Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Copyright June 27, 2017
Hardcover, 288 Pages
This book is delightfully entertaining and educational. The author conscientiously charts his steadily progressive intellectual quest in researching and deciphering the significance of the phenomena of social contagions to the tragic occurrence of suicide clusters in the famed Silicon Valley, specifically the city of Palo Alto, California. This book makes for a pleasantly enjoyable read with its abundance of thought-provoking and fascinating material.
Despite the seeming formidability of the subject matter, the ultimate essence of the discussions in the book boiled down to the condition of being human. Academically-inclined readers with an interest in psychology might most appreciate this book, readers from all walks of life however are also encouraged to read the book for the profound learning points embedded within.
Personally, I feel that perusing this book has equipped me with a new kind of awareness and clarity in viewing life and its various constituents and stimuli. It is by no coincidence that the author’s competent tackling of the subject matter of social contagions eventually led to the realm of the intimate and the personal, of each and every person’s susceptibility to being subconsciously influenced by even seemingly the most unnoticeable detail in one’s surroundings.
In further testament to the intellectual stimulation readers could expect from reading this book, the author meticulously documented progressively acquired knowledge and information as he crossed paths with various professionals ranging from scientists, psychologists to epidemiologists in his pursuit of remedies to the Palo Alto suicide clusters, and his eventual realization of the immense intricacy of the problem at hand.
The author’s probing of the “strange contagion” led to incredibly fascinating territory. Discussions of the social contagion of violence along with associated concepts such as a city’s “threshold of tolerance for violence” was particularly compelling. When it came to purposeful and intentional use of the media to bring about changes in behavior in populations, a particular example stood out, namely that “a music video campaign in Nigeria led to a fivefold increase in the number of people seeking contraception every quarter.”
Certain psychological findings and assessments in the book was especially astounding. I really love this thought-provoking question posed by the author, “When is an emoji not just a shorthand emotional expression but a vessel carrying active ingredients of a virulent strange contagion?” Another remarkable revelation pertained to the potency and even insidiousness of “subtle priming” in allowing us to “register an idea and behave as though it has originated from within,” ideas related to for example one’s pursuit of goals.
The author goes beyond impressing the reader with his quality research and cogent ideas to stunning with his elegantly eloquent writing. The following sentences about fear encapsulate the author’s writing proficiency, "As casual observers of life, our internal instrumentation, our antennae, our infrared understanding of the world, registers the way in which others respond to everyday objects and situations. Fear in particular trades in a unique currency, a kind of superstitious magical thinking that offers people a sense of control in situations that warrant none.”
Perusing this book distinctly expands one’s knowledge base. The notion of the “placebo effect” would have been a moderately familiar concept to the general reader; the “nocebo effect” on the other hand might be considerably more alien. I personally encountered the concept of the “nocebo effect” for the first time in this book, insightfully discussed within the context of the unfortunate suicide clusters in Palo Alto. The notion of a “laughter epidemic” was also a welcome addition to my vocabulary. Similarly cerebrally satisfying was when the author fascinatingly delved into the contagiousness of afflictions the likes of obesity and bulimia; I’ve never even vaguely perceived eating disorders or emotional disorders to be possibly contagious.
With the book containing astute statements such as that “sometimes fear has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” one could presume that the resourceful reader intent on maximizing gains from perusing this book would treasure each and every ideational opportunity available to come away with a more profound level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that could better inform his or her approach to living life.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.