Author Topic: The Werther Effect: Imitative suicidal behaviour transmitted via the mass media  (Read 16879 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Brocke

  • Eleutherophiliac & Drapetomaniac
  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 9,790
  • I am not a number, I am a free man!
    • Vimeo page
The Werther Effect: Imitative suicidal behaviour transmitted via the mass media



In the mid 1770’s a peculiar clothing fashion swept across Europe. For no immediately apparent reason, young men started dressing in yellow trousers, blue jackets and open-necked shirts. This mildly eccentric fashion spread from region to region in a manner strangely similar to the epidemics that were continuing to plague the Old Continent. It turned out that these 18th century fashion victims all had one thing in common; they had all been exposed to first novel of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe's novel recounted the desperate plight of Werther, a young man hopelessly in love with a happily married woman called Charlotte. In this intense and romantic tale, Goethe describes Werther's rather peculiar penchant for wearing a colourful mélange of blue jackets, yellow trousers and open-necked shirts.



Shortly after being published in 1774, Goethe's novel was banned in several areas across Europe. This was not because certain authorities held it responsible for the spread of a fashion of rather doubtful taste, but because there were signs that the book was also the vector for an altogether more serious contagion. The tale recounted how Werther's clumsy, but painfully sincere, attempts at winning Charlotte's heart ultimately failed. Destroyed by rejection, Werther saw no way out of his desperate plight other than suicide, and using a pistol, he dramatically put an end to his sorrows.

For a memeticist, the social consequences of the publication of Werther's tragic story are entirely predictable: Not only was Werther's dress code the object of imitation but so was his somewhat extreme code of behaviour. Anxious authorities around Europe received reports of increasing numbers of young men imitating Werther's desperate act. Goethe himself became convinced that his tale was responsible for a continental wave of suicides.

"My...friends thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in any case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public..." (Goethe quoted in Phillips 1974:340)
 In an attempt to prevent the suicides from reaching epidemic proportions, a number of authorities banned The Sorrows of Young Werther in the hope that the imitative behaviour would cease.



Two hundred years later, in 1974, the sociologist David Phillips coined the term "the Werther effect" to describe imitative suicidal behaviour transmitted via the mass media. Phillips devised an empirical research programme to establish whether media reporting of suicide stories really did affect suicide rates. In over a decade of research, Phillips produced important evidence that supported the hypothesis that behavioural patterns in society can in fact operate as contagions. Methodologically speaking, Phillips' research was interesting because it described one possible solution to the general problem of operationalising the memetic paradigm which, to date, has been dominated by anecdotal evidence.

Phillips' methodological approach could be described as quasi-experimental in that his analysis was based on an experimental protocol, but he worked with exclusively historical data sourced in the real, uncontrolled, world. Using newspaper records and official suicide statistics, he identified a number of `control periods' defined by the absence of front-page newspaper suicide stories. Using the suicide statistics from these control periods, he generated a number of expected suicide rates for a pre-defined selection of `experimental periods' during which front-page suicide stories were published. Working with a null hypothesis that the front-page newspaper reporting of suicide stories had no effect on aggregate suicide rates, he compared the expected rates with the actual rates. After controlling for seasonal and other spurious effects, Phillips tested for significance between the two values, and by comparing a number of different experimental periods, he was able to test for a correlation between suicide rates and the intensity of media representations.
Phillips' technique was unusual in that other experiments on imitation and the mass media have tended to be conducted under artificial laboratory conditions. Whilst some of these experiments have yielded results that point to a correlation between media representations and imitative behaviour (e.g. Bandura, Ross and Ross 1963), they have been largely discounted for failing to accurately replicate the conditions and environment under which memes are transmitted in the heterogeneous and multifaceted social world.

The results of Phillips' quasi-experimental research could not be subjected to this "non-relevance" argument precisely because he was testing for a correlation between media representations and actual social behaviour in the social world. Importantly, Phillips was not testing for the relationship between individual behaviour and media representations, rather he was testing for a relationship between suicide rates and media representations. Put differently, Phillips was attempting to provide an explanation of social facts (suicide rates and media representation levels) through social forces (imitation) mediated via the communication infrastructure of society. Such a macro-level of analysis is of important theoretical significance to memetics since it adds a structural element to a theory otherwise open to the charge of methodological individualism. Severe limitations on space preclude the development of this more theoretical tangent, but it is important to recognise that Phillips was testing for the replication of structural patterns in society rather than investigating the individual process of replication/transmission per se. In this way, his approach is an example of what might usefully be called macro-memetics, in contradistinction to the equally valid micro-memetic approach that currently dominates our paradigm.

