9 October 2004

Suicide in The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point examines how ideas are passed through society as epidemics. The author develops the simile using three rules: the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. These three rules map to the carriers of the disease, the virulence of the disease, and the environment in which the disease spreads. Examined are such disparate ideas as the Hush Puppies clothing fad in the 1990s, the children's show Blue's Clues [IMDB], and New York City crime in the 1980s. All are presented with a different emphasis on his three rules. The book is fascinating and continues to be relevant.

Chapter 7 discusses sticky concepts (those that resonate and thrive throughout society) that are also detrimental or fatal. The section on suicide was interesting.

Gladwell looked at reports suggesting that high-profile suicides become a form of permission to those who were susceptible to the idea. Those who might be likely to commit suicide are "sold" on it when it appears prominently in the media.

The fascinating thing about this permission-giving, though, is how extraordinarily specific it is. In his study of motor fatalities, [David] Phillips [a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego] found a clear pattern. Stories about suicides resulted in an increase in single-car crashes where the victim was the driver. Stories about suicide-murders resulted in an increase in multiple-car crashes in which the victims included both drivers and passengers. Stories about young people committing suicide resulted in more traffic fatalities involving young people. Stories about older people committing suicide resulted in more traffic fatalities involving older people.

An obvious similar example is the Columbine killings.

While reading the section on suicides, I was immediately reminded of the Japanese movie Suicide Club [IMDB] in which the collective suicide of a group of school girls begins a sequence of apparent copy-cat suicides. In the first scene, the school girls stand on a subway platform and swing their arms together as they count to three and then leap in front of the train. The shock of the scene is diffused and amplified by the movie showing buckets of blood splattering on the other, stunned commuters.

Later in the film, rumors of a "suicide club" spread through the city and through the schools. On the playground roof of one high school, groups of friends argue with urban legend obsession whether the story was real and, jokingly, whether they should start their own suicide club. After egging each other on, a dozen or so stand on the ledge and begin counting. A few are left still standing, stunned as more buckets of blood splatter on the classes' windows below. Seconds later, the remaining few fall past the windows.

The movie ultimately ends somewhat poorly, but this vision of suicide as a virus could have (and may have) been taken straight from The Tipping Point, or perhaps those sociological studies that Malcolm Gladwell references, translated into an almost literal epidemic in the movie.

[ posted by sstrader on 9 October 2004 at 2:31:03 PM in Language & Literature ]