Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Copycat Instinct.

Ben Goldacre criticises the media coverage of a high profile suicide case, on the grounds that such coverage tends to lead to a spike in the number of suicides* . Similarly after a high profile spree killing there tends to be a few similar events that follow. The almost pornographic focus on that German killer recently is an example of the kind of coverage that shouldn't happen.

In other words humans are influenced by what we see or hear about, this includes fictional depictions as well as news coverage. Sure only a very small proportion of people will be pushed into suicide or spree killings by what they see, but the nature of the mass media is that it reaches a large number of people- and a small proportion of a huge number can be quite significant. Less extreme behaviours might be easier to prod people towards.

It therefore seems likely that the depiction of various kinds of negative behaviour in the media will make them more widespread, particularly if it is in a glamorous form. This is a problem if one believes in free speech or enjoys entertainment that features undesirable behaviour, a solution can't be imposed without violating free speech. Naming and shaming the outlets which do revel in horror stories rather than simply report them is probably the only thing that can be done.

* Conversely suicides decline after blanket coverage of a terrorist attack, so if any terrorists do want to kill a bunch of people, but are feeling kind of guilty about the prospect then do so after a high profile suicide and you'll probably save lives.

update: Just to emphasise- this isn't a call to restrict free speech, just a recognition that for all its benefits it has costs too.


Peter said...

I find it interesting that Goldacre criticises the Telegraph for being too truthful, given that his whole career is dedicated to exposing "bad science".
Comment is free, and facts are sacred, once again.

JuliaM said...

It's the 'wrong kind of truth', obviously...

Ross said...

I can see where's he'c coming from, although the complicated and bloody suicide by chainsaw method is unlikely to provide an inspiration to many people.

Edwin Greenwood said...

This whole area is just too airy-fairy to come to a facile conclusion.

If someone is really so impressionable that the mere report, graphic or not, of a suicide will persuade them to kill themselves, despite having no prior suicidal inclinations, then that person is so seriously psychologically flawed that they merit the attention of the mental health system, rather than having society adapt its practices to anticipate and exclude their perverse response. How is such a person going to deal with the ordinary disappointments and difficulties of normal life, let alone suggestive media reports?

(Though it seems that much government policy is based on precisely that kind of overdefensive thinking.)

It might be that someone who does have suicidal leanings might be tipped over the edge, but then they might equally be tipped over the edge a week later by some entirely unrelated personal event. Then again they might not. That's a bit more tricky.

This seems to me like the old argument that access to porn leads directly to rape or other sexual offences. It might. Then again in some potential offenders it might serve as a sufficiently effective displacement. Who knows? Correlating the incidence of sticky wankmags against the count of unmolested schoolgirls might well be a fairly tricky research project to set up.

This business is, as someone misphrased it, half of one and six dozen of the other. I'd say it's not something that's amenable to quick-fix solutions by wannabe social engineers waving a few dubiously correlated stats about.