The Corner


Suicidal Memes

The news about Anthony Bourdain is obviously awful. The news about Kate Spade is awful. Suicide is awful.

But these are anecdotes. There’s also some data. From this morning’s NYT:

Suicide rates rose steadily in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016, increasing 25 percent nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.

In the wake of recent school shootings, David French revisited a theory of why they happen, first publicized by Malcolm Gladwell. The theory was that school shootings were more like a “slow motion riot.” Gladwell:

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

The reasons for any individual case of suicide will surely be grounded in specific circumstances – and, often, specific mental health issues. But the idea of suicide – like mass shootings – can spread on a more wholesale and memetic basis.

It’s a depressing thought. But depressing thoughts might be contagious.


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