virus: Meme Update #29: Copycat Shootings

Richard Brodie (
Thu, 17 Jun 1999 11:03:41 -0700

In This Issue:

	Copycat Shootings
	Level 3

Copycat shootings

Sometimes people object to my using the term "virus of the mind." They think that it is too negative a term to describe something that is neither good nor bad, but simply a force of nature: the spread of ideas through culture. But I don't think anyone will object when I use the term to refer to the latest outbreak of shootings in schools. To understand it, let's go back a few years.

Way back in 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a book called "The Sorrows of Young Werther." It was about a young man who, in existential despair, committed suicide. Well no sooner had this book been published than several kids, reading the book and identifying with the central character, killed themselves. This is the purest form of meme infection: simply copying someone else's behavior. But those copying mechanisms in the mind don't care whether the behavior is real or fictional. Either way, it gets copied. As Goethe said, "Just as I felt relieved and lighthearted because I had succeeded in transforming reality into poetry, my friends were confusing themselves by believing that they had to turn poetry into reality, enact the novel and shoot themselves!"

Well, social scientists naturally became interested in this phenomenon, so they started studying it. They looked at the incidence of suicide both before and after a well-publicized suicide. As you would expect, following a big news story about someone who committed suicide, there were more suicides than before it. But the shocking thing, and the thing that validates the theory of memetics, was that these weren't just suicidal people triggered into performing the final act at that time. These were actually NEW suicides who statistically wouldn't have dome it if they had not heard the publicity! This gruesome phenomenon came to be known as The Werther Effect after Goethe's character.

The naivete of journalists about this continues to sadden and disappoint me. The same people who make their living charging companies big bucks to advertise then turn around and say that the CONTENT of the news is in now way responsible for harming the people who watch it. Please explain to me how watching a commercial for Coke can statistically increase Coke purchases, but watching violence on the show surrounding it won't increase violence. It makes no sense.

So it was no surprise when there followed several other schoolyard shooting incidents in the wake of the highly publicized mass murders in Littleton, CO, on April 21, 1999. The Werther Effect predicts that not only will that happen because of the publicity, but that some of those copycat shootings will be NEW shootings, ones that would not otherwise have happened if it weren't for the publicity.

It's even got so that as soon as a violent incident occurs, like the Littleton, CO shootings, the experts immediately predict a wave of copycat shootings. They predict them, but they can do nothing about them, because the news media considers itself above responsibility. They hide behind freedom of speech, behind saying they have a duty to report the news, behind claiming they are just giving people what they want to see. And that is the secret weapon of the virus. You see, viruses of the mind work by making what they do seem right, seem fun, seem natural in the short term. They capitalize on our human desire to know the news of scary events. Most of us never give a thought to the notion that immersing ourselves every night in stories about shooting, bombings, and rapes might have a negative effect on our lives. And likewise, most news reporters never give a thought to the violence they are perpetuating by giving such stories prime exposure to the millions.

So what is to be done? Kill all the reporters, right after we kill all the lawyers? I don't think so. As with so many questions about life, the answer lies in each of us living as consciously as we can, identifying our purpose in whatever we do and understanding as best we can the effects our actions have on others.

Level 3

Since Virus of the Mind was published, people have been asking me for clarification of what I mean by "Level 3" of consciousness. I've written a short essay on that point which is available at -- please let me know if you find it valuable.

All the best memes,


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