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.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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21 Responses to Werther

  1. Momangelica says:

    A few weeks ago, my husband and I were listening to the Radio 4 Today programme. The topic was about parenting and directing/talking/educating ones own children. The sad stories about some of the experiences of Social Carers was enough to make you cry.
    One parent was asked whether she talked to her child. “Why should I talk to it; it doesn’t talk to me” was the response. Another story was 60 % of school children who couldn’t write their names or in some cases didn’t know their names or know that they had one.
    The television being the main “baby sitter” or experience in the forming baby/child’s life
    The stories were endless and tragic. Sink estates keeping the levels of deprivation high.
    In Britain 2011.
    It is nothing about material poverty as they have food, water, a roof over the head, sky TV and junk food(which is not cheap); t is something else impoverishing them. Love and self esteem being the obvious ones.

  2. Quentin’s maths is OK if we neglect the increasing frequency of multiple hits as the network grows, i.e. the likelihood of receiving the same message from different sources. Someone must have done the statistics on this, but I don’t know the outcome.

    Example is a very powerful motive for conduct, good or bad. Thackeray wrote a very effective parody on Werther (worth looking up for anyone who doesn’t know it) and if yobbish behaviour could similarly be made to look ridiculous in the eyes of the yobs themselves we might have a solution to the problem. I’ve no idea how that might be done, however; it would probably depend upon a level of intelligence that the yobs are not able or inclined to exercise.

    At a more practical level Momangelica is clearly right, but a more fundamental cause may be the widespread contempt in whic the concept of responsibility for one’s actions seems to have been held for decades. How on earth we might re-emphasise the importance of responsible partnership (i.e. marriage), responsible parenting and responsible role-modelling when they are discouraged by so much well-meant but disastrous social legislation, goodness only knows.

  3. Momangelica says:

    Have you seen this Randy Engel interview which is worth a look at.
    The removal of the traditional marriage system for raising children was one of the first targets in preparing the way for an odious plan revealed in Randy’s investigative reporting.

  4. John Nolan says:

    Werther had a love for Charlotte
    Such as words could never utter;
    Would you know how first he met her?
    She was cutting bread-and-butter.

    Charlotte was a married lady
    And a moral man was Werther –
    And for all the wealth of Indies
    Would do nothing for to hurt her.

    So he sighed and pined and ogled,
    And his passion boiled and bubbled,
    Till he blew his silly brains out,
    And no more by it was troubled.

    Charlotte, when she saw his body
    Borne before her on a shutter,
    Like a well-conducted person
    Went on cutting bread-and-butter.

    (William Makepeace Thackeray)

  5. claret says:

    We all live in a fine line of honesty and when faced with an unexpected temptation where there appears to be no consequences then it is quite frightening what evil we are capable of. Examples of such individual behaviour are many, and others simply lie dormant within us until opportunity presents itself. Tax evasion, thefts from work of small articles ( unauthorised use of the telephone etc.) are excused/ justified quite easily.
    On a national level who could ever have foreseen how virtually a whole country ( Germany) with a long history of religion, culture, art etc. could so easily succumb to justifying a holocaust and unashamed state-sponsored murder and brutality on a scale that would be unbelievable had it not happened.
    The Prime Minister talks of a sick society but seems oblivious to the sickness of MP’s who as a group ( with exceptions of course,) collectively stole from the tax payer millions of pounds in ‘expenses’ and some even bragged about it. Very few of the culprits have faced any real censure , most simply agreed to pay it back. No looter of shops will ever be able to make the same mitigation!
    What unites all this evil is how easy it is to quiet a conscience, have mindsets that laud the dismissing of morality as being progressive, and to join in criminality if others are doing it and are free of retribution.

    • John Candido says:

      Claret’s comments here are a very fine set of sentiments. Everybody is finely poised on a knife edge to wrongdoing of varying depths; some people more so than others. I agree with the English writer Howard Jacobson’s argument that the answer to why these riots occurred is most likely found in a genuine liberalism, calm rational discourse, which is devoid of judgemental pronouncements and any overarching ideology, from the left or right. He also does not offer anybody who has committed any crimes an escape clause. He was interviewed by ABC television journalist Tony Jones on a program called ‘Lateline’. Go to http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3296091.htm to either read a transcript of the interview or see a record of it.

