Did you know that several countries have regulations on showing reports of suicides on TV, radio and print because of the concept of the Werther Effect, a popular term for an increase in suicide rates that

(1) follow media coverage of suicide(s); or

(2) are inspired by reading about others’ suicides; or

(3) are linked to a friend or family member who committed suicide. (Source)

The concept takes its name from Goethe‘s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) where the main protagonist of the novel, Werther shoots himself with a pistol after he is rejected by the woman he loves. This prompted young men of the time to dress like Werther (yellow pants and blue jacket) and use the same method to take their lives, creating mass-hysteria in the society.

This resulted in Goethe’s book being banned in several cities. Since then, the concept of Copycat Suicides, or the concept of media induced imitation effects of suicidal behaviour has been called the Werther Effect.

This isn’t merely a bit of interesting trivia. It also sheds light on the workings of the human mind. In the book Influence, Robert B Cialdini talks about how it goes to show that we often emulate others in our choices, and this tendency is strongest when the person observed is similar to ourselves. The young men who read Werther’s story strongly associated with him, and did all they could to emulate him, even if it meant that they take their own lives.

Using this observation, we can draw parallels to how susceptible teenagers are to the opinions and lifestyle choices of their peers. Or how we emulate our favourite film star or sportsperson’s hairstyle.

The same concept is also a likely reason why marketers and advertising professionals try and cast actors who look as close to ‘regular people’ as possible in advertisements. If someone we see on TV is similar to ourselves, we are more likely to relate to them, and more likely to buy the products they endorse.

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