Is media such a potent force that it can influence people to take their own lives? That’s the indication from a new study in the peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE. Specifically, when celebrities kill themselves, media coverage may catalyze copycat suicides across particular geographies.
The copycat effect is well documented for a variety of behaviors, including suicide. Previous studies have shown that two kinds of suicide clusters are linked to the copycat effect. Mass clusters are suicides that occur around the same time but across an entire geographic region and are often associated with media coverage of celebrity suicides. For example, a mass cluster was triggered in the U.S. after the suicide of Kurt Cobain.
Point clusters are suicides that occur around the same time and physical place and have been attributed to direct social learning, where people pick up information in their communities and social networks. This type of suicide cluster is thought to explain why seemingly unassociated teens commit suicide in the same timeframe and in the same community.
In the study, a computer simulation was created to study the behavior of 1000 pre-programmed “people” with the rules that govern how people learn from one another, with the goal of seeing whether suicidal behavior in the population fits with sociologists’ assumptions.
The study found evidence for the mass cluster effect, but only when social learning in a particular area is weak. It also found evidence for the point cluster effect, but mainly when individuals interact (as opposed to merely living in the same area and not interacting). Overall, the researchers believe that the results offer strong support for the hypothesis that media coverage of celebrity suicides can influence mass cluster suicides in large regions.
Of course, this is a computer simulation, albeit a sophisticated one, and it can’t capture the full range of motivations, intentions, biases and the like that underlie human behavior. But it’s still interesting as one possible explanation for why more people seem to be willing to end their lives after a celebrity ends his or hers.