Re: Copying, imitation, transformation, replication

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 15 Sep 1998 09:42:36 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: Copying, imitation, transformation, replication
Date: Tue, 15 Sep 1998 09:42:36 +0100

Mario on the Werther Effect.

Mario, I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the head when raising the
issue of the Werther Effect, with respect to the issue of empirical
memetics. (For those who are not familiar with the Werther effect,
imitative suicide a phenomenon that US, UK and Australian Government take
seriously enough to fund departments, there is a brief synopsis (my paper at
the Namur conference)

>When people all of a sudden start committing suicide after reading a book
>noticing suicide on the news, is this imitation? When it were, one would
expect a
>never ending wave of suicide.

No the phenomenon (the suicide wave) occurs for approximately two weeks from
initial exposure.

>What we observe is that it readily fades out.

Yes, but the total number of suicides over the year will have risen because
of the Werther effect.

>Another explanation may simply be that the set of people already feeling
>depressed (at any instance there are such a number of people in a
population) are
>triggered to commit suicide by such an event on the news.

If it were simple a matter of triggering suicides that would have occurred
anyway, then we would expect a concomitant fall below expected figures after
the wave. This does not happen. But yes, we could differentiate between
suggestion and imitation if you wanted to. You are right, we can posit all
sorts of internal states, but what I can do by operationalising memetics, is
tell you how many more people will commit suicide following a newspaper
report story based on information of newspaper circulation and column length
and position of the article. This is useful information, not only to the
coffin manufacturing industry, but also for social policy. Herein lies the
utility for memetics, qua empirical science.

>They are not mimicking,
>but are only triggered to do something they already were considering.

Yes, but were not going to do. (otherwise there would be the abovementioned
drop in suicide rates following the wave).

Whether you want to call it imitation, mimickry, suggestion, disinhibition,
the fact of the matter is that behaviours spread through society by simple
exposure. Suicide is an example of social contagion (as is speeding,
delinquency, drug taking, aggressive behaviour, consumer behaviour, stock
dealing behaviour, self mutilation, symptoms for conditions for which there
is no medical cause, mythical bugs, UFO sightings, alien abductions, yuppie
flu, lost work days due to reported staff sickness, Gulf War Syndrome,
anorexia, post traumatic stress disorder, repetitive stress injury,
expressions of emotion such as happiness, sadness, anxiety, anger, voting
behaviour. And the list goes on.

The fact is I don't have to posit internal states to predict human activity,
all I need is epidemiological data.

> After the
>part of the population ready to commit suicide has been triggered, the
>then fades out because the population now has a lower content of potential
>suiciders, and that is what we observe.

No No No! You are entirely, completely and utterly wrong here. The whole
point is that this does not happen. Check the data.

Baron, J.N., Reiss, P.C. (1985) "Same Time Next Year: Aggregate Analyses of
the Mass Media and Violent Behaviour" in American Sociological Review 50
(Jun): 347-363.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1994) "Suicide Contagion and the
Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations form a National Workshop" in Morbidity
and Mortality Weekly Review 43 (RR-6).
Charlton, J. et al (1993) "Suicide Deaths in England and Wales 1982-1992:
Trend Factors associated with Suicide Deaths" in Population Trends 71:
Durkheim, E. [1897] (1952) Suicide: A Study in Sociology London. Routledge.
Gould, M.S., Wallenstein, S., and Davidson, L. (1989) “Suicide Clusters: A
Critical Review” in Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 19: 17-29.
Gould, M.S. (1990) "Suicide Clusters and Media Exposure" in Blumenthal,
S.J., Kupfer D.I.(Eds.), Suicide Over the Life Cycle. Washington, DC. Am.
Psy. Press.
McGuire, W. (1964) "Inducing Resistance to Persuasion: Some Contemporary
Approaches" in Berkowitz, L. (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social
Psychology Vol. 1: 191-229
Mazur, A. (1982) "Bomb Threats and the Mass Media: Evidence for a theory of
Suggestion" in ASR 47 (Jun): 407-411.
Phillips, D.P. (1974) "The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive
and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect" in ASR 39 (Jun): 340-354
Phillips, D.P. (1977) "Motor Vehicle Fatalities Increase Just after a
Publicised Suicide Story" in Science 196: 1464-65.
Phillips, D.P. (1978) "Airplane Accident Fatalities Increase Just after
Newspaper Stories about Murder and Suicide" in Science 201: 748-750.
Phillips, D.P. (1979) "Suicide, Motor Vehicle Fatalities, and the Mass
Media: Evidence towards a Theory of Suggestion" in AJS 84: 1150-1174.
Phillips, D.P. (1980) Airplane Accidents, Murder, and the Mass Media:
Towards a Theory of Imitation and Suggestion in Social Forces 58 No. 4
(Jun): 1000-1024.
Phillips, D.P. (1982) "The Impact of Fictional Television Stories on U.S.
Adult Fatalities"in AJS 87: 1340-1359.
Phillips, D.P., Bollen, K.A. (1982a) "Imitative Suicides: A National Study
of the Effects of Television News Stories" American Sociological Review Vol.
47 (Dec): 802-809
Phillips, D.P. (1983) "The Impact of Mass Media Violence on US Homicides" in
American Sociological Review 48 (Aug): 560-568.
Phillips, D.P., Bollen, K.A., (1985) "Same Time Last Year: Selective Data
Dredging for Negative Data Findings" in American Sociological Review Vol. 50
(Jun) 364-371
Phillips, D.P., Carstensen, L.L. (1986) "Clustering of teenage Suicides
after Television News Stories about Suicide" in N Eng. J. of Medicine 315
(Sep): 685-694.
Platt, S. (1984) "Unemployment and Suicidal Behaviour" in Social Science and
Medicine 19: 93-115
Stack, S (1990) "Media Impacts on Suicide" in Lester, D. Current Concepts of
Suicide 107-120. Philadelphia. Charles Press
Tarde, G [1903] (1962) Laws of Imitation. Mass. Peter Smith
Thorlindsson, T., Bjarnason, T. (1994) “Manifest Predicators of Past Suicide
Attempts in a Population of Icelandic Adolescents” Suicide and Life Threat.
Behav. 24: 350-58
Thorlindsson, T., Bjarnason, T. (1998) “Modeling Durkheim on the Micro
Level: A Study of Youth Suicidality” in ASR 63 (Feb) 94-110
Wasserman, I.A. (1984) “Imitation and Suicide: A Re-examination of the
Werther Effect” in ASR 49 (Jun): 427-436

>Of course, you have to know what is in
>people's mind to come to such a conclusion.

No you don't, if you put a front page story of suicide in the leading
national newspaper in the UK or US , the suicide rate will increase by 6%.

>When you deny the mind the danger that you will reach erroneous just so
conclusions is larger.

I disagree and the evidence on diffusion research disagrees as well. To
predict customer behaviour you can either take an internal model or a
contagion model. In the internal model, based on Rational Choice/Action
Theory, (RCT or RAT) you have a number of needs, and a number of possible
options. If I assess the relative importance of those needs, and ask you to
give me your estimated score on how each of the options performs on those
needs, I can predict (fairly well) what you are going to do. If I interview
a large enough representative sample I can extrapolate those figures to
forecast the sales of a product, or indeed the suicide rate. Alternatively
I can predict rates of human behaviour by simply correlating exposure to
infection, ie a contagion model. The contagion model works just as well as
RAT, and many researchers believe it works better. But the point is I just
don't have to posit internal states to predict suicide rates, or Coca-cola

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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