Strange Contagion: The Suicide Cluster That Took Palo Alto's Children and What It Tells Us About Ourselvesby Lee Daniel Kravetz
Published on June 27th 2017
Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetzâ€™s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.
In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.
A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetzâ€™s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?
The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicableâ€”from mirroring someoneâ€™s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our
environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a "strange contagion:" a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.
Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one communityâ€™s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.
The most interesting part of this book to me was the social science of how people interact with each other in a work environment. Â It seemed like scientific proof of the old adage “One bad apple ruins the barrel.” Â It is important to get rid of people who are going to bring team morale down. Â I’ve seen that a lot in different jobs.
The book doesn’t come to a conclusion about the suicide clusters in Palo Alto. He looks at this as an outsider. Â He talks to a teacher and a principal but doesn’t talk much to the kids. Â Whatever is going on in that school would be invisible to outsiders and may not have anything to do with too much homework or high societal pressure to achieve.
I did like the part of the book that discussed why Palo Alto schools have such high achievement rates. Â The kids appear to be intrinsically motivated to succeed. Â It would be great if this was not abnormal. Â I’ve never understood why people aren’t intrinsically motivated. Â It is in their best interest. Â Being able to export a culture that creates motivated students would be amazing.