Mass killings and school shootings in the U.S. appear to be contagious, according to a team of scientists from Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University.
Study author Sherry Towers, research professor in the ASU Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center, explained, "The hallmark of contagion is observing patterns of many events that are bunched in time, rather than occurring randomly in time."
Her team examined databases on past high-profile mass killings and school shootings in the U.S. and fit a contagion model to the data to determine if these tragedies inspired similar events in the near future.
They determined that mass killings -- events with four or more deaths -- and school shootings create a period of contagion that lasts an average of 13 days. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of such tragedies appear to arise from contagion.
Their paper, "Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings," appears in the July 2 edition of PLOS ONE.
The analysis was inspired by actual events in Towers' life.
"In January of 2014 I was due to have a meeting with a group of researchers at Purdue University," she said. "That morning there was a tragic campus shooting and stabbing incident that left one student dead. I realized that there had been three other school shootings in the news in the week prior, and I wondered if it was just a statistical fluke, or if somehow through news media those events were sometimes planting unconscious ideation in vulnerable people for a short time after each event."
The researchers noted that previous studies have shown that suicide in youths can be contagious, where one suicide in a school appears to spark the idea in other vulnerable youths to do the same.
"It occurred to us that mass killings and school shootings that attract attention in the national news media can potentially do the same thing, but at a larger scale," Towers said. "While we can never determine which particular shootings were inspired by unconscious ideation, this analysis helps us understand aspects of the complex dynamics that can underlie these events."
On average, mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the U.S., and school shootings occur on average monthly. The team found that the incidence of these tragedies is significantly higher in states with a high prevalence of firearm ownership.
The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Arizona State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
1. Sherry Towers, Andres Gomez-Lievano, Maryam Khan, Anuj Mubayi, Carlos Castillo-Chavez. Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings. PLOS ONE, 2015; 10 (7): e0117259 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117259
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Arizona State University. "Mass killings, school shootings are contagious." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 July 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150702151520.htm>.
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Scientists believe that a simple two-hour emotional awareness course aimed at making young offenders less aggressive could hold the key to significantly reducing the seriousness of their future crimes.
In the first ever study of its kind, psychologists from Cardiff University recorded a 44% drop in the severity of crimes committed by persistent reoffenders, six months following the completion of a course designed to improve their ability to recognise other people's emotions. The findings are published in PLOS ONE journal.
Much has been published previously to suggest that adolescents who display antisocial behaviour have problems in facial emotional recognition, particularly fear and sadness.
By heightening their ability to perceive these emotions, researchers believe they can instil in young offenders a stronger sense of empathy for potential victims, and consequently a reduction in physical aggression and instances of severe crime.
To explore this idea, they studied the emotion recognition capabilities and criminal activity of 50 juvenile offenders (with an average age of 16) from the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Youth Offending Services (YOS).
While all the participants of the study received their statutory intervention -- involving contact with a caseworker, as ordered by the courts -- a sub-group of 24 offenders also took part the research team's facial affect training, aimed at improving their emotion recognition capabilities and normally used to rehabilitate patients with brain-damage.
Offenders in the sub-group and those only receiving statutory intervention were matched for age, socioeconomic status, IQ and criminal history. During the study, each group was tested twice for emotion recognition performance, and recent crime data was collected six months after testing had been completed.
Lead author Professor Stephanie Van Goozen, from Cardiff University's School of Psychology, said:
"Poor emotion recognition in children and adolescents can cause antisocial behaviour. Our study shows that this recognition can be corrected using an approach that is both cost-effective and relatively quick.
"Our findings support our belief that a population of individuals, whose combined offending produces the majority of harm in communities, can be made to behave less aggressively with the knock-on effect of bringing about a significant drop in serious crime.
"We would like to extend this research to younger age groups, particularly to children who are at risk of developing antisocial behaviour later in life that could result in violence, substance abuse, health problems and psychiatric illness.
"Emotion recognition training could set children on a much more positive path in life -- one which doesn't have to involve serious crime or violence against others, to the benefit of society and themselves."
Researchers measuring the severity of participants' crimes used a score system ranging from 1-8: '1' indicates a public order offence while '8' means murder. The average offence severity of the facial affect training sub-group was 3.75 six months prior to training, dropping to 2.08 six months after.
Facial affect training consists of several levels of emotional tasks, where participants are required, among other scenarios, to identify the emotional expression of a face, to describe an event that has made them feel that emotion and mimic the emotion using a mirror. Tasks also include focusing on specified features of an emotional face and selecting the correct description of that feature from several options.
The emotion recognition test consists of 150 slides presented on a laptop, displaying facial expressions -- including happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust -- at varying degrees of emotional intensity. Participants have to guess what emotion is displayed.
These findings are consistent with the results of a study conducted at Bristol University in 2013, in which researchers succeeded in modifying a tendency for aggressive youths to interpret anger in ambiguous expressions. Participants reported feeling less aggressive and acting less aggressively for two weeks following the intervention.