The phenomenon of suicide contagion is demonstrated experimentally. An interpretation of the results is proposed using an understanding of memetics as contagion psychology informed by selectionist thinking. Using the term `meme' to denote an object of contagion and `contagion' to denote a process of spread by exposure, a selectionist explanation of why certain people might be susceptible to a contagion of suicide is provided. Specifically, it is suggested that people who have become socially isolated and culturally disenfranchised, i.e. those with reduced residual cultural fitness (compromised access to the means of cultural reproduction), might be at particular risk from suicide contagion. Finally, public health policy implications of this memetic understanding of suicide are briefly outlined.
On the evening of the closure, a news report described how at least ten women and one man had been admitted to hospital suffering from rashes and severe nausea. The news report also suggested that the cause of the sickness was a poisonous bite from an insect that had arrived in a shipment from England, and had taken up residence in the factory.
Several weeks later, with the plant still closed, a total of 62 workers had sought medical attention, having developed the symptoms of having been bitten by the bug. From initial rashes and nausea, the effects of the poisonous bite appeared to develop into chronic severe weakness punctuated with acute panic attacks.
The US Public Health Service `Communicable Disease Center' with a team of entomologists were called in to investigate this `June Bug', and took the expensive decision to fumigate and vacuum the huge textile plant.
After careful investigation, it was concluded that there had been no dangerous bug at all, English or otherwise. Rather, the episode had been an example of a process that social psychologists call `social contagion', a generic label used to describe the apparent infectious spread of opinions, emotions and behaviour by exposure to similar opinions, emotions or behaviours.
Social contagion usually occurs in contexts of uncertainty and stress, where people make use of information in the actions of people around them to make sense of situations, resolve ambiguity and to inform their own responses (Colligan, Pennebaker and Murphy 1982). Sure enough, when two social psychologists, Kerckhoff and Back (1968), interviewed victims of the mysterious `June Bug' illness they found that those who had been `bitten' had been suffering from undiagnosed stress and alienation.
The purpose of this paper is not to engage in an abstract discussion of the merits of this or that conception of a meme or memetics; indeed the purpose of using the meme neologism to describe objects of contagion is wholly pragmatic; to provide a rich, substantive research focus, and get on with doing memetics. Interestingly, contagion psychology shows that a meme, thus conceived, may have no essential properties, and is always a meme in context, thereby defying useful abstract discussion. For example, an act may spread by exposure in one context (and thus be a meme), but spread by coercion in another (and therefore not be a meme). Of course, if the term `meme' is used as a scientific-sounding basket label for all received ideas or socially learned behaviours, then the notion of a meme as an object of contagion, and memetics as a selectionist interpretation of contagion psychology, may seem unnecessarily restrictive. However, the advantage of the more modest conception of memetics is that it is useful within established social scientific models of human psychology, instead of being of interest only from without.
What follows is an example of how applied memetics might usefully proceed based on this understanding of a meme as an object of contagion, focusing on the peculiar phenomenon of suicide contagion.
The suicide contagion hypothesis is that exposure to suicide is a suicide risk-factor for people experiencing an unresolved conflict as to whether suicide is an appropriate response to current unresolved distress. Whilst ethical considerations obviously preclude the direct experimental investigation of this hypothesis, one aspect of suicide contagion does lend itself to indirect experimental research. This is the impact of semantic priming.
"Thoughts of which one is consciously aware send out radiating activation along associative pathways, thereby activating other related thoughts. In this way, ideas about aggression that are not identical to those observed in the media may be elicited later. In addition, thoughts are linked, along the same sort of associative lines, not only to other thoughts but also to emotional reactions and behavioural tendencies." (Geen and Thomas 1986: 12)For example, in one experiment it was found that people became more aggressive following exposure to images of weapons, as aggressive ideas around weapons were primed in the mind of the exposed to them (Leyens and Parke 1975). The idea is that when activated by becoming the focus of attention, a concept and related concepts in the semantic network of an individual's memory are easier to retrieve, that is, the mind is primed with these concepts and will tend to use them to interpret situations (Higgins 1989, Fiske and Taylor 1991, Berkowitz 1984, Jo and Berkowitz 1994).
Applied to suicide contagion, this interpretation would predict that exposure to suicide should have a short-term impact on how a situation is interpreted as being potentially suicidal. To test the plausibility of this model, the following experiment was conducted as part of a D.Phil research project in 1999 (Marsden 2000).
Specifically, the research hypothesis was as follows:
Priming participants with the idea of suicide, by informing them that the topic of research was `young people and suicide', would result in an increased likelihood of interpreting a distressing and ambiguous situation described by a text as suicidal
Figure 1: Suicide is Contagious
Further, it may be possible to gain some leverage from the selectionist heritage that underpins Dawkins' neologism, and use it as a creative stimulus for generating hypotheses on why certain people appear to be susceptible to contagion. By way of example, I would like to conclude by proposing a selectionist understanding of why certain people, and not others, may be susceptible to suicide in general and suicide contagion in particular.
As noted above, suicide is problematic because it is clearly not an adaptive act from the perspective of the suicidal individual. This has led some to suggest that suicide might be enabled by a heritable genetic variation that remains in the gene pool over time because it enables suicide when the residual inclusive fitness of an individual is particularly low (e.g. de Catanzaro 1980, 1981).