 Following Phillips' research protocol, such a macro-memetic analysis can be broken down into a certain number of stages that together might outline a possible method for investigating the structural epidemiology of memes:
  
 1. Define the phenotypical expression/symptomatology that will be used to measure levels of meme infection (suicide)
 2. Measure the prevalence of meme infection over time within a given population (suicide rates)
 3. Measure the exposure rate within a population to this meme through a particular (mass) medium over time (circulation/viewing figures)
 4. Calculate an index of exposure intensity (exposure level multiplied by the share of total medium content (column length/no. of days on front page))
 5. Define a series of control periods where media transmission intensity = 0
 6. Define an experimental period where media transmission intensity > 0
 7. Regress meme infection levels during control period(s) to generate an expectation for the experimental period based on the null hypothesis that
     media representations of the meme have no effect on the incidence or prevalence of that meme
 8. Test for significance between the expected and actual results
 9. If expected and actual results are significantly different, test for further relationships (host similarity/correlation of intensity and suicide rates)

Memetics
A theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, which was originated by Richard Dawkins in the 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It purports to be an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer. A meme, analogous to a gene, is essentially a "unit of culture"—an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc. which is "hosted" in one or more individual minds, and which can reproduce itself from mind to mind. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen memetically as a meme reproducing itself. As with genetics, particularly under Dawkins's interpretation, a meme's success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host. Memetics is notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs.

The Werther Effect
A copycat suicide is defined as an emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge or due to accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media.

The massive wave of emulation suicides after a widely publicized suicide is known as the Werther effect, following Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The well-known suicide serves as a model, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide. This is referred to as suicide contagion. They occasionally spread through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is called a suicide cluster. Examples of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters include the Japanese musicians Yukiko Okada and hide.

The Werther effect not only predicts an increase in suicide, but the majority of the suicides will take place in the same or a similar way as the one publicized. The more similar the person in the publicized suicide is to the people exposed to the information about it, the more likely the age group or demographic is to commit suicide. Upon learning of someone else's suicide, many people decide that action is appropriate for them as well, especially if the publicized suicide was of someone in a similar situation as them.

Publishing the means of suicides, romanticized and sensationalized reporting, particularly about celebrities, suggestions that there is an epidemic, glorifying the deceased and simplifying the reasons all lead to increases in the suicide rate. Increased rate of suicides has been shown to occur up to ten days after a television report. Studies in Japan and Germany have replicated findings of an imitative effect. Etzersdorfer et al. in an Austrian study showed a strong correlation between the number of papers distributed in various areas and the number of subsequent firearm suicides in each area after a related media report. Higher rates of copycat suicides have been found in those with similarities in race, age, and gender to the victim in the original report. Stack analyzed the results from 42 studies and found that those measuring the effect of a celebrity suicide story were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than studies that did not. Studies based on a real as opposed to fictional story were 4.03 times more likely to uncover a copycat effect and research based on televised stories was 82% less likely to report a copycat effect than research based on newspapers. Other scholars have been less certain about whether copycat suicides truly happen or are selectively hyped. For instance, fears of a suicide wave following the death of Kurt Cobain never materialized in an actual increase in suicides. Similarly the researcher Gerard Sullivan has critiqued research on copycat suicides, suggesting that data analyses have been selective and misleading, and that the evidence for copycat suicides are much less consistent than suggested by some researchers.

Many people interviewed, after the suicide of a relative or friend, have a tendency to simplify the issues; their grief can lead to their minimizing or ignoring significant factors. Studies show a high incidence of psychiatric disorders in suicide victims at the time of their death with the total figure ranging from 98% to 87.3% with mood disorders and substance abuse being the two most common. These are often undiagnosed or untreated and treatment can result in reductions in the suicide rate. Reports that minimize the impact of psychiatric disorders contribute to copycat suicides whereas reports that mention this factor and provide help-line contact numbers and advice for where sufferers may gain assistance can reduce suicides.

To prevent this type of suicide, it is customary in some countries for the media to discourage suicide reports except in special cases.

Journalism codes

Various countries have national journalism codes which range from one extreme of, "Suicide and attempted suicide should in general never be given any mention" (Norway) to a more moderate, "In cases of suicide, publishing or broadcasting information in an exaggerated way that goes beyond normal dimensions of reporting with the purpose of influencing readers or spectators should not occur. Photography, pictures, visual images or film depicting such cases should not be made public" (Turkey) Many countries do not have national codes but do have in-house guidelines along similar lines. In the US there are no industry wide standards and a survey of in-house guides of 16 US daily newspapers showed that only three mentioned the word suicide and none gave guidelines about publishing the method of suicide. Craig Branson, online director of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), has been quoted as saying, "Industry codes are very generic and totally voluntary. Most ethical decisions are left to individual editors at individual papers. The industry would fight any attempt to create more specific rules or standards, and editors would no doubt ignore them." Guidelines on the reporting of suicides in Ireland were introduced recently which attempt to remove any positive connotations the act might have (e.g. using the term "completed" rather than "successful" when describing a suicide attempt which resulted in a death).



