People have a long history of unintentionally poisoning themselves.
Thalidomide was a popular drug used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women during the 1950's until we discovered it caused babies to be born without arms and legs.
DDT was a popular insecticide, and used so liberally it was all-but spread on toast, until we discovered it was killing millions of birds by weakening their eggs. Oops.
Asbestos was the darling of the construction world because of its insluation, sound-deadening and fire-resistent properties, that is until we discovered it caused cancer and mesothelioma, at which point people in hasmat suits tore it from buildings all accross our land. The only thing asbestos does now is make torte attorneys fat and sassy.
It kind of makes you wonder what staple of modern society is actually an undiscovered menace? Good question. I'll tell you. It's media coverage of crime and terrorism. And it is, quite literally, killing us.
My Neighbor Made Me Do It
Fundamental human social psychology reveals why. It turns out that other people's actions strongly influence our own--especially in uncertain situations. It's called Social Proof and it plays a larger role in the choices people make than they recognize or admit. Rather than making an independent, rational decision about how to behave, we often copy other people's behaviors instead. Most of the time this process helps us make good decisions with minimum effort, like when we follow the crowd to an exit after hearing an alarm sound in an unfamiliar buidling. Other times, though, it causes people to make tragic choices.
"Sociologists studying the media and cultural contagion of suicidal behaviors were the first to recognize the copycat effect. In 1974, University of California at San Diego sociologist David P. Phillips coined the phrase Werther effect to describe the copycat phenomenon. the name Werther comes from the 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of Faust. In the story, the youthful character Werther falls in love with a woman who is promised to another. Always melo-dramatic, Werther decides that his life cannot go on and that his love is lost He then dresses in boots, a blue coat, and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book, and, literally at the eleventh hour, shoots himself. In the years that followed, throughout Europe, so many youong men shot themselves while dressed as Werther and seated at their writing desk with an open copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in front of them that the book was banned in Italy, Germany and Denmark." (After which, it should be noted, the copycat suicides stopped.)
Other studies found an increase in auto "accidents" after news reports of auto accidents. If the news reported a single-car accident then the corresponding increase was in single-car accidents. Still more troubling were studies that found a similar correlation with airline crashes.
By giving our societies worst tragedies the greatest amount of coverage, we are asking for more of the same. Without media coverage crimes like Columbine would be isolated incidents. Instead, and because of media coverage, they often become the first in a series of copycat crimes.
What to do Instead
The general principle is to publicize behavior you want more of and hide behaviors you want to reduce. In cases where people think a bad behavior is the norm, but it's actually quite rare--college binge drinking, for example--it can help to highlight how rare the bad behavior really is. Some organizations have used this approach to curb binge drinking on college campuses by highlighting the rarity of binge drinking and the popularity of responsible alcohol use.
Here are some ways we might apply this principle to effect problems our society currently faces.
To reduce abortion:
- Highlight that each day in the United States women who chose to keep their child give birth to 10,957 babies instead of talking about the tragic minority of 2487 who abort them instead. Most women choose life.
To reduce crime:
- Only report crimes when the perpetrators are caught so that no crime is ever reported without also reporting the perpetrator's apprehension and punishment. This reinforces the notion that crime doesn't pay because it appears that no one gets away with it.
- Stop reporting man-made tragedies. Cover the hurricane but not the murder-suicide. Cover the sinkhole, but not the armed robbery.
To increase acts of kindness
- Report acts of kindness. Publicize philanthropy. Instead of giving celebrity to mass murderers, reserve it for philanthropists.
And if you really want to shake things up, sue media over their coverage when copycat crimes occur. If gun manufacturers can be held liable for crimes commited by customers using their products, it follows that media should be held liable for crimes commited because of their coverage.
Spread the fire. GS