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Thresholds of Violence

An interesting way to look at how school shootings catch on. Malcolm Gladwell, in his signature lead-with-facts-and-then-surprise-with-counter-intuitive-theory style tells the story of how people have different thresholds for carrying out certain actions. Social processes are driven by our thresholds, i.e. the number of people who need to be doing some activity before others agree to join them. Take riots for example, they are usually started by people with a threshold of zero. The next person who joins might have a threshold of one. And as time goes by the hundredth person who joins might be 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. Applying this theory to the case of school shootings:

The prosecution saw someone who wanted to be Eric Harris and plainly assumed that meant he must be like Eric Harris, that there must be a dark heart below LaDue’s benign exterior. But the lesson of the Granovetterian progression, of course, is that this isn’t necessarily true: the longer a riot goes on, the less the people who join it resemble the people who started it. As Granovetter writes, it is a mistake to assume “that if most members of a group make the same behavior decision—to join a riot, for example—we can infer from this that most ended up sharing the same norm or belief about the situation, whether or not they did at the beginning.”

My takeaway is this: violent acts are contagious. There is no shortage of deeply disturbed people in the society who will have no qualms about killing innocent people. But the longer we let the problem fester (e.g. by not introducing stricter gun laws), the bigger the chances are that people with lower thresholds are going to contemplate horrific acts. The proliferation of web tools providing shooters with a platform to glorify their acts certainly does not help. The scary result is not that the deeply disturbed will carry out harmful acts, it is that young people no longer need to be deeply disturbed to commit unspeakable crimes.


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