Is It Time to Treat Violence Like a Contagious Disease?
The idea that violence is contagious doesn’t appear in the Obama administration’s gun control plan, nor in the National Rifle Association’s arguments. But some scientists believe that understanding the literally infectious nature of violence is essential to preventing it.
To say violence is a sickness that threatens public health isn’t just a figure of speech, they argue. It spreads from person to person, a germ of an idea that causes changes in the brain, thriving in certain social conditions.
A century from now, people might look back on violence prevention in the early 21st century as we now regard the primitive cholera prevention efforts in the early 19th century, when the disease was considered a product of filth and immorality rather than a microbe.
According to their theory, exposure to violence is conceptually similar to exposure to, say, cholera or tuberculosis. Acts of violence are the germs. Instead of wracking intestines or lungs, they lodge in the brain. When people, in particular children and young adults whose brains are extremely plastic, repeatedly experience or witness violence, their neurological function is altered.
Cognitive pathways involving anger are more easily activated. Victimized people also interpret reality through perceptual filters in which violence seems normal and threats are enhanced. People in this state of mind are more likely to behave violently. Instead of through a cough, the disease spreads through fights, rapes, killings, suicides, perhaps even media, the researchers argue.
Not everybody becomes infected, of course. As with an infectious disease, circumstance is key. Social circumstance, especially individual or community isolation — people who feel there’s no way out for them, or disconnected from social norms — is what ultimately allows violence to spread readily, just as water sources fouled by sewage exacerbate cholera outbreaks.
At a macroscopic population level, these interactions produce geographic patterns of violence that sometimes resemble maps of disease epidemics. There are clusters, hotspots, epicenters. Isolated acts of violence are followed by others, which are followed by still more, and so on. The density maps of shootings in Kansas City or New York or Detroit look like cholera case maps from Bangladesh.
Some of the best-known research on this phenomenon comes from analyses of homicides in New York City. Homicide rates nearly tripled between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, rose in waves through the mid-1990s, and then fell precipitously, like a disease burning itself out.
An act of violence doesn’t just stimulate other acts, but other kinds of acts. Killings lead to domestic violence which leads to community violence which leads to suicide. Such dynamics might sound almost mechanistic, as if violence could be considered in isolation from all the other factors — poverty, drugs, demographics, policing — that shape the society in which it occurs. That’s absolutely not the case, but neither are these factors solely responsible for violence outbreaks.
A view of violence as contagious doesn’t directly inform the Obama administration’s gun control plan, which is focused largely on gun availability and mental health services. President Obama did, however, encourage the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume public health research on gun violence, which was suppressed in the mid-1990s after pro-gun advocates took issue with findings that, at least statistically, keeping guns at home didn’t protect people.
(Source: Wired Science)