagions like emotional burnout.

There's a good section on hysteria, where Kravetz connects "paranoia and anxieties with periods of rapid social and economic changes." In 19th century Europe, 20% of French people were sent to institutions for hysteria. "Hysteria [according to Bernheim] takes on the qualities of a social contagion, with the ability to manifest and spread over populations by way of mere suggestion."

He quotes an interesting study where researchers took the sweat of new skydivers and got subjects to inhale the nebulized fear-sweat:

The areas of the brain associated with fear, the hypothalamus and the amygdala, lit up when the volunteers unknowingly inhaled the fear-based sweat, indicating to the university lab "that there may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics.

Next he tackles the satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the 80s, which involved recanted accusations, unreliable witnesses, interpersonal disputes, etc.

"Sometimes going after the source of hysteria is the very thing that perpetuates it." He references the laughing illness in Tanzania in the early 60s. To show they were tackling the problem seriously, authorities shut down the schools where it was occurring. That just made things worse and the phenomenon spread. "Hysteria in particular spreads by the way we witness authority figures responding to it." The solution is obviously not to get caught up in the hysteria in the first place: "With no evidence to believe symptoms are real, they will completely vanish. Evidence supersedes fear." So it doesn't help when authorities try to solve things (e.g., by sending FBI/CIA/DHS to a small town worried about being attacked by al-Qaeda - doing so just confirms that their fears are justified, and makes them worse). In the same way, creating a supportive environment (as in the case of school suicide clusters) may just reinforce the thoughts that the children are in danger, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next comes placebos and nocebos, a pretty standard account. But he points out that nocebos are stronger than placebos, and can produce a variety of painful symptoms.

That's just the first third or so from the book. More to come soon.
Work ethic is also contagious:

Daniel Goleman finds that a poor work ethic introduces a kind of social virus to an otherwise cohesive and well-functioning system. It threatens to impede motivation. Stunt creativity. Halt learning. Maim cooperation. It also stokes conflict. In scenarios where team members are dependent on one another, a person with a poor work ethic triggers a natural move to restore balance. As a result, group members collectively, and often unconsciously, reduce the amount of work contributions all around. From here, a subtle and automatic cascade occurs. Over time, a single person with a bad work ethic can create a company-wide atmosphere of problematic behavior. ... In fact, the most cooperative and hardworking person among the group will have a rough time counterbalancing a singular bad influence.

There are also implications for leadership:

An entrepreneur's leadership style can be persuasive, and through unconscious mirroring it can also be a vital factor in an individual's, as well as a corporate venture's, triumph or failure. ... leaders hold positions of unavoidable infectiousness. ... [Leaders] who failed were hired on the basis of their IQ and business expertise - but fired for lacking the ability to win over their board of directors or inspire their employees. Leaders who possess the ability to control and express their emotions well, and thoughtfully handle interpersonal relationships among stakeholders, remain the most successful at aligning teams and spreading a productive work ethic. ... In the worst cases, contagious charismatic leadership is so powerful that it tilts an entire culture toward an impossible work ethic, raises standards staggeringly high, perverts interpretations of greatness, and pushes an idea of perfection so hard it threatens to tear the best of us asunder.

We unconsciously catch goals from each other. Priming does this. Good or bad ideas are planted in our minds that "quietly germinate and eventually motivate the body to engage in [their] pursuit". He quotes Gollwitzer: "There are some people who say that 99 percent of our lives and actions are the result of unconscious goal pursuit through primes we've registered from others around us." For example, pregnancy seems to work like this. Women are more likely to get pregnant if another female they're close with has just gotten pregnant.

Not only are goals contagious, but the mind has difficulty deciphering between an intrinsically motivated goal and one that a person has ostensibly picked up from someone else.

The section on priming reminded me of Collingwood's take on 'magic' (i.e. music, rituals, etc. that evoke emotions for social purposes). Primes 're-invoke visceral memories': "Once we understand that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are passed from person to person on an unconscious level, there's very little difference between a trend and a contagion. ... we often use these primes to cue ourselves, too. We wear suit to an interview, instilling in ourselves and in potential employers a sense of professionalism on a bodily felt level. We engage in pregame rituals to focus our intent, to stoke our fortitude, to visualize a win.[/quote]

Collingwood would say all these practices are 'magical' practices. Same with singing the national anthem, taking part in the mating ritual of a ballroom dance, the civilizing exercise of table manners, etc. But as he points out, such primes only work on goals that are already present to some degree: "the goal must already be part of our behavioral vocabulary." Non-normative primes don't 'catch'. The good and bad ones do because they're already familiar to a degree, the kernels of courage or cowardice, or greed, for example: "An unattractive trait like greediness is so universal that even the most benevolent person is capable of exhibiting it. Therefore, we're all vulnerable to it." The example he gives is economics classes, which tend to influence students to turn out more greedy than average.

