We’ve all copied something. We’ve all tried to imitate someone or something. But in some circumstances, people will copy or imitate violent acts.
A couple of years ago, just after the Boston Marathon bombing, a husband and wife were arrested for attempting to bomb the British Columbia legislature during Canada Day celebrations. In the backdrop of the Boston marathon bombings, the media referred to it as a potential copycat crime. This is because the bombs were also “homemade,” and like the Boston bombers, those charged were also inspired by radical teachings from terrorists.
Reasons for Copycat Crimes
In researching this topic, I came across two potential theories for explaining why people commit copycat crimes. The first explanation has to do with the sensationalism and glorification of crimes in the media. The second has to do with the mental and criminal history of the offender.
1. Sensationalized Aggression
In the late 1960’s, a famous Canadian psychologist named Albert Bandura wanted to know whether people could learn to be aggressive. Through his landmark study, Bandura and his colleagues found that children could learn to be aggressive, especially if they saw the person being rewarded for the aggressive act.
Since that time, psychologists have been using principles derived from Bandura’s study to understand behaviours like aggression and addiction. In the case of copycat crimes, the main hypothesis is that the attention these crimes receive in the media acts as a reward for those wishing to copy them.
2. Copycat crimes aren’t for everyone
Another finding is that those who perpetrate copycat crimes were already at-risk for committing them in the first place. In most cases, these perpetrators often have a serious psychological disorder and/or criminal background. Craving attention, they are interested in imitating things that are sensationalized.
Similar to copycat crimes is the phenomena of “Copycat Suicides.” This refers to the observation that when a famous person commits suicide, other people who look up to them might be at-risk for committing suicide. One exception was that of musician Kurt Cobain. Some believe it was because his partner, Courtney Love, stressed that Cobain was weak and cowardly for leaving this world, rather than glorifying his death.
The general consensus is that those who attempt copycat crimes or suicides are being indirectly affected by the sensationalism surrounding high profile cases. The attention we give to these acts puts certain people at greater risk for imitating what they see and hear.
We all copy something
In some way or another, I think we all copy something. From deciding what to wear, what gadgets to buy, what to read, we are all influenced in some way or other by social and commercial media. However, for those who copy the crimes they see or hear about in the media, there are 2 factors contributing to their behaviour.
First, those who copy crimes value the attention we often give the criminal in print, TV, or web. Most of us like attention. Whether we are looking for ‘likes’ on Facebook, a 15-second spot on TV, or even having our name in the back pages of a newspaper, its normal to enjoy the feelings we get from being noticed or recognized for something. And for some people, negative attention (e.g., being yelled at, criticized) is just as rewarding as positive attention.
Second, copycat criminals are already at-risk for perpetrating some sort of crime in the first place. If they do not copy a crime discussed within the media, then they will likely perpetrate another crime that won’t be as heavily publicized.
We need to remember that if we assign celebrity status, pay homage, glorify and sensationalize those who commit horrific crimes, we are only adding to the likelihood that similar crimes will be carried out by those craving the same attention.
Hoping this bit of psychological knowledge provides you with insight into why some crimes happen more often than others…
Links in this post:
- Click here for a CBC news story on the bomb plot
- Click here for a summary of Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll experiment.
- Click here for a video of Albert Bandura explaining the experiment. The role-modelling starts at the 1:20 mark.
- Click here for a post on how addiction can be learned.
- Click here for an article on the Aurora, Col. copycate crime.
- Click here for an article on copycat suicides.