The political and media reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in the US could trigger a spate of copycat terrorism. This would be the warning from the body of research known as contagion psychology, the science of copycat phenomena ranging from infectious yawning and laughter, through consumer fads, fashions, and crazes, to the more serious contagions of eating disorders, suicide, hysteria, violence, and even murder (Marsden 2000a).
Why should we expect our reaction to the recent disaster to trigger copycat terrorism? Firstly, there is a chilling precedent. Twenty tears of US data show that airplane crashes, some thought to be suicides involving the deliberate killing of others, rise systematically and unexpectedly following media publicity of other of these 'murder-suicide' stories (Phillips 1980). More worryingly, the amount of media coverage devoted to these events, by television networks and newspapers, correlates positively with the rise in subsequent `copycat' events. This is darkly consistent with the substantial body of evidence for suicide contagion - the idea that suicides beget suicide (Marsden 2000b).
Secondly, copycat terrorism makes compelling sense when we understand the simple but deadly psychology of contagion. A phenomenon of `disinhibition' can occur when suicidal or murderous thoughts - inhibited by conscience, uncertainty or fear - are exposed to what is perceived as the positive consequences of suicide or murder. When this happens, the mental conflict between urges and inhibitions may be resolved, resulting in a suicidal and possibly murderous mind being made up. Thought is free to become deadly action. With a perverse irony, the global attention and blanket media coverage accorded the U.S. terrorist attacks may actually help make up some desperate minds and legitimise future murder-suicides.
So how can the risk of copycat terrorism involving murder-suicides be reduced? Blanket censorship is obviously not a realistic option in a free and democratic society. However, our reaction to such events could be usefully informed by the practical and realistic recommendations of the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and similar organisations on how to contain and reduce the risk of contagion involving suicide (CDC 1994):
Marsden, P. (2000a) `Mental epidemics' New Scientist, 2237, 46-47.
Marsden, P. (2000b) The Werther Effect: Suicide Contagion - A Critical Evaluation, Theoretical Reconceptualisation and Empirical Investigation Doctoral Thesis - University of Sussex University of Sussex. Available at http://www.brandgenetics.com/Marsdenthesis.zip
Phillips, D. P., (1980). `Airplane accidents,
murder, and the mass media: Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion'.
Forces, 58(4), 1000-1024.
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