...everyone has the potential for courage due to the representation of bravery within their character just waiting for a cue to prime them. We catch courage through vicarious prompts, ... through symbols and stories and by hearing about courageous people. ... No matter how one refers to valor, it is a quality we catch through vicarious modeling, by reading biographies and stories, by hearing about courageous acts, by listening to emboldening music. Even indirect exposure to people who act courageously increases the probability it will inspire the same behavior in others. ... Bravery is catchable ... but with fear the effects are more lasting and intense.

I suppose, then, that the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle.

On ambition possibly contributing to the Gunn High suicide clusters:

A person who falls short, finding himself unable to emulate a kind of achievement in a community rich with success stories, will either become highly ambitious, ... or 'withdraw in the belief that he is fundamentally inadequate,' leading him to become 'dismissive or even destructive.' One has to wonder if our heroes, like the charismatic leaders in our midst - vectors for social contagions - are doing more damage than good. ... role models are so influential that oftentimes we don't even know whom we're modeling - or that we're modeling them at all.

I think that latter bit is just one reason why Peterson is right when he talks about how most of us are Christian and don't even know it. We model Christian behavior (originally modeled by Paul) even if we deny it in speech. But the modelers themselves also are often unaware: they "often don't realize the high-prestige or heroic positions they hold within the community culture." The unconscious modeling passes through several degrees of separation in a social network without much if any awareness of where it begins or ends.

One way of stopping the spread of social contagions comes from Slutkin: "you explain to people how one incident of violence spreads to others, how to spot the signs of potential spread, and how to de-escalate it before it multiplies ... immediate social and educational interventions". This is the Lobaczewski approach: explaining the situation to people with accurate information tends to immunize them. Slutkin's Cure Violence programs have cut down murder rates and violence in the cities and neighborhoods in which they've been introduced: "More than half of the communities that have adopted the model in Chicago experienced a 100 percent reduction in retaliation homicides", for example.

Final post coming soon.
Some guys found out that telenovelas are great for priming, introducing, and changing behavior. They've used this technique all over Central and South America and in Africa, to promote literacy and use of contraception, for example (again, though, some behaviors don't 'catch'). Observing the behavior, attitudes, emotional responses of characters you identify with leads to acquiring those things. Enrollment for adult literacy classes went up 9 times in Mexico after their Ven Commigo soap opera aired in the 70s. Another increased contraceptive use by 23%.

Southey's personal early work with Canada's department of the environment and climate change and the United Nations led him to conclude that if you really want to change the world, you don't engage the government or social programs. You've got to interact with everday people responsible for making wise decisions in their own lives.

But you have to be clever. You can't just produce transparent propaganda: "if you're transparently educational in an way, you've failed. ... For the viewers it's purely entertainment." "The power of narrative is change ... Story is a way to define and understand the world. Story is a sense-making tool." Another Petersonian idea. Viewers themselves become models for others, creating an 'echo contagion', as mentioned above.

From a 1995 study: "fear spreads most readily among the middle-aged and eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds" and "women are more susceptible to emotional contagions than men" (hate fact!) and "Physicians ... are more susceptible to ... anger and sadness than Marines."

More on the work ethic idea from the last post: Sigal Barsade, one of the people he cites, once worked with an unpleasant colleague:
When the coworker went away on business, Barsade experienced a palpable difference in the office. She and her coworkers were happier, chattier, and overall more amiable than usual. Of course, when the unpleasant coworker returned, the environment tensed up once again.

Employees who show what she calls "companionate love" get along better and are more productive. "Along with better cooperation, its spread [leads] to less employee absenteeism, conflict, and burnout." Again, though, we're not even aware that we've caught these emotions. They 'catch' unconsciously, and we usually attribute them to ourselves, not others.

The methods for catching this social contagion, that amalgam of behavioral mimicry and facial guesswork, audio cues, or word triggers, lead associated memory networks to fire and convince people who are "contaged" that these emotions are their own, when in reality they've caught them from the people in their environment.

This works online too, as the Facebook study showed.

