Effect was identified by sociologist David Phillips
of the University of California
at San Diego
. In addition to finding a link between suicide
stories and subsequent suicides, he also found a link between highly publicized agression and homicides
The following graphs provide evidence for the Werther Effect.
% change +1400 | | |
in +1200 | | |
monthly +1000 | | | _
suicide +800 | | | | |
rate. +600 | | | | |
+400 | | | | | _
Usual +200 | | | | | _ | |
Suicide - |______|_|___|_|___|_|___|_|___
Rate -200 | |_|
Month: -1 Month 1 2 3
(based on 35 suicide stories 1947-1968)
Number 100 | *
of 90 | / |
commercial 80 | * |
airline 70 | / |
fatalities 60 | | \
50 | | * *
40 | / | / \
30 | * \ | |
20 | / * |
10 | | \
Day: -2 -1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
The graphs for noncommercial airplane fatalities and for motor vehicle fatalities look similar to the one for commercial arline fatalities. There is a spike 3-4 days after the story, then another spike 7-9 days after the story.
Phillips research also found that a single suicide story resulted in an increase in single victim car crashes. A suicide-murder story resulted in an increase in multiple victim car crashes. Additionally, if the suicide story was about a young person, the number of young people involved in accidents increased. If the suicide story was about an older person, the number of older people involved in accidents increased. This is most likely due to perceptions of similarity the copycat has of himself with the widely publicized story. The copycat's decision to kill him/her self therefore appears to be an example of social proof. After hearing about the suicide, the copycat gets the notion that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with their problems.
The car and plane accidents that occurr after suicide stories are also particularly gruesome. In commercial airliners, the average number of deaths is three times higher one week after a suicide story than one week before. In car accidents, death occurrs four times faster one week after a story than one week before.
As I indicated above, the Werther Effect appears to apply to any instance of widely publicized aggression. Phillips analyzed media coverage of Heavyweight Championship Prize Fights between 1973 and 1978 and found that the coverage produced a "measurable increase in the U.S. homicide rate." Interestingly, it was found that if the loser was black, the homicide rate for black male victims rose during the following 10 days, but not for white victims. If the loser was white, the homicide rate for white male victims rose.
These findings present ethical concerns for newspaper and television news editors. Knowing that a front page suicide story will likely generate over 50 copycat suicides that would otherwise not have occurred, the publishing and broadcast of such stories should be carefully considered.
"Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini
If you are contemplating suicide, please contact the nearest hospital or other emergency services in your area immediately.