In Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves (Harper Wave, June), Kravetz researches the how and why of a series of suicides of high school students in Palo Alto, Calif.
What was your initial reaction to researching such a difficult subject?
My wife and I had just moved to Palo Alto and we were about to have our first child when the suicides started happening. My first thought was “this is very scary.” Were my kids going to be in danger simply by being here?
How did you cope with those fears?
Whenever I got to a low point in my research and I was talking to people who’d experienced this contagion firsthand through family members or friends, I was lifted and encouraged by the sense of hope and resilience and strength that ended every story I heard. The book is a deep dive into something very scary, but at the end, it is also about how we can catch hope and resilience and we can spread that even in the darkest of times.
The paradox you found is that talking about self-destructive behavior, even in a way that’s meant to be helpful, can spread the contagion. So how can we talk without inspiring copycats?
If we can talk about these things in a responsible way—using the facts, not embellishing, not glamorizing, but talking about the realities of what causes people to feel such lows that they wind up harming themselves or thinking about harming themselves—that is a good thing. That helps break the stigma and encourages people who are hurting to seek help. What doesn’t help is when you have a story that glamorizes suicide because that can in some situations encourage people to say, I want that attention as well. The minute that you start to embellish what happened or the fear takes over or there is hysteria, that is what spreads the contagion.
What do you hope might change as a result of your book?
I hope the book helps parents and teachers and administrators raise children who are inoculated against contagious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that can lead to burnout and suicidal thinking. I also hope that people learn that they have the capacity to inoculate themselves against some of these scary social contagions and use positive social contagions to counter the effects of the scary ones. Once we understand that we can catch and spread these [emotions], we can also stop their spread.