On burnout: "Contracting stress-related burnout is no more complicated than seeing, experiencing, or sensing someone else's symptoms." "Harmful and helpful social contagions exist everywhere. There's really no avoiding them." Emotions are impossible to avoid catching, but what we can do is become more aware of our emotions and develop some self-control. The problem is that emotional contagion spreads better among people who are more aware of their emotions.

A short summary of the contradictions from Kravetz near the end of the book:
Media limits dispersion but also perpetuates it. Emotional intelligence counters the effects of emotional contagions even while it does little to stop their spread. Behavioral primes foster bravery and yet they also promote impossible standards. Support groups slow contagions but they also spread them. Responding to hysteria reduces contamination but it also increases it. Curing people to catch positive behaviors can backfire and trigger our innate propensity for self-harm.

So, can we cull some implications from all of the above?
So, can we cull some implications from all of the above?

Well the first thing that comes to mind is a need for greater overall awareness. Most of these contagions are occurring below the level of conscious awareness in most people. Secondly, I get the feeling from the summary of contradictions that there are underlying balancing mechanisms at play.

So what kind of influence or contagion can a person who has brought himself or herself dedicated fully to a higher order of ideals or principles, able to have on others. And what are the implications of that? Especially in light of the concept of FRV and forced oscillations.
I have seen Barsade's observation many times. In the absence of certain individuals, the atmosphere is suddenly lighter and more conductive to a better team work.

The Jesus as a heroic figure is something I've read last night in an unrelated book, where the Osirian/Greek Hero motifs are contrasted to the Anti-hero stance of the ancient testament. Someone recently remarked that in older movies, heroes or main characters are smart, and they outsmart smart villains while nowadays, main characters are often dumb, doing stupid things, not learning from them (are content with what they are) and either defeat their opponents with luck or brute force. Just a few random thoughts.
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Well the first thing that comes to mind is a need for greater overall awareness. Most of these contagions are occurring below the level of conscious awareness in most people. Secondly, I get the feeling from the summary of contradictions that there are underlying balancing mechanisms at play.
I agree. From an evolutionary perspective, this social contagion dynamics probably played an important role but today considering ignorance of many people, lack of awareness and skewed or badly defined systems of values it's simply being misused by the media and the powers that be. Loose connection between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala which make us react emotionally without much thinking can certainly play a role here.
In fact, the most cooperative and hardworking person among the group will have a rough time counterbalancing a singular bad influence.

Indeed, with the required balancing becoming exponential as the negative influence expands as 'contagion', and perhaps eventually embedding culturally.

On burnout: "Contracting stress-related burnout is no more complicated than seeing, experiencing, or sensing someone else's symptoms."

Also a reminder of the intrinsic danger presented to individuals attempting to remain ethically true, model productive behaviour or who stand apart from a social contagion.

A good example of 'weaponised' empathy also, as discussed elsewhere.

...that the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle.

And also not to 'burn out' while doing it :-)

Well the first thing that comes to mind is a need for greater overall awareness. Most of these contagions are occurring below the level of conscious awareness in most people. Secondly, I get the feeling from the summary of contradictions that there are underlying balancing mechanisms at play.

This is very insightful too I think genero81?

Remaining in the microcosm of the workplace, it can be seen that the multi-faceted impacts of 'contagious' behaviour [of a negative type] magnified by the presence of 'petty tyrants' and OP types without awareness, makes one shudder.

Having experienced 'burn out / breakdown' myself and a number of years in reflection, it was only on discovering the 'C's material that my previous extreme naivety was exposed.

While the spirit of 'companionate love,' as mentioned in AI's post, would certainly seem a desirable contagion to most of us. It can also, sadly, be a pox on the exhibitor- dependent on environment, values and structure of the enterprise.

I remember a world weary Psychologist once saying that everyone should 'burn out' - once in their life - otherwise they just weren't trying hard enough!:-)

Which makes me think of your 'balancing mechanisms' statement in relation to those that aren't caught up or that recognise the contradiction.

Perhaps the contagions act as a strengthening or 'forging' mechanism, even trigger?

Someone recently remarked that in older movies, heroes or main characters are smart, and they outsmart smart villains while nowadays, main characters are often dumb, doing stupid things, not learning from them (are content with what they are) and either defeat their opponents with luck or brute force.

Just like Australian politics ;-)
A new study came out on social contagion with respect to mental illness.

