Single-minded examination of how violent and tragic behaviors tend to replicate themselves in our ultra-connected society.
Social scientist Coleman has specialized in the phenomenon known as the Werther Effect, referring to the protagonist of Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose melodramatic suicide purportedly inspired widespread imitation. Today, Coleman fears “the power of mass communication and culture to create an epidemic of similar behaviors,” citing the Werther effect and the contemporary concept of memes (ideas that replicate themselves like viruses) in combination with the saturation impact of mainstream films, video games, and trauma-centered nightly news. These and other media, he believes, bear unexamined responsibility for numerous unsettling phenomena. Devoting separate chapters to disparate events like sniper sprees, suicide via airplane, suicidal cults, post-office killings, and teenage suicide, Coleman finds that, in each case, frequently overlooked event repetitions over time likely influenced the most shocking, current iterations, such as the Muhammed/Malvo sniper attacks and 9/11. By carefully cataloguing long strings of traumatic events, the author offers persuasive and sometimes chilling evidence that murders and suicides often inspire imitation, as in the “suicide clusters” among seemingly normal teenagers that occurred in affluent and blue-collar towns alike during the 1980s and ’90s. (Bolstering this theory, he also tracks suicide patterns among ballplayers, musicians, and Kurt Cobain cultists.) Coleman asserts that the media’s tendency to emphasize “sensational stories of local violence,” like school shootings, “feed[s] the copycat effect frenzies.” Other chapters explore such gruesome elements of crowd psychology as the magnetic attraction San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge holds for potential suicides: one unofficial yearly average estimates nearly 300 attempts per year. The author’s scolding tone, however, diminishes the persuasiveness of a text that concludes by offering seven suggestions to defuse the negative effects of “the major socially reinforcing element in the mix: the media itself.”
Adequate exploration of a theory that seems less than startling by the conclusion, thanks to undue repetition of its main points.