Copycats

COPYCATS….Yesterday I was musing over the hoary old suggestion that widespread coverage of mass murders inspires copycat mass murders. In the case of the Cho killings at Virginia Tech, this has been trotted out as a reason for withholding Cho’s videos from public view. After all, why “reward” Cho with exactly what he probably wanted? Doesn’t that just send a message to other would-be mass murderers that shooting up a classroom is their path to media immortality too?

This is surely an appealing theory, and one that seems to make a lot of sense. But is it true? Do mass murderers typically take their inspiration from previous mass murderers? The Columbine kids famously wrote about how they intended to “outdo” Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing — though this was but one in an astonishing stew of motivations — but how about other mass murderers? Is copycat-ism a common motivation?

I’m not pretending that this is anything remotely like a conclusive piece of research, but I got curious and went through the list of American mass murders since 1990 as compiled on this Wikipedia page. Basically, there are plenty of similarities: deep-seated feelings of grievance, revenge fantasies, depression, and psychosis of various kinds. Some of the murderers appear to have been partly inspired by various books and TV shows. But aside from the Columbine killers, only one, Jeff Weise, who killed seven students at Red Lake High School a couple of years ago, appears to have been even partly motivated by a previous killing.

What’s more, ever since mass murders became relatively common affairs starting in the mid-80s, their frequency hasn’t really increased: they’ve averaged one or two a year ever since.

This data is obviously anecdotal and the Wikipedia list is incomplete. In other words, I’m not trying to make any indisputable claims here. What’s more, the simple fact that mass murders are fairly common these days probably does make it a more obvious form of retaliation for individuals who are already either mentally unhinged or on the edge of psychosis. And God knows I’d prefer it if the media toned down the coverage of these events by a factor of a thousand or so.

Still, does publicizing specific mass murders inspire copycats? I’m not so sure about that. In fact, it might be just the opposite: the massive publicity these events generate makes everybody far more vigilant about the possibility of “disturbed loners” in their midst and might actually reduce the likelihood of copycat sprees. What’s more, when all is said and done, most of these killers come across in media accounts as delusional, hopeless losers, not as heroes to emulate.

On the other hand, there have been five more post office killing sprees since Patrick Sherrill started the trend in 1986. It’s a little hard to chalk that up totally to coincidence.

Anyway, just something to chew over. Further data is welcome in comments.

UPDATE: See Todd Gitlin here for an opposing viewpoint. And Megan McArdle here. Neither presents any evidence that media coverage actually prompts copycats, but they make sensible points nonetheless. More data is needed!