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Does The Media Contribute To Car Wreck And Plane Wreck Fatalities?

Apparently so. For trial issues, I occasionally read psychology based books, and I’m currently reading Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I’m probably late to the party on this one, but one thing Dr. Cialdini talks about in the book is the “Werther effect.” The Werther effect is based on the principle of social proof, that we use actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves. The Werther effect is the phenomenon of copycat suicides; the rate of suicides increases dramatically following a well publicized suicide. That’s not really surprising; we’ve all heard of that.

The more surprising and disturbing findings are that publicized suicides are also good leading indicators for a rise in fatal airplane crashes and a rise in fatal car wrecks. As you can see from the chart (from the book), there is an amazing correlation.

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Professor David Phillips, who coined the phrase Werther effect, is of the opinion that these increases in fatal crashes are all explained by copycat suicides. When people learn of another’s suicide, a number of people decide that suicide is appropriate for themselves as well. Some commit “run of the mill” suicides, but others, for whatever reason, don’t want their deaths to appear as suicides. Thus, the increase in fatal “accidents.”

But the correlation goes beyond mere numbers. Professor Phillips found that when news stories reported about single suicides, the number of single-victim crashes increased. When news stories reported about multiple-victim suicides, the number of multi-victim crashes increased. When news stories reported about a young person committing suicide, the number of crashes by young people increased. When news stories reported about an older person committing suicide, the number of crashes by older individuals increased.

Professor Phillips also noted that, following a report of suicide, the severity of wrecks increased. For example, the number of people killed in a commercial airliner crash is more than three times greater when the crash occurred a week after a publicized suicide. Likewise, victims of fatal car wrecks that follow a publicized suicide die four times more quickly than normal. Why? In a normal accident, those involved are trying to survive. In a suicide, those involved are trying to ensure that they don’t survive (thus perhaps hitting the accelerator a little harder instead of hitting the brakes).

I find this horrifying. In what we typically think of as a “copycat suicide,” only the deceased dies. But with Professor Phillips’ findings, it’s much more than that; the Werther effect can result in the deaths of countless innocent individuals.

What can we do about it? Like many psychological phenomena, being aware of the issue is half the battle. Dr. Cialdini notes that he changes his behavior after a high profile suicide. He is more cautious in the car and is more reluctant to travel by air. That’s probably good advices for all of us.

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