I remember from reading about social proof in this book (the concept that one way we figure out the truth is to find out what other people think is the truth, then believe that) that highly publicized suicides directly lead to more suicides in the society they were publicized in. And the more publicity the suicide gets, the higher the increase in subsequent suicides. This might not be such groundbreaking news to you. I mean, let’s say you’re on the edge of a cliff and you watch somebody else jump. If you were already thinking about jumping, your odds of jumping probably just went up. It’s human nature.
However, if I told you that motor vehicle fatalities increase almost 10% in the week after a highly publicized suicide and commercial plane crashes increase to 11 times normal levels, that may surprise you. It surprised me.
The stats are very specific when it comes to car accidents. Single suicides tend to cause an increase in accidents where only one person dies. Murder-suicides tend to cause an increase in accidents where multiple people die. Copycat suicides can be masked by traffic accidents, the same way a lot of teenage suicides are. And since these accidents are suicide attempts instead of regular accidents, we’d expect accidents after a big suicide story to be deadlier than accidents at other times. And it turns out plane crashes in these scenarios produce 3 times as many deaths, while fatal car accident victims die almost 4 times quicker in these scenarios.
Does this mean you should stay off the roads and out of the friendly skies after a widely publicized suicide or murder suicide? It sure seems like that wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Also, as another lesson in psychology will teach you, people will most readily believe and copy those who are similar to themselves. This also means that people who are most like the suicide victim are most likely to imitate them in copycat suicide attempts. You might want to check up on your 28 year old androgynous actor friends.
I brought this topic up because you might be wondering why you should care about Heath Ledger’s death. If it turns out to be a suicide, you might want to tread lightly for the 10 days after the suicide confirmation leaks, because that’s the time most of these copycat suicides happen. And even though the copycaters won’t have any reason to take you down with them, they might do it inadvertently anyway.