Mass media influence on suicide. The Werther effect

Ermanno Pavesi, Mario Di Fiorino

Mass media influence on suicide. The Werther effect*

Published in "Suicidal behaviour and risk factors" (1990.

The "Werther effect" is used to designate the important role played by the imitation upon the suicidal behaviours, when a suicide story is publicized, also is described in fiction. The expression is linked to the series os suicides occured above all in Germany after the publication of J.W. v. Goethe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (1774) (1).

The novel was banned in several European cowntryes. Also in Italy a similar phenomenon happened after the U. Foscolo's work "The Jacopo Ortis Last Letters" (3); the Author himself wrote that the novel "could have exerted a noxious influence on too generous and impulsive characters". In reality many young men killed theirselves, after having felt like Jacopo Ortis, following the fate of the Foscolo's hero.

In more recent years, for other episodes, the hypothesis got stronger that suicides were caused by the imitation for similar reports published in newspapers.

In order to verify the hypothesis, J. A. Motto has examined the variations of percentage of the suicides during a long strike of newspapers in Detroit from November 1967 to August 1968 (4). Motto found a decrease of the suicides in comparison with the average of the five previous years, but the tendency downward extended also for the next year. The frequency of suicides in sex and age did not show a regular trend: while the frequency of suicides of males was almost costant, that of females presented a clear diminution, more accentuated in women under 35 years of age.

Phillips in a study in 1974 (2) has compared the increased suicide rates in the USA in the month after the publication of front-page stories of suicides, with the suicides which might have been expected from calculations. From 1948 to 1967, 34 suicide stories had these characteristics. In 26 cases the number of suicides was significantly higher than the number expected. In order to exclude the possibility that the increase was caused not by the notice itself of the suicide, but by the death of celebrities, Phillips examined the trend of suicide after the deaths of 8 Presidents of the United States, occured between 1900 and 1968. The increase was not statistically significant, also after the murder of J.F.Kennedy there was a light increase of suicides.

In following researches Phillips found that there was also an increase of fatal car accidents (5) and airplanes crashes (6) after the publication of suicide stories.

In 1982 Phillips himself, studing the role of fictional presentation of suicide in television on suicidal and other violent behaviours, noticed an increase of suicide in white Americans, after the broadcast of fictional suicides, with white actors, by a television in the U.S.A. (7).

Phillips pointed out also an increase of fatal car accidents higher when the driver was alone than in accidents with more passengers.

These findings were criticized by Kessler and Stipp (1984) for methodological shortcomings (8).

Later on Bollen and Phillips, putting an interpretation of the influence of television reports on the number of suicide cases, subdivided two types of imitation effects: an "overt" imitation as an explicit suicide, and a "covert" imitation, masked as a fatal car accident or an airplane crash.. The Authors ascertained a difference of the average interval between the television broadcast and suicide, longer in the suicide cases "covert type". This suicide type would be expression of less decision and larger ambivalence than those "overt type", which show theirselves in a period of indecision and in a late reply to the suicide story.

According to Durkheim (1897) (10) "with rarest exceptions, the imitation is not an original factor of suicide", it cannot be the first cause, "it makes the state appear to be true cause inducing the act, , and which, in all likelihood, would try to get its natural effect also in this fact had not happened". Consequently he thought it is useless to prohibit the newspapers publish suicideís stories, as this precautionary measure would reduce only in the least the frequency of suicidal acts. We must remember that Durkheim distinguished several current acceptations of term imitation, however he reserved the use of this term only to well defined situations, believing that imitation takes place only "when an act has, as immediate antecedent, the representation of a similar act, previously achieved by others, without the insertion of an intellectual operation, explicit or implicit, which concern the intrinsic characters of the reproduced act, between representation and accomplishment".

This definition corresponds rather to what is defined, in Psychology, "imitative reflex". On the contrary "imitative action" is different as it presupposes the intellectual elaboration of the representation of the act, in any way, also for the imitative not reflex behaviour it is true that "if in our behaviour we undergo the influence of our neighbour or not, this depends on what this our behaviour serves our purposes, our interests, our whishes, our needs. (...) The person or the act imitated must have meaning for the subject. The beaviour of others can only induce the imitative behaviour, but cannot cause it".

Studies aimed to investigate the effect which are unulterably attribuited to one or more mass media, have not led to verify only and certainly dependent effects on their action.

Generally we believe that the mass media can with difficulty exert a direct decisive effect on the behaviour. This seems tobe linked to the enviromnent, to the education, and to several other factors, and then it varies according to the individual, and to situation, therefore the mass media can lead to suicide only those who were, consciously or unconsciously, already predisposed in that way.

Imitation can play only on these subject, and not on all indistinctly; according to Stengel (11), as someone comes to kill himself, it is not enough that the imitative impulse acts on a mental state already inclined to suicide, but a relationship must be between the subject and the person whose behaviour is imitated. The mental process which induces this type of selective imitation has been called "identification".

