Kidding Ourselves

The hidden power of self-deception

School Shootings, Suicide, and Contagion

Suicidal school attacks may not be isolated events.

 

In the early morning hours of August 5, 1962, police in Los Angeles were called to a home in exclusive neighborhood of Brentwood. There, on the second floor of the home, they found the body of a beautiful young woman. She was nude and lying face down on a rumpled bed. Like many young women in Los Angeles, she had led a troubled life: a lousy childhood, several busted marriages, trips in and out of psychiatric wards. And, like many, she had tried to reinvent herself here, even going so far as to change her name. At birth, it had been Norma Jeane Mortenson; but in death, it was Marilyn Monroe.

An empty bottle of sleeping pills was found near her bed, and her death was ruled a “probable suicide.” The following day, stories of Marilyn Monroe’s death at the age of thirty-six appeared on radio and television and in newspapers around the world. And there the story of Marilyn Monroe often ends. But in the days and weeks after her death, something unusual began happening: other people, in apparent imitation, began killing themselves.

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At first, this was noticed only in New York City, where Monroe’s death was believed to be a factor in a record wave of suicides that swept the city. On Sunday, August 12, exactly one week after Monroe’s death, a twenty-eight-year-old girl drowned herself in a bathtub on East Tenth Street, a laborer in Staten Island shot himself, and a prominent executive plunged from the eighth floor of his apartment on Washington Square West. In all, 12 people killed themselves in New York that day. This was six times the city’s daily average, and set a new single-day record, breaking the previous record of eight.

But the wave of suicides did not stop at the Hudson. It rolled across the rest of the nation, as people elsewhere killed themselves in unusually large numbers. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death, suicides throughout the United States increased by 12 percent, according to one study.

The wave even swelled across the Atlantic. Suicides in England and Wales, where Monroe was popular, also increased, rising 10 percent. In the two-month period following Monroe’s death, according to a well-known study by Professor David P. Phillips, there were 303 “excess” suicides in the U.S., and 60 in England and Wales. In all, Marilyn Monroe’s death likely spawned deadly acts of imitation by 363 complete strangers.

As other research by Dr. Phillips and his colleagues has shown, suicide is often contagious–especially among the young. Teenagers seem particularly prone to acts of self-harm. One seminal study in the 1970s, for instance, found that the national rate of suicide among teenagers rises significantly just after television news or feature stories about suicide are broadcast. Moreover, this increase varied with the intensity of the coverage: The more networks that carried a story about suicide, the higher the increase that followed.

The tendency to imitate highly publicized suicides is often called the “Werther Effect” after the protagonist in Goethe's novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” The novel, in which the hero kills himself, was banned in some European countries after its publication nearly 200 years ago because of a rash of suicides by young men who had read it. Some had dressed like Werther or had left the book open to the passage detailing his death when they killed themselves.

This pattern of behavior may be implicated in the recent spate of school shootings, in which the shooter ends up a suicide–either by his own hand or at the hands of police. Earlier this week, for instance, a 15-year-old boy entered his school in Oregon where he shot and killed a fellow student. Then, according to press reports, he retreated to a bathroom stall, where he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That shooting followed several others in which young men have killed others before turning the gun on themselves.

Whether and to what degree these young men were influenced by the actions of others is unknown. The nature of this type of influence is that it is often subconscious; we drink the Kool-Aid without realizing we have drunk it.

But the question seems worth asking. This is especially important since the media that connect us to each other are far more immediate–and far more intimate–than they were in the days of Goethe.

Sources:

Talese, G. (1962). 12 Suicides Here Set a Day’s Mark. New York Times, Aug. 14.

Phillips, D. P. (1974). The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect. Am. Sociological Rev., 39: 340–54.

Phillips, D.P. and Carstensen, L.L. (1986). Clustering of Teenage Suicides After Television New Stories About Suicide. New England Journal of Medicine, 315(11): 685-9.

Goleman, D. (1987). Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths. New York Times, Mar. 18.

 

Joseph T. Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception.

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