"When swine flu hit the population it spiked in certain areas and tapered off in neighboring regions, it hits hardest where people have least protection and this pattern is more pronounced (here)"

Apparently incidences of murder spreads in a similar pattern to infectious diseases such as swine flu according to a 26-year study of the city of Newark, New Jersey (summary).


It would be interesting to hear your opinions, but some interesting questions I would like to ask are:

  1. To what extent could murder and the epidemiology infectious disease patterns resemble each other?

  2. What factors could you suggest may lead to their apparent similarities?

  3. Given that murder could be modeled as an infectious disease could we apply epidemiological interventions to murder?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Seems like murder would be a weird disease. maybe its like cancer, everyone is a carrier for murder- we all have it. It would break out at a rate modulated by environmental conditions. some might claim you wouldn't have to actually model the individual experiences, but others would expect it. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Dec 2, 2013 at 7:02
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Interesting! I was thinking along the lines of "if you kill my gang-member I will kill yours" and it spreads like that, coupled with desensitization to murder as more of it occurs nearby - but these kind of discussions are what I was hoping to spark :) $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2013 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ maybe in very small circles you could model it as a meme like disease, but I'm not sure it would model a statistical number of murders. Sociological and policy factors are still probably more likely to model crime in general - just my opinion... but not without its proponents. telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10320691/… $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Dec 2, 2013 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasIngalls That objection is also true for infectious diseases, which is why we model in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – Fomite
    Jan 13, 2014 at 21:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Here's a very interesting TED talk for you, regarding violence instead of murder ted.com/talks/… $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2017 at 0:49

1 Answer 1


Disclaimer: I'm an infectious disease modeler, and generally pretty skeptical of "We modeled X like an outbreak!" claims, because many are just an exercise in curve fitting.

Given that, the answer is both "Yes" and "No".

"No": Murder as an act really isn't transmissible, and if its not transmissible, it can't be modeled as an infectious disease.

"Yes": It is probably possible to model some things in the same way we model infectious diseases, because the underlying causes of murder may be somewhat 'transmissible'. Certain behaviors, cascading effects (if one family member is incarcerated it increases the likelihood that other members of that family will be incarcerated) etc. might give crime "disease-like" properties.

That's probably largely driven by underlying social networks and the like, which are also important to infectious diseases. But then you have a problem in reasoning. For example, did murder "spread" along a social network, or did we merely sample a group of people with a shared underlying cause (for example, poverty, membership in gangs, etc.)

It's probably useful to model some of these things, but it's more useful, in my mind, to model them as their own process, rather than trying to shoehorn them into being like a disease.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Also, pretty much all areas of modeling borrow heavily from each other such that it is quite possible to have components of a model that look very like components of another, but for very different reasons. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2014 at 21:21

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