  6. mike Horsnall says:

    Speaking from out of the dusty recesses of my criminal past, the kind of behaviour you have been witnessing has simple roots:
    1) Fear and its covering shell of bravado.
    2) Lack of self worth and poor/untrained moral fibre.
    3) Lack of a secure family family base.
    4) Youthful easily led stupidity.
    5) Sheer malevolence and definite criminal mindedness among the stronger of the packs
    Underneath and surrounding all that are social deprivation and the indifference of adults..

  7. st.joseph says:

    Advertising watchdog set to sanction more TV abortion Ads.
    The Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) is proposing that commercial abortion providers-such as private hospitals- should be allowed to advertise on TV and radio, as well as so called abortion ‘charities’.(SPUC 8th August 2011)

    A long time Family and Life in Dublin was stunned when he went into a local pub and saw stacks of beer mats featuring adverts from Marie Stopes International.There were hundreds ofof these Stopes beer mats- easily a month’s supply – just waiting to be placed on the bar tables, right where the pub’s customers could not possibly miss them.
    This particular pub has lots of young adults among the customers-just the age group the abortionists like to target.
    Marie Stopes International is the worldwide abortion profiteer that lures pregnant women from Ireland to its web of abortion clinics in England, where it kills over 1,000 babies every week. The ultimate Stopes goal is to get abortion legalised in Ireland and then swamp the country with their enormously-profitable abortion “clinica”.
    More ominously, a top Stopes official boasted that the abortion group may be plotting to expand its beer- mat advertising campaign all across the country. Apparently no part of Ireland will escape this Stopes advertising campaign.
    This Stopes pub advertising campaign comes right on the heels of Stopes’ slick £342,000 advertising on Channel 4- in clear violation of laws forbidding TV abortion adverts in the UK and Ireland.
    Worse still, Britains Committee of Advertising Practice has just announced plans to change the rules about advertising on television, allowing British TV stations to air Stopes abortion ads which are viewed in Irish homes. This is a 180 degree turnabout from the decision last year to keep abortion ads off British airwaves and out of Irish homes.
    I say it is more than the youth who need education. ‘Government Know Thyselves! ‘

  8. John Nolan says:


    Sobrii estote, et vigilate: quia adversarius vester diabolus, tamquam leo rugiens, circuit, quaerens quem devoret: cui resistite, fortes in fide.

    Unaccountably dropped from Compline after Vat2.

  9. st.joseph says:

    John, I sometimes think the Devil is forgotten about and his works.
    We do say it when renewing our Baptismal Vows.
    We sang the Hymn on Sunday ‘I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary. I have noticed for a while now that the last sentence has changed. ‘ When wicked men blaspheme thee, to love and bless thy name’. I wonder why!
    I read a lot of excuses for all the evil happenings in the world to-day, and yet no one mentions Satan!Yet Jesus mentioned it often.Or the fear of the Lord!

    • John Nolan says:


      Get your parish a decent hymn book. I would recommend ‘The Catholic Hymn Book’ edited by the fathers of the London Oratory and published by Gracewing, and Wyse’s hymn has not been tampered with. The greatest victory of the Devil is to convince people that he does not exist, and this has unfortunately permeated to quite high levels in the Church. The new rite of Exorcism is regarded by exorcists as being less effective than the previous one and Cardinals Ratzinger and Medina allowed them to use the older books. The Rituale Romanum of 1614 can now be used by all priests and I have a copy at home which I shall insist be used wnen I am in extremis.

      The renewal of baptismal promises: Abrenuntiatis Satanae- Abrenuntio! was cleverly altered by the old ICEL to: Do you reject Satan? ‘Reject’ in English implies that the entity does not exist, while ‘renounce’, the correct translation, leaves us in no doubt that the devil exists. In my (new) parish the prayer to St Michael is recited after Mass – Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; be thou our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil; may God rebuke him we humbly pray, and do thou, prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down to hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

    • I was very glad to see “when wicked men blaspheme thee” dropped for three reasons.
      1. As I understand it, only God can be blasphemed;
      2. I have seldom if ever heard Mary insulted; and
      3. When she was, it was probably more through ignorance and thoughtlessness than wickedness – thank God.

