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The Psychology of "Copycat Killers"

Exploring the relationship between crime-related media coverage and murder.

Key points

  • According to a study of 574 people in prison, 22% admitted to having committed a copycat crime.
  • Data shows most copycat killers already had a violent streak before they began killing.
  • Crime-related media coverage can give troubled individuals inspiration, ideas, and impetus to brag about their plans.

Time and again, 18-year-old George Knights, who was recently convicted of the stabbing murder of a 38-year-old father of five during a cocaine deal, has repeatedly been called a “Breaking Bad copycat killer” in the media.

It’s true that he appears to be a fan of the television show; he apparently got the idea to dissolve the body of his victim in sulphuric acid (which he did) from an episode. He also used “Walter White,” the name of the show’s main character, as a “memorable word” on his computer and reportedly manufactured his own methamphetamines.

However, if he ever was following a television script for his murders, he certainly veered off. The night before the murder, he allegedly told a friend he wanted to rob and hurt someone by injecting them with insulin, not a plan that ever showed up on Breaking Bad. He also had made plans to kidnap a female celebrity but — fortunately — was arrested before he could put plans into action. Clearly, George Knights is more than a Walter White wannabe.

What Is a Copycat Crime?

A copycat crime is a criminal act that is modeled after or inspired by a previous crime that has been reported in the media or published in fiction. Few copycat crimes are exact replicas of the event that inspired them. Instead, the imitator lifts and copies certain elements — motivation, technique, setting, etc. — of the original crime. While most copycat crimes occur within two years of the initial incident, a crime can occur any number of years after the original crime. At least 74 plots or attacks across 30 states have been inspired by two teenage boys who fatally shot 13 people and injured 24 others at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999.

However, crimes can easily be misidentified as copycats. Sometimes this is due to coincidental similarities. Sometimes the “copycat” crimes were committed by the same person. Sometimes the media spotlight on a certain type of crime makes it seem like there’s a rash of copycats when it’s really just an increase in coverage. For these reasons, as well as variances in geography, timing, and circumstances, copycat crimes are hard to detect. In fact, the only way to really determine if a crime is a copycat crime is to catch the criminal and find out why they did it. And even then, we often have to rely on the perpetrator to tell the truth.

Do Criminals Really Copy Each Other?

Professor Ray Surette decided to try and answer that question by surveying 574 male and female inmates about their criminal behavior. These prisoners were pretty evenly split between white and black (close to 40%) and 15% were Latino. The majority (75%) were male and a third were under age 27. Most had lengthy rap sheets (5+ arrests), with only 8% in jail on their first charge. Professor Surette also asked questions about each inmate’s exposure to real-world crime via his or her neighborhood, friends, and family members and collected data about each inmate’s exposure and reaction to crime-related media.

Twenty-two percent of the inmates admitted having committed a copycat crime; one out of five of these crimes were violent. Men were more likely than women to copy someone else’s crime and they were most likely to do it early in their criminal career. Not surprisingly, they were also most likely to copy the criminal behavior of a real-world crime model, such as a friend or a relative.

Criminals most likely to copy a crime from the media were those who were already predisposed to use it for those reasons. Approximately 20 percent of the inmates saw the media as a valuable resource for learning how to commit a crime and one out of every six stated they were drawn to crime-related stories; these same inmates were significantly more likely to have committed a previous copycat crime. Thus, at least among repeat offenders, crime-related media is most likely to inspire or instruct someone who is already pre-inclined to break the law and may be looking for a better way to do it.

Influencing Those Already on the Brink

But what about individuals who’ve never been in jail? Is it possible that the media hype around a mass shooting, or the popularity of a serial killer show like Dexter, can turn a law-abiding citizen into a violent felon? Most of us scoff at this idea; I’ve watched many slasher films, seemingly endless loops of school shootings, and am a big fan of Forensic Files. Yet I’ve never had even a passing thought of putting what I’ve seen into practice. The odds are, you haven’t either.

Research tells us that no amount of sensationalized crime coverage will send a happy, well-adjusted citizen over the edge. For individuals predisposed to violence, though, crime-related media can fan the flames of violence in two ways. First, it can lower that person’s natural human inhibition against killing by allowing him to create some psychological distance from what he is about to do. Temporarily taking on a persona or character of someone else makes it easier to harm others; it allows him to act in a way in which he generally would not act otherwise and psychologically separate his own identity from the role he is playing. This is most likely to happen in the two weeks after a high-profile murder.

Second, crime media can be a powerful teaching tool. If one is oriented towards violence, violent media can direct the motivated person to where, what, and how to succeed. It can also reinforce the notion that reproducing the original crime, or — even better, topping it — will result in the attention and publicity the first one received. This can be a powerful motivator for individuals who seek the same level of attention.

The Bottom Line

Data tells us that most people convicted of copycat murders already had a violent streak or were mentally unstable before they began killing. As such, crime-related media coverage is more like a rudder than a trigger, providing a troubled individual with direction along a path they’ve already begun traveling down.

There’s also a silver lining in the relationship between crime-related media and copycat crimes. Just as aspiring deviants may look to the media for ideas and inspiration, they also use it to brag about their plans. More than one mass shooting has been thwarted by a savvy social media user who read online threats or comments alluding to violence and alerted the police.

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