The Pulse
12:00 am
Mon October 15, 2012

Violence as contagious disease

Sometimes it’s a new way of thinking, a new model, an idea out of left field, or, as I like to think of it, using the map of one universe to navigate another – that helps solve some of our most intractable problems. I like to highlight that kind of new thinking from time to time, so here’s a recent example.

Public health experts and researchers from a variety of other fields think they can better understand and perhaps prevent violence if they think of it more as a contagious disease.The Institute of Medicine recently issued a summary of a workshop it held on the contagion of violence. Here’s the idea, from the report summary:

In exploring the occurrence of violence, researchers have recognized the tendency for violent acts to cluster, to spread from place to place, and to mutate from one type to another – similar to the infectious disease model, in which an agent or vector initiates a specific biological pathway leading to symptoms of disease and infectivity.

Epidemiological models can help predict where a contagious disease will spread, how it spreads, and who spreads it. So why not apply the same models to violence? Aren’t there outbreaks? Copy cat crimes? Early life predictors? Doesn’t violence seem to spread, then mutate? Can we even identify a kind of incubation period, between when someone is exposed to violence and when he or she might become violent? There may not be any biological markers to predict who will engage in violence, but researchers are drawing so many similarities between violence and contagious disease it’s uncanny. And it might help us better understand events from the recent riots in the UK and the Arab Spring to neighborhood crime waves and family patterns of domestic violence.

You can read the workshop summary here.

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