Institute of Medicine Workshop: Violence as a Contagion – Recap 2

On April 30, the first part of a 2-day workshop on the Contagion of Violence was convened in Washington DC by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences (read more). The IOM workshop brought together over two dozen professionals and experts in a broad range of fields to consider violence from a new perspective. Dr. Slutkin, Founder and Executive Director of Cure Violence, expressed that the event was “a historic moment to properly treat violence as an epidemic.” (Read more on Dr. Slutkin’s re-understanding of the issue here). While the theory has been a central part of Cure Violence’s thinking since inception having leading experts in their respective fields apply the perspective to “different manifestations of the same disease”— self-directed, interpersonal, family, domestic, political and ethnic violence—was truly momentous.

Information flowed in hour-glass form throughout the first day—broadly set in the historical context of the birth of public health with John Snow; broadly set in an interdisciplinary context with neuroscientists and criminologists speaking side-by-side—it narrowed from the group dynamics at work in collective violence to what happens at a neurological level when we seek acceptance. And, broadened out again to look at two current historical events—the London Riots and the Arab Spring—through this new paradigm.

Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law Professor introduced the role social networks play in spreading the Contagion of Street and Community Violence. Fagan demonstrated how single violent incidents can set off a chain reaction of violence that spreads group to group. This concept of transmission and spread was echoed by psychologist Eric Dubow in his discussion on collective violence, criminologist Deanna Wilkinson on social contagion and group dynamics, and others. Dr. Wilkinson analyzed a conflict that occurred in a club around 3 in the morning (image below) over a relatively commonplace incident—a girl dancing with a guy, who was not her boyfriend—that not only spilled into the parking lot of the club, but was instigated and escalated into 4 subsequent violent incidents (read research & interviews documenting this outbreak).

Neuroscientists Jamil Zaki from Stanford University and UCLA’s Marco Iacoboni shared the neurological factors that may be contributing to such events. In a presentation titled, Neuroscience, Empathy & Contagion, Dr. Zaki discussed the chemical release of dopamine as a reward for participating in group behavior something that could prove a factor even when that group behavior leads to conflict; Dr. Iacoboni explained the process of brain involved in imitation and the ways that violent behavior are emulated in conflict dispute.

Jason Featherstone from the UK-based Cure Violence replication Surviving Our Streets and Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress brought these perspectives into a real-world context sharing experiences from the London Riots and the Arab Spring. Jason showed how the riots escalated from a police shooting in the Tottenham community, where he grew up, spread throughout London. He then analyzed how the events could have played out differently if an effective mediation structure, like Cure Violence, had been in place (read more on Jason’s experience and check out what Dr. Slutkin had to say about the riots to the Guardian Observer). Zainab shared how the same factors were at work in the Arab Spring events and showed the spread of violence from country-to-country.

By allowing researchers to “break out of our silos to look broadly at types and treatments of the issue” as Valerie Maholmes of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development stated in her opening remarks the Institute of Medicine workshop helped to advance interdisciplinary thinking around violence and begin to entertain possible solutions.