A mysterious spike in Tourette’s leads back to YouTube star​

A study published this week reported the first outbreak of “a new type of mass sociogenic illness… spread solely via social media.” The authors coined a new term to describe the phenomena: “mass social-media induced illness”.

Research began when a high number of young patients were referred to specialised Tourette’s clinic, having already proven resistant to traditional medical treatments like anti-psychotic drugs. But when it was discovered that the patients presented symptoms identical to those of Tourettes sufferer Jan Zimmerman, a popular German YouTuber, the researchers realised the problem: the patients did not actually suffer from Tourette’s, but were mimicking Zimmerman’s vocalised tics that they saw on his videos. Shortly thereafter, “a rapid and complete remission occurred after exclusion of the diagnosis of Tourette syndrome”.

The idea of a “mass social media-induced illness,” or even just a “social contagion,” less specific to mental illness, is, to say the least, controversial. There’s a justified fear that talk of “social contagion” is just a stone’s throw away from discrediting people who want to talk about their experiences. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that social contagions borne from the online sphere are well-documented phenomena — and perhaps as old as the Internet itself.

The most famous example was the rise of pro-anorexia communities, spawned on anonymous internet forums, which were often home to “wannarexics” (wannabe anorexics). While the sites were founded to allow for people with already-established eating disorders to discuss their experiences, they started to attract young people without the disease wishing to join the community.

Some of these newcomers would go on to develop disordered eating habits themselves, even if only temporarily. As these communities migrated to more user-friendly platforms like Tumblr, as opposed to forums with lengthy sign-up processes, ‘wannarexia’ became more common.

In the late 2010s, the adolescent relationship with depression and self-harm also came under the microscope. In one study from the International School in Lebanon, a researcher described our changing understanding of mental illness in the context of social networking:
People label their sadness as depression and their nervousness as anxiety when the problems that they’re facing often don’t reflect those psychological problems. If healthy people are convinced that they’re depressed, they ultimately identify with the glamorised social media posts, aggravating the phenomenon even more.
- Jinan Jennifer Jadayal

How do we both create online spaces for people who are legitimately suffering and in need of the support of people experiencing the same things, without accidentally opening a Pandora’s box of mimesis? It’s a delicate dance, and one that will be difficult to learn without acknowledging a couple of things first.

Accepting that social contagion is real does not have to discredit anyone, but can help us distinguish between mental illnesses that are genuinely still stigmatised and those that are normalised and glamorised in online communities.

The study referenced is here:

Stop that! It’s not Tourette’s but a new type of mass sociogenic illness​

We report the first outbreak of a new type of mass sociogenic illness (MSI) that in contrast to all previously reported episodes is spread solely via social media. Accordingly, we suggest the more specific term “mass social media-induced illness” (MSMI).

In Germany, current outbreak of MSMI is initiated by a “virtual” index case, who is the second most successful YouTube creator in Germany and enjoys enormous popularity among young people. Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional “Tourette-like” behaviours, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.

Functional “Tourette-like” symptoms can be regarded as the “modern” form of the well-known motor variant of MSI. Moreover, they can be viewed as the 21th century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviours and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man. We wish to raise awareness of the current global “Tourette-like” MSMI outbreak. A large number of young people across different countries are affected, with considerable impact on health care systems and society as a whole, since spread via social media is no longer restricted to specific locations such as local communities or school environments.spread via social media is no longer restricted to specific locations such as schools or towns.
Wow, this reality loop just keeps on getting loopier, doesn’t it?
This, in my opinion, illustrates another variation of the mass psychosis the world has been “spelled” with, thanks to the glorification of Health management via diseases and drugs.
Of course this is being mimicked by the needy teens, The attention and pity, makes one sooo special...
The main disempowering program, Indoctrinated over the past 200 years, by the medical establishment and Big Pharma is to be a victim.

What messed up, lost and alone teenager wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to attempt to control their immediate environment through the “Specialness of illness”?
Especially if it’s a “disease” where one can scream obscenities, twitch and grimace, and generally act out demonic urges, without repercussions.

There is also the doting parent reward too.

In one of his videos, his mom is with him, and she coo’s and chuckles and fawns over him as he shouts out curses and grunts.
I guess it’s a bit better alternative for teens to mimic this stuff for attention rather than the transgender identity ploy.
For one, genital mutilation isn’t part of the main stream Medicines fix for Tourette’s....yet.

Here is one of the videos from YouTube that I checked out.
Prepare, there are two of them interviewing each other...
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