      For that matter, I detest the whole hymn as it professes sentiments that I could never entertain. It isn’t the only one.

      Nevertheless, it is distressing that genuine if unthinking blasphemy has become so prevalent as to pass without comment. Also, st.joseph is right that a widespread contempt for the very concept of sin must be responsible for a large proportion of the dreadful evils in our society.

      • st.joseph says:

        The Oxford Dictionary says that .
        Blasphemy. Talk impiously:profane in words, revile,Impious speech,profanity..
        I never understood it anything else but disrespect to all things Holy ‘related’ to God and His Church or any religion for that matter, that has a belief in the One True God -the Trinity.
        Whether one profanes Mary our Mother by name or supposition I would therefore consider it a sin of blasphemy Perhaps that is why I believe it ought to be left in the hymn.
        Perhaps a little recognition of things taught in the past wouldn’t go amiss in to-days teaching. One can teach the Fear of the Lord without banging the pulpit.
        We can blame too much on ignorance.
        Maybe Jesus did say ‘Forgive them Father for they know not what they do’, but we have had plenty of Truth taught to us since then.Thank you for your reply.

  10. st.joseph says:

    Thank you John. I dont go to my parish Church, Iworship in a Monastery -Bernadine Sisters. It was unusual to sing the Hymn on Sunday it is mostly hymns never heard of at least by me anyway very old. I am used to them now.
    It was taken over when the Servants of the Paracletes left.6 years ago for troubled priests. There is a wonderful sense of healing there-so some goodness must have come out of it.It is now a Retreat Centre.
    I have a statue of St Michael on top of my TV. and every night I say that prayer to St Michael.It was sent to me from America from the writer Donna Steichen who wrote The Ungodly Rage.
    A real ‘eye opener ‘of a book.

  11. John Nolan says:

    “And Christian feareth Christ who hath a newer face of doom;
    And Christian hateth Mary whom God kissed in Galilee…”
    GK Chesterton in ‘Lepanto’ referring to the protestant heresy.

    You can like, dislike or detest certain hymns, but do not presume to alter what the poet wrote. Faithfulness to the text is the mark of a civilized and literate culture.

  12. st.joseph says:

    A statue the image of Mary and Child was taken from outside a Monastery and found smashed in a ditch, not too long ago. Probably ‘drunken youth!’
    But in the local Abbey a couple of years ago, a statue of Our Lady was painted with some obscene wording. It is not all through ignorance . Hatred does have something to do with it.Like the stealing of the Blessed Sacrament from the Brompton Oratory not so long ago and advertising it most crudly on the web May the Lord forgive them ‘if they do not know what they do’

  13. John Nolan says:

    A Host was found discarded in the cloister of the Birmingham Oratory and an EF mass was offered in reparation for the sacrilege. Communion in the hand is not normative and should not be allowed.

  14. st.joseph says:

    On a Pilrimage to Lourdes from Westminster last year,Mass at the Shrine a lady shouted to a women who aparrently away with a Host. She was one from our group. She was then saying in the hotel she was taking it home to a sick friend. A long story without going into it all, Very upsetting at the time.I felt rather sick.I do agree that not enough care is taken when administering the Blessed Sacrament some times.I have come across lots of incidences far too many.

  15. John Nolan says:

    Someone I know who is an EMHC (not that I agree with their being deployed during Mass) told me that a girl approached her with a mobile phone in her hand – she had spent the last half-hour texting. Since she wasn’t a priest she could not refuse her Communion.

  16. st.joseph says:

    At an evening Mass at a Padre Pio prayer meeting. Mass was offered up for someone -hence some children were there. Two children were passing a Consecrated Host to each other in the seat. A lady sitting behind told them to stop and consume the Host. (Not the Monastery I go to now)
    At Lourdes last year when speaking about the above comment about a lady taking the Host, a lady from a parish in London somwhere I cant remember now, but the cleaners often picked up Hosts from the floor. Hence the priest stopped Holy Communion in the hand.
    At my grandaughters first Holy C0mmunion, my son insisted that she received on the tongue-and she did not object, even though everyone else received in the hand. He is not a traditionilst to that extent,just believes that some people do not realise the Sacredness of it.

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