Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Social Contagion

"If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?"

This question has been posed by just about every mother, ever, down the generations. 
It's a good question.  It challenges children to think for themselves.  We want our children to develop internal moral compasses that guide them to behave wisely and ethically as adults.

But all of us -- adults as well as children -- are  social animals as well.  We are influenced by groups of our peers.  

It happens in simple ways.  

A woman I know told me recently about her son's middle school graduation ceremony.   "All the girls looked exactly the same," she said.  "They all wore very short skirts in same colors,  and they all long straight hair."

It happens in more complex ways.  

If you attend a high school where only 60 percent of students graduate in four years, you are less likely to graduate yourself.

If most of your friends have tattoos and multiple piercings, you are more likely to have tattoos and multiple piercings.

More and more, on the internet, I notice groups of anonymous commenters disparaging or even attacking individuals for not sharing their points of view.  Lots of in-group smuggery, lots of contempt.  More heat than light.

But not all imitative behaviors are bad.  People gather for block parties or in running groups or for community service projects.

Thousands participated in last year's ice bucket challenge, which ricocheted around the internet and raised $220 million for ALS research and treatment.

Youtube has hundreds of videos of flash mobs -- groups gathered by social media posts -- for purposes ranging from singing birthday greetings to a familiar bus driver to staging a BDS (boycott, divest and sanction Israel) rally with music and dancing in Grand Central Station.

Other flash mobs, also organized on social media, have been caught on convenience store videos overwhelming employees and looting establishments.  

A couple years back, newspapers avoided reporting on something called "the knockout game" so as not to encourage more young men to cold-cock strangers on the street.  Perhaps unfortunately, the persons attracted to these actions were not traditional news media consumers but rather part of broad social media groups.   

Two days ago, I discussed "swatting," or provoking massive law enforcement responses to false alarms.  Today, on the evening news, it was reported that a White House press conference, two U.S. senators' offices and a Congressional hearing had been emptied by bomb threats.  Swatting seems to be contagious this summer.   

Social contagion did not begin with the internet, of course.

In 18th century Germany, a book by Goethe, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," set off a huge trend of men dressing like the Werther character.  At least several, according to contemporaneous reports, killed themselves as Werther had done after the being rejected by the woman he loved.

In the last century, epidemiologists began discussing suicide as contagious.  There have been spates of suicides at individual high schools and colleges, and at notorious sites like the Golden Gate Bridge.  Now there is concern that children, middle-aged adults and senior citizens are killing themselves more often -- that the more normalized such behavior becomes, the more likely people are to take it up themselves. 

There is an essential tension between being one's own self and participating in society with others.  We are always challenged to balance these impulses.  

More and more lately, I am noticing the strains between the two.

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