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. Today’s Wired Science carries a piece that says
“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.
“It’s extremely important to understand this differently than the way we’ve been understanding it,” said Gary Slutkin, a University of Chicago epidemiologist who founded Cure Violence, an anti-violence organization that treats violence as contagion. “We need to understand this as a biological health matter and an epidemiologic process.”
Slutkin helped organize a National Academies of Science workshop that in October published “The Contagion of Violence,” a 153-page report on the state of his field’s research.
‘What they describe might seem at first like common sense. Intuitively we understand that people surrounded by violence are more likely to be violent themselves. This isn’t just some nebulous phenomenon, argue Slutkin and his colleagues, but a dynamic that can be rigorously quantified and understood.
“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.