Should We Fear the "Werther Effect?"
by Michael Stankovich, CA
In 1774, Johann von Goethe (a Romanticist contemporary of Wordsworth, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Colridge, Hawthorne, Poe, & Whitman) published a novel that distinguished him as a profound literary voice: The Sorrows of Young Werther. In this novel, Werther was a young artist, tormented by unrequited love, who came to believe that the only resolution to his sorrow was to take his own life, which he did.
Obviously, it was the brillance and passion of Goethe's writing that enamoured him to similar young men, but there was an unexpected, alarming phenomenon also occurring: young men began to mimic Werther's "solution" by committing suicide. in 1974, David Phillips, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, in examing existing suicide data, corroborated what only a few had already observed: whenever a media source discussed the phenomenon of suicide, at least for a time, the rate of suicide significantly increased. And the irony to this discovery lay in the fact that even the report that a new community resource existed to prevent suicide, was as likely to account for an increase in suicide as a media report of the gruesome details of an actual suicide. Dr. David Phillips referred to this as the "Werther Effect," and its application since has not simply been limited theoretically to suicide alone, but is frequently associated with any behaviour that is a "copy-cat" behaviour, prompted simply by discussion.
In reaction to the identification of the Werther Effect, the most common international response - from China to Europe - was to call for legislation to control the media's dissemination of information; to impose an "ethical standard" on media bodies that ran the spectrum from suggestion (e.g. refrain from reporting the details of "successful" suicide - now referred to as "completed" - sensationalizing, claiming it "heroic," etc.), to outright media bans on the reporting of suicide completely. Surprisingly ironic is the fact that, for many years, Norway alone forbade the media to report suicide; yesterday, a blog on the UK's The Telegraph newspaper website asks, "Norway killings: does media coverage inspire copycats?" Further, in reporting the recent riots that spread across England, the Sunday New York Times began a story describing a mother, standing in court before a judge at an arraignment hearing for her 8 year old son charged with looting, who simply asks him, "Why?" And in case after case, we are asking of "ordinarily" moral people who engaged in such dramatically uncharacteristic behaviour, "why?"
The next-of-kin to the Werther Effect is the theory of "Cascading Information" where individuals, in a complex process, observe what others have chosen, and make the same choice, without the characteristic "input" of their own guiding principles in what then appears to be "rational choice." To clarify, this is not mindless "mimicry": it is a process of making a "rational" decision without enough information. Graetefully, most times cascades lead to a correct "decision," but sometimes, the cascade may lead to decisions completely random and incorrect; perhaps even disasterous. Most importantly, choices involving a lowering of the decision "threshold" are more disturbing because thay are arrived at with a fundamental absence of accurate information.
I have read opinions here and elsewhere that offer
Satayana-esque warnings that we should rely, in toto, on the history of current Western heresy, that supposely began by "discussion," dialog, and questioning; suggesting that "discussion," in and of itself, is covert, manipulative, and a subtle, persuasive, narcotic seduction of those less than "traditional." And finally, concluding that such observations are, then, "predictive" and invetible. Invective has supplanted any attempt to present "data" deemed contradictory and oppositional.
In any other circumstance, I would have begun this reflection with the Truth:
"On this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18)
"Therefore, whosoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock" (Mt 7:24)
"When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand form forever" (Prov 10:25)
"It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous" (Rom 2:13)
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves" (jm 1:22)
With St. John Climacus' 21st Step of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, "On Unmanly Fears": Cowardice is childish behaviour within a soul advanced in years and vainglory. It is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected. Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is loss of assurance. A proud sould is the slave of cowardice. Trusting only itself, it is frightened by a sound or a shadow.
Supplemented with the discussion I once had with the late Prof. S.S. Verhovskoy regarding "inclination" and "probability": there are things so improbable, and people can be so disinclined, that even knowing God is God and that the Holy Spirit goes where He wishes, we may emphatically state that some things will never change. And in this we have faith, and in this we trust.
The Werther Effect and phenomenon such as Information Cascades will never occur when three factors are operative: the decision "threshold" is not low enough and the information is not persuasive; those in the "network" are not well enough connected, therefore not vulnerable enough for influence to spread; or, the "network" is well connected, stable, and is affectionate and respectful. "Shocks" are inherent, and even the smallest propogates. "Shocks" are frequent and continuous, yet history and our Faith tell us we will remain the same. This we trust.
It seems, then, that, like transparency and accountability, discussion should be demanded and not restricted.