Sociologists know that people are prone to copy each other: runs on the bank cause people to rush to withdraw their money; suicides among young people cause a rash of copycat activity; cheaters on an exam beget a spate of other cheaters. And now we know that another kind of behavior is just as infectious: homicide.
A team of public-health researchers from the Michigan State University led by April Zeoli decided to determine whether homicidal behaviour spreads like a virus. By applying public health tracking methods to the 2,366 homicides, occurring between 1982 and 2008 in Newark, New Jersey, the Michigan team discovered that murder spread infectiously like a flu epidemic, starting from the city’s center and spreading southward and westward.
These homicide clusters, begun by gangs, would move in clusters, from one impoverished area, mostly inhabited by minorities, to another. After a while, as the Michigan researchers discovered, the concentration of murder would disappear from one section of the city and shift to another, in the exact pattern of an infectious disease.
In fact, the team used the model of biological infection to map where it might strike next. ‘By using the principles of infectious disease control, we may be able to predict the spread of homicide and reduce the incidence of this crime,’ said Zeoli.
This is the first time scientists have made use of analytic software from the field of medical geography to track these types of homicidal threats. The software enables researchers like Zeoli to examine the spread of murder in real time, which is extremely helpful for police in identifying hotspots or, their opposite numbers – pockets of resistance.
‘If we could discover why some of those communities are resistant, we could work on increasing the resistance,’ said Zeoli.
Bonding, for better or worse
The sociological evidence of contagious homicide suggests something quite remarkable. Infectious homicide is simply an extreme version of another face of our Bond — the need to seek accord. From our natural impulse to merge with others, we have a deep urge to be the same as them — mentally and physically.
This deep need to agree does not rest on any moral stance; the rapid rise of Nazism in Germany is an example of the contagion of a belief system, and the willingness of a good percentage of the population to suspend normal human values in order to conform to it.
In his book, Talking to the Enemy, anthropologist Scott Atran argues that terrorism spreads and suicide bombers kill themselves out of a deep-seated need to be accepted by their group, not for religious reasons per se. “People don’t simply kill and die for a cause,” writes Atran. “They kill and die for each other.”
Telegram from The Field
The spread of evil, like good, may also be evidence of a giant Field effect. That may be the ultimate explanation for Germany after the First World War, when dispiritedness and defeat had engulfed the Germans, paving the way for Hitler to create kind of negative collective, which fed on itself and condoned the grosses of evils.
A Field effect may also have been behind the Salem witchcraft trials, when nine-year-old Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams first complained of inexplicable fits — a condition that swept through the young girls of Salem, Massachusetts, resulting in the hanging and murder of nineteen residents on charges of witchcraft.
I have long been interested in the power of the collective and its many manifestations, good and bad. Was the fact that Vienna enjoyed explosive creativity in the 1790s and produced an unprecedented number of geniuses more evidence of a Field effect? And how about when British pop music in the 1960s, particularly in Britain, enjoyed an extraordinary spate of innovation? Can this sudden flowering of creativity also be a virus that takes hold?
The Zero Point Field may well offer a tidy explanation for the sudden and seemingly inexplicable emergence of the worst, or best, of human behaviour. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, we are always, in every way, connected.