A confirmation of this thesis comes from an event happened in Germany some years ago. A serial story of weekly episodes, titled "Death of a Student" was broadcast twice in 1981 and in 1982. Every week, the suicide of the young student, run over by train, apparently incomprensible, was examined under a particular viewpoint: the relationships with his parents, his girlfriend, his fellow student and his teachers, showed conflicts behind an apparent normality. The broacast had a remarkable success and a great echo.

Schmidtke and Haefner (1986) (12) have studied that over an extended period (up to 70 days after the first broacast) the number of railway suicides increased considerably, with a maximum among 15 and 19 years old males), therefore with the same age of the protagonist (up to 175%).

Then we can say that imitation represents only the switch of a larger circuit ready to be put in action, it is the rousing cause of an event, whose true motivations must be looked for elsewhere; in according to Durkheim "the social degree of suicides is explained only sociologically. It is the moral constitution of the society which establishes, in any moment, the contingent of the voluntary deaths. For every people a collective strenght exists, of a certain energy, which drives men to kill theirselves" (10).

A review of the literature about the role of the imitation on the suicide, which takes itself within the larger ambit of the studies about the influence of violence portrayed upon direct aggressive behaviour, shows the complex interaction of model and observer.

The Singer's survey research (1979) (13) openly mentions the possibility that adults strongly aroused by some external violence could indeed imitate some of aggression witnessed on the screen. He suggests the possibility that the high content of justified aggression presented in films and television may lower normal inhibitions and anxieties concerning the expression of aggression, or such acts in contrast with the more normal restraints.

On the contrary other clinicians support the catharsis hiyothesis: fictional depiction of violence represents a safety-valve aggressive experiences that limits overt aggressive behaviours in the population (14, 15).

According to Baron (1977, 16), Bandura's studies and researches (17) failed to provide strong evidence for the suggestion that televised violence encourages aggressivness.

Psychological and sociological factors complicated the elaborations and the comparison of the findings.

We can, however, agree with Dickstra's recommendation "that in the interests of suicide prevention the media should exercise great prudence and restraint in news items concerning suicide and in publishing articles or broadcasting programs concerning cases of suicidal behaviour" (1989, 18).

In conclusion, if we do not consider the suicide as due to a free choice, we may not neglect any aspect.


1) GOETHE J W v: The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774 (Italian version: I dolori del giovane Werther, Einaudi, Torino, 1962).

2) PHILLIPS D P: The influence of suggestion on suicide: substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect. Am Sociol rev 39, 340-354, 1974.

3) FOSCOLO U: Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis. Stamperia del Genio Tipografico, Milano, 1802.

4) MOTTO J A: Newpaper influence on suicide. A controlled study. Arch Gen Psichiat 23, 143-148, 1970.

5) PHILLIPS D P: Suicide, motor-vehicle fatalities and the massmedia: toward a theory of imitation and suggestion. Am J Sociol, 84, 1150-1174, 1979.

6) PHILLIPS D P Airplane accidents, murder, and the massmedia: towards a theory of imitation and suggestio. Social Forces 58, 1001-1024, 1980.

7) PHILLIPS D P: The impact of fictional television stories on U.S. adult fatalities ; new wvidence on the effect of the massmedia on violence, Am J Sociol 87, 1340-1359, 1982.

8) KESSLER R C, STIPP H: The impact of fictional television suicide stories on US fatalities: a replication. Am J Sociol 90, 151-167, 1984.

9) BOLLEN K A, PHILLIPS D P: Suicidal motor vehicle fatalities in Detroit; a replication. Am J Sociol 87, 404-412, 1981.

10) DURKHEIM E: Le Suicide. Etude de Sociologie. Alca, Paris, 1897 (Italian version, Il suicidio studio di sociologia, Milano, 1987).

11) STENGEL E: A survey of follow up examinations of attempted suicide. Eds J Waldenstro m, T. Larson and N Ljmgstedt, Stockholm: Nordiska Bokhandchus Forlag, 1972.

12) SCHIMDKTE A, HAEFNER H: Die Vermittlung von Selbstmordhandlung durch fiktive Modelle. Die Folgen der Fernsehserie "Tod eines Schulers". Nervenartz, 57, 502-510, 1986.

13) SINGER J L: The control of Aggression and Violence. New York, 1979. 14) FESHBACH S: The drive-reducing function of fantasy behavior. J of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 50, 3-11, 1955.

15) LEVINE S: Motivation in humor. New York, Atherton, 1968.

16) BARON R A: Human Aggression, Plenim Press, New York and London, 1977.

17) BANDURA A, ROSS D, ROSS S: Imitation of film- mediated aggressive models. J of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11, 1963.

18) DICKSTRA R F W: Towards a comprehensive strategy for the prevention of suicidal behavior, 1989.

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