Copycat killings, why do they happen?

Notice that certain suicides and homicides lead to copycat suicides and homicides? Sadly, we seem to be witnessing this with the new shootings in Colorado right after the Omaha mall shooting. Locally, in the past year officials stopped two different individuals seeking to replicate the Columbine massacres. Why does this happen? Is it a desire to be famous (as the Omaha young man said in his note written before he went on a rampage)? Is is a fad done by those who want to fit in or connect to a certain identity (a certain APA published article sees it this way since their is an upturn in similar events and then a gradual fade)?

Obviously, this is hard to decipher well since the population of copycatters in question is actually rare, often dies in the process, and is quite twisted altogether. But, there is some research. There is a popular book, entitled: The Copycat Effect, by  Loren Coleman. Haven’t read this book but I suspect he provides lots of interesting anecdotes and lurid details, but may be thin on the actual research. I perused the APA literature this am and found most dealing with copycat suicides and guidelines for media coverage. One article spoke of the “Werther Effect”:

Debate about whether the media can influence suicidal behavior began in the late 18th century with an example from the fictional media. In Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the protagonist falls in love with a woman who is beyond his reach, and consequently decides to end his own life. He dresses in boots, a blue coat, and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book and shoots himself. The launch of the novel was followed by a spate of suicides across Europe, with strong evidence that at least some of those who died by suicide were influenced by the book – they were dressed in a similar fashion to Werther, adopted his method, and/or the book was found at the scene of death. For example, one young man killed himself with a pistol and was found with a copy of the book lying by his side, another young man threw himself out of a window with a copy of the book in his vest, a young woman drowned herself with a copy of the book in her pocket, and another young woman took her own life in bed with a copy of the book under her pillow. The book was banned in various European countries, despite a disclaimer included in later editions in which concluded, “Be a man, he said; do not follow my example” (Minois, 1999).

Phillips (1974)coined the term “Werther effect” to describe the situation where an observer copies behavior he or she has seen modelled in the media, in a paper describing a landmark study of the relationship between news media reports of suicide and subsequent suicidal behavior. Using a quasi-experimental design, Phillips examined the frequency of suicide in months in which a front-page suicide article appeared in the U.S. press between 1947 and 1968, and compared this with the frequency in corresponding months in which no such article appeared. Adjusting for seasonal effects and changing trends in this way, he found a significant increase in the number after 26 front-page articles, and a decrease after seven of them.

This article spoke of the existence of media guidelines for coverage of suicides (and I would add homicides). Sadly, they mention that most American journalists seemed unaware of these guidelines (avoiding rich detail, sensationalism, addressing the hurt to families more than the shooter’s background, etc.)

In 2002 Julie Peterson-Manz wrote a dissertation on the link between increases in homicides after the media sensationalized celebrity involved homicides with rich descriptive, words, multiple stories, identification with the killer. When two or more of the priming effects were found, homicides increased in LA over the subsequent 2 weeks. BUT, when the media spent more time on the consequences to the perpetrator, same weapon homicides decreased over the next 2 weeks.

So, why do copycat murders and suicides take place? Media. And who drives media? We do. Are we to blame? Partly. We do lust to know the details. I admit to getting on-line to learn what I could about the Colorado shootings. I wanted to know who, when, where, why? The same desire to know, leads some to use this information to repeat what they see. Are we responsible for that? No. But, do we need to know as much as we desire? That is the question of the day.

I suspect this problem is much more common than we think. Who’s to say that copycat murders aren’t happening every day in Philadelphia?


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Psychology

3 responses to “Copycat killings, why do they happen?

  1. Awesome article. Makes me wonder if the media’s influence means the copycats are victims. I can’t log into your library. Would you be willing to give a little more info on the Phillips article so that I can find it on another database?

  2. David Phillips published in a 1974 issue of American Sociological Review, v. 39:3, pp 340-354. The article was titled: The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect.

    Here’s the abstract from PsychInfo:
    Uses data from national suicide statistics for 1947-1968 in the US and the United Kingdom to show that suicides increase immediately after a suicide story has been publicized in the newspapers. The more publicity devoted to a suicide story, the larger the rise in suicides thereafter. The rise in suicides after a story is restricted mainly to the area in which the story was publicized. Alternative explanations of these findings are examined; the evidence indicates that the rise in suicides is due to the influence of suggestion on suicide, an influence not previously demonstrated, on the national level, of suicides. The substantive, theoretical, and methodological implications of these findings are examined.

  3. Thank you! I’ll check the school database for the article.

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