That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
~Aldous Huxley

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. - ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Offline Brocke

  • Eleutherophiliac & Drapetomaniac
  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 9,790
  • I am not a number, I am a free man!
    • Vimeo page
EXAMPLE

Quote
French teen sets himself on fire at school

    * From: NewsCore
    * January 19, 2011 4:44AM

A 16-YEAR-old French boy was rushed to the hospital yesterday in serious condition after setting himself on fire at his school, officials in Marseille said.

The boy doused himself in a flammable liquid in the restroom of his private school in the southern city and then set himself alight, rescue service officials said.

He has second and third degrees burns over 70 percent of his body, they said, adding that it was not immediately clear why he had carried out the act.

Hospital officials said the boy was in critical condition.

A schoolmate said he heard screams and saw the boy on fire running down the stairs towards the school yard. A worker extinguished the flames, he said.

An 18-year-old student from the southwestern town of Bordeaux has been in a coma since November 18 when he set himself on fire in his school.

Read more: http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/french-teen-sets-himself-on-fire-at-school/story-e6frfku0-1225990753010#ixzz1BQ9Xb2kO


That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
~Aldous Huxley

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. - ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Offline Brocke

  • Eleutherophiliac & Drapetomaniac
  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 9,790
  • I am not a number, I am a free man!
    • Vimeo page

Research Article

The Werther effect after television films: new evidence for an old hypothesis


A. Schmidtkea1 and H. Häfnera1 c1

a1 Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, FRG

Abstract

In this study it was possible to prove the Werther effect in suicides after watching fictional models for the first time. A twice-broadcast (1981, 1982) six-episode weekly serial showing the railway suicide of a 19-year-old male student provided a quasi-experimental ABABA design to investigate differential effects of suicide imitation. Imitation effects were most clearly observable in the groups whose age and sex were closest to those of the model. Over extended periods (up to 70 days after the first episode), the number of railway suicides increased most sharply among 15- to 19-year-old males (up to 175%); the effect steadily decreased in the older age groups, so that no effect was observable for males over 40 years and females over 30 years. Also, the imitation effects remained detectable for longer periods in the groups closest in age to the model. The increases observed after the first and second broadcast for males aged > 30 years closely corresponded with the respective audience figures for the two showings.

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=4993184



Preventing suicide by influencing mass-media reporting. The Viennese experience 1980–1996

Elmar Etzersdorfer and Gernot Sonneck

Abstract
This paper reports a field experiment concerning mass-media and suicide. After the implementation of the subway system in Vienna in 1978, it became increasingly acceptable as means to commit suicide, with the suicide rates showing a sharp increase. This and the fact that the mass-media reported about these events in a very dramatic way, lead to the formation of a study-group of the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention (ÖVSKK), which developed media guidelines and launched a media campaign in mid-1987. Subsequently, the media reports changed markedly and the number of subway-suicides and -attempts dropped more than 80% from the first to the second half of 1987, remaining at a rather low level since. Conclusions regarding the possible reduction of imitative suicidal behaviour by influencing mass-media-reports are drawn. Experiences from the media campaign are presented, as well as considerations about further research

http://www.springerlink.com/content/98rw3lycjnkgg9a3/



The effect of the media on suicide: evidence from Japan, 1955-1985.

Stack S.

Department of Criminal Justice, Wayne State University, USA.
Abstract

Research on media impacts on suicide has been largely restricted to the United States, a Christian nation marked by moral aversion to suicide. The present study extends the analysis to an Eastern nation, Japan, where people are less critical of those who suicide. Such a cultural definition of suicide might multiply imitative effects. Yule-Walker times series estimates indicate that the imitative effect is restricted to stories concerning Japanese victims. Further, the increase is similar in magnitude to that reported in the American cultural context. The Japanese audience may not be as predisposed to media effects, given a lower divorce rate, low couple centeredness, and a high level of extended family social support. These factors may offset a potentially very high "Werther effect." The model explains 88% of the variance in monthly Japanese suicide rates.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8840417


That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
~Aldous Huxley

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. - ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Offline lamourlady

  • Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 1,292
    • ICHTHYS: Bible Study for Spiritual Growth
I have to agree with this.  First experience was at camp as a teenager.  For some reason, I don't why, a young girl began hyper-ventilating, within half an hour, many more were too.  There they all sat with brown paper bags over their faces.  Now, this is a very basic example of a slight mass hysteria, but if we take a look at North American Natives, especially youths on reserves, especially isolated reserves, we are seeing the Werther Effect in its full effect.