Whilst a genetic `enablement' of suicide may well be feasible, it is possible to apply an alternative cultural model using a similar logic. Specifically, if cultural variations, such as those that enable suicide, persist based on their likelihood of being adopted, then the inclusion of suicide in a culture as a meme is only viable over time if it has no systematically deleterious effect on its own reproduction. Now, one way that this could be possible is if those committing suicide were not significant contributors to the propagation of suicide themselves, so that their deaths would not negatively impact on the persistence of suicide. It is this point that provides a selectionist hypothesis for susceptibility to suicide contagion insofar as such susceptibility might be contingent on a reduced residual capacity to pass on culture. In such cases, suicide would not be maladaptive, because the suicidal individual would not be culturally `viable'.
This model leads to an empirical prediction pertaining to those most at risk from suicide contagion. The model would predict that those susceptible to suicide contagion should be those with a reduced residual capacity to spread culture, that is, those who become socially isolated and culturally disenfranchised. Indeed, over and above the possibility that suicide may be used as a strategy for increasing a waning cultural fitness, the fact that cultures are shared means that the suicide of those whose capacity to reproduce their culture has become compromised could actually increase the overall capacity of cultural relatives to pass on shared culture, including any suicide meme. In fact, if an individual actually represented a cost to the overall reproductive potential of the shared culture to which suicide is a part, then suicide could actually have a positive effect on the likelihood that that some `suicide culture' gets reproduced. In this model, differential ownership of the means of cultural reproduction, or simply put, marginality, would be a key variable in susceptibility to suicide contagion, and to suicide in general.
This memetic prediction is borne out by empirical research that has consistently demonstrated that low levels of social cohesion are one of the most significant risk factors in suicide (e.g. Durkheim 1970 , Halbwachs 1978 , Henry and Short 1954, Gibbs and Martin 1964, Maris 1981). In these cases, suicide contagion could be seen as a `fortuitous' cultural mutation that allows a culture to effectively rid itself of parasites that reduce its reproductive potential to maintain itself.
The tentative support for this memetic model might warrant formalisation
for future research using, for instance, Hamilton's (1964)
model of inclusive fitness in a cultural substrate. Specifically, as long
as overall inclusive capacity of the set of culture that describes an individual
is not reduced by suicide (or indeed self-sacrifice, as in the case of
war), then any suggestion-by-exposure to suicide occurring within a constellation
of pro-suicidal circumstances could be more likely to result in suicide.
This is because the benefit of suicide to cultural relatives, in terms
of enhancing their capacity to reproduce their shared culture multiplied
by a degree of cultural relatedness to the suicidal individual, would be
equal or superior to the direct cost to the suicidal individual of suicide
in terms of any personal capacity to make such contributions.
Figure 2: Hamilton's Rule for the Biological Communication of the Individually Maladaptive Traits. Here: Cd = Cost in cultural reproductive potential of suicide to individual, r = coefficient of relatedness, and Br = Benefit in cultural reproductive potential of suicide to cultural relatives
With respect to practical public policy recommendations on reducing contagion, this interpretation provides an argument for curtailing any sensationalist media publicity around suicide, because such publicity might effectively increase the cultural fitness of the suicidal individual, that is, the capacity to pass on culture. Rather than merely refrain from the positive portrayal of suicide and suicide victims in the media as per current recommendations, this memetic model of suicide could be used to suggest that there could be a potential benefit (if reducing suicide levels is seen as beneficial) of not covering suicides stories at all, or at least reporting the deaths but not as suicides. Of course, there are important and controversial issues of censorship and free speech that are raised here, and it may be decided that suicide contagion is a lesser evil than what amounts to ideational eugenics.
CDC (1994) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations form a National Workshop. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review, 43, (RR-6).
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de Catanzaro, D., (1981). Suicide and Self-Damaging Behavior: A Sociobiological Perspective. San Diego: Academic Press.
Colligan, M.J., Pennebaker, J.W., and Murphy, L.R., (1982) Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Durkheim, E., (1970). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translation J. A. Spaulding & G. Simpson, (1951) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Originally published in French 1897.
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Geen, R., and Thomas, S., (1986) The immediate effects of media violence on behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 7-27.
Gibbs, J., and Martin, W.T. (1964). Status Integration and Suicide. Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press.
Halbwachs, M., (1978) The Causes of Suicide (translation of 1930 Les Causes du Suicide) London: Routledge.
Hamilton, W., (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1-52.
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Higgins, E. T., (1989). Knowledge accessibility and activation: Subjectivity and suffering from unconscious sources. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh, (eds.), Unintended Thought, New York Guildford Press, 75-123.
Jo, E. and Berkowitz, L., (1994). A priming effect analysis of media influences: An update. In J. Bryant, & D. Zillmann, (eds.). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Kerckhoff, A. C. and Back, K. W., (1968). The June Bug: A Study in Hysterical Contagion. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Leyens, J. and Parke, R. D., (1975). Aggressive slides can induce a weapons effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 5, 229-239.
Maris, R., (1981). Pathways to Suicide: A Survey of Self-Destructive Behaviors. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Marsden, P., (1998a). Memetics and Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/marsden_p.html
Marsden, P., (1998b). Operationalising Memetics, Suicide, the Werther Effect and the work of D. P. Phillips. Proceedings 15th International Congress on Cybernetics. Namur, Belgium. http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Conf/MemePap/Marsden.html
Marsden, P., (2000) The Werther Effect: Suicide
Contagion in the Internet Age - A Critical Evaluation, Theoretical Reconceptualisation
and Empirical Investigation. D.Phil Thesis (Sussex). http://www.viralculture.com/DPhilsummary.htm
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