LogoMarsden, P. (2001). Copycat Terrorism: Fanning the Fire.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,5.

Letter: Copycat Terrorism: Fanning the Fire

Paul Marsden
Contagion Psychologist and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, UK.

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):

A quick glance at these recommendations reveals that each and everyone has been violated by politicians and media alike in recent days: Repetitious and sensationalised accounts of an event portrayed as horribly effective in aim and simple in explanation. As a consequence of our own reactions, borne perhaps of a voyeuristic and morbid fascination for disaster, we may have increased the likelihood of copycat terrorism. The equally sensationalist accounts of a possible war may only serve to exacerbate this risk. Of course, there is an urgent need to discuss how we tackle terrorism in a world where technology and connectivity allows tiny minorities massive leverage, but perhaps it is now time for a qualitative shift away from the sensationalist coverage of the `what', `where', `when' and `who', and towards a more informed discussion of the `why'. Only by understanding the situation that led to the attacks can we hope to move towards an informed solution that may help prevent them from occurring again.


CDC (1994) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. `Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations form a National Workshop'. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review, 43, (RR-6).

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'. Social Forces, 58(4), 1000-1024.

© JoM-EMIT 2001

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