Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review -- The Copycat Effect by Loren Coleman, MSW

            This book is really interesting but disturbing.

            And the subtitle pretty much explains it:  “How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines.”

            Although the premise of the book is all about sensationalism, the book’s presentation and writing are anything but:  measured, relatively clinical.  But in the sections where he departs from the recounting of crime to discuss the emotional aspects of these crimes, Coleman allows his human compassion for victims (and perpetrators) to show.

            The book begins with a look at the imitative suicides that followed the popularity of Goethe’s  The Sorrows of Young Werther (originally published in 1774).

            He next examines “waves” or “clusters” of crimes, mostly murders and/or suicides, that can be directly traced back to an earlier popularized crime.  These categories include:
  • ·         snipers from high places
  • ·         planes into buildings
  • ·         school shootings
  • ·         arson crimes
  • ·         cult followers
  • ·         “Cobain copycats”
  • ·         celebrity deaths and inspiration from movies such as The Deer Hunter
  • ·         “going postal”
… and such.  It’s really stunning to see how many imitative suicides or other crimes can follow a publicized “original.”

            In the chapter on snipers and popular media’s reaction to the Charles Whitman murders of 1966, Coleman leaves one (to me) important thing out.  I am surprised that in his list of fictional depictions of similar violence, he doesn’t appear to know that the 1968 film Targets was also sparked by the Whitman shootings.  Although this Peter Bogdanovich movie isn’t a celebrated classic of cinema, it’s still important in the hearts of horror fans in its tale of the conflict of modern, real-life horror (the sniper) with “classic,” fictional horror (Boris Karloff as Byron Orlock, a horror star who’s been out-horribled by modern history).

            But putting that monster-kid memory aside, on with the book review …

            In each chapter, Coleman describes a “seed” or original crime, which, given high publicity and media discussion, seems to spark an imitating reaction in others.  Who are these others?  Often they are people in transition -- adults with no job or friends; adolescents whose self-worth is often tied to what they think their peers think of them; folks who have lost a loved one to death, or lost a job.

            It’s sad and depressing to realize that many people have such tenuous ties to the rest of us that they are so easily swayed to throw their lives away.  They value themselves (and others, when they do more than commit suicide) as so much metaphorical “dust in the wind.”  Without “the human connection,” then any behavior is unrestricted.  Why not go out in a blaze of glory, if you feel stirred by some recent movie, or sensationalized crime you saw on the TV news?  After all, the reasoning goes, what’s better than attention?  It’s not as if those other people are anything but puppets like you.  Why not cut some strings?

            If you are well grounded in the love of a family or group of friends or church, then it’s very saddening to read page after page (more than four pages in some spots) of Coleman’s brief, one sentence summaries of the ending of one or more lives.  If you’re an emotionally secure, compassionate reader like me, you wish you could say to each troubled person, “Life can be worthwhile!  You as a person are worthwhile!  Your existence is something to treasure, not discard!”

            Most of these crimes could have been averted had the imitator, the “copycat,” felt stronger emotional or human ties to others.  The problem is, most of us humans are too preoccupied with our own (probably VERY SMALL) difficulties to reach out and connect with people who need it.

            In fact, he describes several instances where suicides have been averted at a certain location that has seemed “popular.”  Sometimes the erecting of a fence or barrier has greatly reduced what seem to be impulsive suicides.  In at least one study, a follow-up on attempted suicides found that ninety-five percent of them were still alive ten years later.  They had been prevented from jumping off a certain bridge, and when the impulse passed, evidently so did the impetus to “end it all.”

            In his closing chapters Coleman looks at the roots of these crimes and sums up what the reader has noticed all long:  Most of these acts are some strange kind of “Monkey see, monkey do” behaviors.  They likely wouldn’t have happen without the press coverage and sensationalized accounts that describe “the original” action.

            As he says at the opening of Chapter 17:
     The validity of the copycat effect is undeniable.  This human phenomenon, which is hundreds if not thousands of years old, is being accelerated by our brave new world of in-your-face, wall-to-wall news coverage.  The media’s graphic coverage of rampage shootings, celebrity suicides, bridge jumpers, school shootings, and the like is triggering vulnerable and angry people to take their own lives and lives of others. … Denying the clear evidence, as presented in these pages, that the copycat effect exists, is foolhardy.

            The book closes with a set of recommendations toward a scaling-back of this irresponsible omnipresent coverage or violent acts.  For example, “the media should never publish a report on suicide or murder-suicide without adding the protective factors, such as the contact information for hotlines, help lines, soft lines, and other community resources ….” (page 260).

            Although he acknowledges that members of today’s mass media will be eager to shrug off their responsibilities for the spread of copycat crimes, that doesn’t make their blame go away:  “The time has come for someone to say, Stop it.  Stop sensationalizing the violence.  Stop triggering violent behaviors now” (page 261).

            Reading this book is an experience that makes you feel not only sorrowful at all of these wasted lives, but hopeful that you and I can make a meaningful, helpful difference in another person’s life if we are willing to.

ENDING NOTE TO READERS OF THIS REVIEW:  Loren Coleman is listed as “MSW,” which stands for “Master of Social Work.”  This book, and a a series of other titles listed at the front of the book, are about topics in mainstream sociology.

            Mentioned nowhere in this book is author Loren Coleman’s “other” area of expertise, that of the study of Cryptozoology and witnesses’ perceptions and interactions with the oddities they encounter.  However, his his website makes no bones about his interests on strange happenings.

            I certainly hope that Coleman’s audiences can criss-cross, because you don’t have to be a connoisseur of oddities to appreciate this book, nor should Coleman’s academic colleagues turn up their noses at the very real phenomena that are reported by people who see something weird.

            This here’s a sobering but very absorbing book that makes you resolve to try and treat people a little nicer.



Loren Coleman said...

Thank you for your appreciation of my difficult, scholarly work on this book, to prove my thesis. Nowadays, the media realize what's happening, but have not changed their methodology.

Mark Alfred said...

I'm thrilled that you happened across this review. I admire the work you've done in many different fields! My wife's a social worker, and social behavior is always a fascinating subject.

While we are naturally "social animals," it's sad and to be lamented when you realize how easily some folks are swayed -- by others' actions -- to do bad things.

In my opinion, the idea of individual responsibility is not taught as strongly or as often as it should!

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