The Jubilee

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  • February 2011
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The Werther Effect, social uprisings and market trends

Posted by Alex Krainer on February 21, 2011

We all like to think of ourselves as rational individuals, independent in our thinking and sovereign in our judgment and decision making. Well, partly we all are like that. But in part – and this is an important and very mysterious part – we’re not.

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion. Something I read in it was so bizarre, at first I thought it was completely crazy and I refused to believe it. Cialdini introduces what UC San Diego’s David Philips named the “Werther Effect” with the following sentence:

“After a suicide has made front-page news, airplanes – private planes, corporate jets, airliniers – begin falling out of the sky at an alarming rate.” (p. 143/144)

What was that? Planes start falling out of the sky because someone committed suicide??? That’s a very disturbing causality – it’s hard to relate to and even harder to explain.

Philips named this phenomenon the Werther Effect after Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was published some 200 years ago. The novel, which ends with its protagonist committing suicide, sparked such a wave of emulative suicides across Europe that several countries banned the book.

Cialdini provides empirical evidence for the Werther Effect from David Philips’ research, which analyzes US suicide statistics over two decades from 1947 and 1968. Philips asserts that,

“…immediately following certain kinds of highly publicized suicide stories, the number of people who die in commercial-airline crashes increases by 1,000 percent. Even more alarming: the increase is not limited to airplane deaths. The number of automobile fatalities shoots up as well.” (p. 144)

For example, Marilyn Monroe’s suicide was followed by a temporary 12% increase in the national suicide rate. Fatalities were also shown to increase dramatically only in the areas where the suicide story has been highly publicized. In other areas with similar social and economic conditions where the story had not been publicized, there was no jump in fatalities. Also, the wider the publicity given the suicide, the greater has been the rise in subsequent crashes.

Weirded out? Wait, there’s more:

“Stories of pure suicides, in which only one person dies, generate wrecks in which only one person dies; stories of suicide-murder combinations, in which there are multiple deaths, generate wrecks in which there are multiple deaths.” (p. 145)

I found all this rather incredible and more-or-less dismissed it until I found further evidence that the Werther Effect might be for real. Malcolm Gladwel’s bestseller, The Tipping Point describes an epidemic of suicides among young men in Micronesia which seems to show the same pattern of emulation as in the cases described by Cialdini and Philips. Then, in September 2009 I stumbled upon a strange piece of news from India(sorry, the only link to this story I could find is from a Croatian news site – I suppose you can use google translator to read it): immediately after an apparent suicide of a local politician in Andra Pradesh province, at least 60 people committed suicide, or died of shock.

The recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab nations were apparently triggered by the same facet of human behaviour. The Tunisian revolt was triggered when the 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in public. In the weeks that followed, a 25-year-old Egyptian man did the same in Alexandria and three others followed in Cairo. Besides Tunisia and Egypt, desperate acts of self-immolations were reported in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Algeria, Iraq, and most recently, Senegal.

If real, and it certainly does appear to be that way, the Werther Effect points to a feature of our psyche that affects our cunduct, but resides outside our cognition or our “internal chatter” and is thus not accessible to our conscious awareness. We can only catch glimpses into such aspects of our psychology through patterns uncovered in the human behaviour in society at large.

Such findings add important pieces of the puzzle in explaining why human action creates trends in the market place. While we may be convinced that our decision to buy (or sell) stock shares, some gold, a house, or a few tulip-bulbs is the result of our own, independent judgment, there is much evidence to suggest that at times we act out of motivations that are hidden from our own conscious awareness.

You may find this hard to believe, but another body of research in psychology confirms this from an entirely different angle. I’ll follow up on this subject in one of my future posts.

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One Response to “The Werther Effect, social uprisings and market trends”

  1. Markus said

    “Werther Effect” … great food for thoughts. Thanks. Markus

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