The Werther Effect

Submitted by Chris Webster on Sun, 2008/07/27 - 05:15
Opening Skinner's Box

Data from the FBI and state law enforcement agencies clearly show that after any well-publicized suicide, the number of fatalities from plane and car crashes rise. Phillips has dubbed this phenomenon “the Werther effect,” because after Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther, about an overwrought fictional character who killed himself for unrequited love, a rash of suicides rippled through eighteenth-century Germany. Phillips examined the suicide statistics in the United States between 1947 and 1968. He found that within two months after every front-page suicide story, an average of fifty-eight more people than usual killed themselves. More disturbing is the data that shows the rise in car and plane wrecks following such well-publicized suicides. Writes Robert Cialdini, a social scientist at the University of Arizona, “I consider this insight brilliant. First [the Werther effect] explains the data beautifully. If these wrecks really are instances of imitative suicide, it makes sense that we should see an increase in the wrecks after suicide stories appear. ... For several reasons – to protect their reputations, to spare their families the shame and hurt, to allow their dependents to collect on insurance policies – they do not want to appear to have killed themselves. ... So purposively, furtively, they cause the wreck of a car or a plane they are operating … a commercial airline pilot could dip the nose of an aircraft … the driver of a car could suddenly swerve into a tree.”

This is hard for me to believe. Imitative single suicides I can understand, but is the Werther effect, or social cuing, so strong that it would really cause a rise in commercial plane crashes following, say, Kurt Cobain’s death? Would pilots of planes or trains who have harbored suicidal impulses, but never been able to act on them, be so liberated into imitation by a front-page story that they would bring down other lives as well? Darley says, in a phone conversation, “Well, there are certainly a lot of instances of people being cued into suicide, but maybe the plane crash thing is an exaggeration.” On the other hand, Cialdini, one of the most cited living social psychologists, swears by the accuracy of the data. “Truly frightening,” he writes in his book on influence, “are the number of innocent people who die in the bargain. ... I have been sufficiently effected by these statistics to begin to take note of front-page suicide stories and to change my behavior in the period after their initial appearance. I am especially cautious behind the wheel of a car. I am reluctant to take extended trips requiring a lot of air travel. If I must fly during such a period I purchase substantially more flight insurance than I normally would. Dr. Phillips has done us a service by demonstrating the odds for survival when we travel change measurably for a time following the publication of certain kinds of front-page stories. It would seem only prudent to play those odds.”


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