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The Contagion Phenomenon
Two centuries ago, a wave of suicides swept across Europe as if the very act of suicide was somehow infectious. Shortly before their untimely deaths, many of the suicide victims had come into contact with Johann von Goethe's tragic tale "The Sorrows of Young Werther," in which the hero, Werther, himself commits suicide. In an attempt to stem what was seen as a rising tide of imitative suicides, anxious authorities banned the book in several regions in Europe (Phillips 1974, Marsden 1998).
During the two hundred years that have followed the publication and subsequent censorship of Goethe’s novel, social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice. web.stanford.edu...
In July, researchers presented a terrifying idea: mass killings and school shootings may be contagious. Using a mathematical contagion model typically applied to the spread of diseases, the study found that 30 percent of mass killings and 22 percent of school shootings appeared to have been inspired by previous events. One possible reason, says lead author Sherry Towers, is media coverage.
“What we found was, in ones that didn’t get a lot of media attention there was no contagion, and in the ones where we did see a lot of media attention, that’s where we saw the contagion,” Towers says.
We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past. On average, this temporary increase in probability lasts 13 days, and each incident incites at least 0.30 new incidents (p = 0.0015). We also find significant evidence of contagion in school shootings, for which an incident is contagious for an average of 13 days, and incites an average of at least 0.22 new incidents (p = 0.0001). All p-values are assessed based on a likelihood ratio test comparing the likelihood of a contagion model to that of a null model with no contagion. On average, mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the US, while school shootings occur on average monthly. We find that state prevalence of firearm ownership is significantly associated with the state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings, and mass shootings.
The copycat effect is the tendency of sensational publicity about violent murders or suicides to result in more of the same through imitation.
The term was first coined around 1916 due to the crimes that were inspired by Jack the Ripper. Due to the increase of replicated crimes, criminologists soon began to realize that media coverage played a role in inspiring other criminals to commit crimes in a similar fashion.
There is also a book written by Loren Coleman called The Copycat Effect that describes the effect that the media has on crimes and suicides, which are inspired by crimes that have been widely covered across the media. Coleman's view on the media is that the constant coverage of these events, rather than the events with a positive message, gives these criminals a type of fame. The five minutes of fame, book or movie that is dedicated to these criminals provokes individuals with a tendency to behave in a similar way. Due to this type of fame, the "copycat effect" takes place.
Since the 1980s, forensic investigators have found examples of mass killers emulating their most famous predecessors. Now, there is growing evidence that the copycat problem is far more serious than is generally understood. Ever since the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been studying what motivates people to carry out these crimes. Earlier this year, I met with supervisory special agent Andre Simons, who until recently led a team of agents and psychology experts who assist local authorities in heading off violent attacks around the country, using a strategy known as threat assessment. Since 2012, according to Simons, the FBI's unit has taken on more than 400 cases—and has found evidence of the copycat effect rippling through many of them. Evidence amassed by the FBI and other threat assessment experts shows that perpetrators and plotters look to past attacks both for inspiration and operational details, in hopes of causing even greater carnage.
As part of our investigation into threat assessment, Mother Jones documented the chilling scope of the "Columbine effect": We found at least 74 plots and attacks across 30 states in which suspects and perpetrators claimed to have been inspired by the nation's worst high school massacre. Their goals ranged from attacking on the anniversary of Columbine to outdoing the original body count. Law enforcement stopped 53 of these plots before anyone was harmed. Twenty-one of them evolved into attacks, with a total of 89 victims killed, 126 injured, and nine perpetrators committing suicide.
"A lot of times they thrive on posing," says Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California-San Diego and a leading researcher on targeted violence who has interviewed and evaluated mass killers. He cites the police booking photo of Jared Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011. "He's got that contemptuous smile, like it's a great pose. The savvy of these individuals to capitalize on visual exposure should not be underestimated."
"They don't just want to be like them—they are envious and want to one-up them," Meloy explains. Copycats will aim to accomplish that either by going for a higher body count, he says, or, as in the Virginia case, killing in a more sensational way.
Meloy argues the media should also rethink some of its language. "Stop using the term 'lone wolf' and stop using 'school shooter,'" he says. "In the minds of young men this makes these acts of violence cool. They think, 'This has got some juice behind it, and I can get out there and do something really cool—I can be a lone wolf. I can be a shooter.'" Instead, Meloy suggests using terms such as "an act of lone terrorism" and "an act of mass murder."
Changing how the media covers these stories may be especially important when it comes to preventing gun rampages in schools, according to John Van Dreal... "I hear how all the kids talk about it," Van Dreal says. "When it gets played up so much in the media, it becomes heroic to the kids who are thinking about doing it." No one can control what explodes across social media platforms. But news organizations remain powerful magnifiers of content and could work toward "an ethical best practice to leave out the imagery and the name as much as possible," Van Dreal says.
Whenever there is a mass shooting, the media covers it 24/7, replaying frightening scenes and interviews for days. What kind of psychological effect does this non-stop coverage have on the viewing public? Joseph Haraszti, MD is a renown Pasadena, California Psychiatrist and expert on mood disorders says it can play a role in copycat situations. Are you feeling overly-saturated with non-stop news coverage of mass shootings?