I work with Native youth in a healing center for substance abuse.  These youths are all from isolated reserves, ones you can only fly into, and they come from environments that literally break your heart.  There is sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, abandonment, alcoholism, gas-sniffing and drug addiction.  The most compelling thing within all of this is a catastrophic amount of young children killing themselves.

Even though the environment is full of hopelessness and is ripe for such thoughts, for the youth it is in my opinion, very much based on this Werther Effect.  It is not uncommon for a youth I am working with to have had as many as 4-5 close friends or family members committing suicide within the past month of their lives.  Because of their isolation, it is the biggest news and is almost expected.  The lost members are glorified in videos on youtube, flyers and poems/songs.  Youth begin to identify that a better 'them' could be had in death, than the cesspool they remain alive in.  They live in generational flux with no new hope, choice or mentor to look up to and remain in that vicious generational cycle that is common among many First Nations peoples.  They have only videos, video games, and internet which teach them.  They all want to be like rappers whose lives seem so free and glamorous and they only have these media types to look up to when their own community members and adult figures are raping/neglecting them.

Some of the youth actually told me that they prefer to sniff gas because if they drink too much they will pass out and wake up to being raped.  I was floored, they had actually planned out how to both annihilate their senses, while trying to protect themselves at the same time.  They have to plan their lives out strategically within their own homes and communities.  I can see why their only legacy and hope would be death.

Sorry, don't mean to be a buzzkill, but I can literally state that these youth are killing themselves because of what they see, hear, and feel about those who committed suicide before them.

I will also advocate that they are being drugged and I believe these drugs are complicit in the actions and desperation for the Native peoples and that they are being annihilated through slow kill eugenics.

There was a young boy, 16, who had actually still been in school and had dabbled a bit in Native rights.  He was a handsome boy who was so intelligent and bright.  He confided that he wanted to become a leader within his community, he wanted to stop the insanity that was his and his family/friend's lives.  He actually has some hope and a dream to accomplish and I want to help him.

I am going to send him this information so that he can have a weapon in information so that he may be able to stop or at least curb the suicides.  Halting the glorification is a good first step.  Even though many feel suicide is a cowards way out, I truly feel that in this case (pharma) drugs on top of an already hopeless and isolated people, along with this psychological effect are stealing these children and it is high time to put a stop to it.

Offline Brocke

  • Eleutherophiliac & Drapetomaniac
  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 9,790
  • I am not a number, I am a free man!
    • Vimeo page
Cigarettes in films
Smoked out: Can a film of a smoker trigger the act?

Jan 20th 2011

[...]

Research has identified links between smoking in films and the consumption of cigarettes by those leaving a cinema. What prompts such a response is unclear. But it is clearly relevant to those involved in public-health policy. Dylan Wagner and his colleagues at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, therefore decided to investigate the question.

They put 34 people, half of them smokers, into a functional-magnetic-resonance imager. Such machines detect changes in the blood flow in various parts of the body—in this case, the brain. In that organ, such changes correspond to increases and decreases in mental activity. Magnetic-resonance imagers are thus, in a manner of speaking, a way of reading minds and are therefore as beloved by advertisers as by neuroscientists.

Participants were asked to watch the first 30 minutes of “Matchstick Men”, a film about con men chosen because it features many smoking scenes but lacks scenes showing the possibly confounding variables of alcohol use, violence and sex. As in many such research projects, participants were misled over the nature of the study and were not aware that it was about smoking. The results are reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

When smokers viewed a scene that included smoking, they showed greater activity in those parts of the brain involved in perception and in the co-ordination of actions—the areas known to interpret and plan hand movements—as though they, too, were about to light a cigarette. This activity also corresponded to the hand that the volunteer used when smoking. Non-smokers showed no such enhancement.

The part of the brain affected is the home of what is known as the mirror system. This induces, from mere observation, emotions and sensations similar to those induced by actual experience—for example, fear when a large spider is climbing the leg of an actor in a film. That it might provoke a desire to smoke is thus no surprise.

Scott Heuttel, a neuroscientist at Duke University, in North Carolina, says that it has long been known that visual cues induce drug cravings, and that this study builds on a growing body of evidence showing that addiction may be reinforced not just by the drugs themselves but by images and other experiences associated with those drugs. Although smokers trying to quit are advised to avoid other smokers, and to remove smoking-related paraphernalia from their homes, it might not occur to them to avoid films in which smoking is depicted.

No doubt, though, it will occur to society’s nannies to remove the temptation altogether. Expect, on the basis of findings like this, a drive to purge films of characters who smoke. Unfortunately for smokers there is, as a gravelly voice-over might say in Hollywood, “No Place to Hide”.

http://www.economist.com/node/17956885


That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
~Aldous Huxley

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. - ~Friedrich Nietzsche