The rapid spread of youth rioting – not only through different areas of London but in the Midlands and the North – triggered a memory in my mind: the Werther effect.
The Sorrows of Young Werther was written by Goethe in 1774, and was a highly romantic account climaxing in the suicide of Werther himself. Its publication was followed by a large increase in copycat suicides. The effect was so marked that the book was banned in several countries.
Two hundred years later, a study by the sociologist, David Phillips, reviewing the effect, established from US statistics that every front page suicide story was followed within two months by on average 58 more suicides than would otherwise have been expected. And the occurrences coincided with the areas where the story had received local publicity. Incidentally, Marilyn Monroe’s suicide was followed by 200 more suicides than the average for the following month.
Since copycat effects occur where the original happening is well publicised, it is easy to see how the social media – from Facebook to Twitter – spread the message at enormous speed. (Check my maths: if 1 person sends information to 20 friends, and each of these sends to another 20 and so on, only 5 stages are required to inform over 3 million people. If there were no duplications, another stage would cover our whole population,)
Throw into the mix the immaturity of parts of the brain concerned with impulses and decision making and the processing of emotional information (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) which is still present in late teenagers and early adolescents, and you have an explosive mixture.
Of course none of these background conditions – including low self esteem, alienation from the mainstream etcetera – excuse the behaviour whose immediate motive seem to be the pleasure of destruction and the attraction of looting. But it does remind us that in perhaps less dramatic areas we too may in part be motivated by copycat values rather than autonomous decision, but never know the reason why.