Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media: towards a theory of imitation and suggestion
Phillips, David P.
Abstract: This paper presents evidence indicating that imitation and suggestion have a powerful impact on social behavior. The major findings of the paper are: (1) After publicized murder-suicide stories there is an increase in noncommercial plane crashes and an increase in airline crashes. (2) This increase in crashes persists for approximately nine days, and then the level of crashes returns to normal. (3) The greater the publicity given by the mass media to a murder-suicide story, the greater the increase in airline crashes and the greater the increase in noncommercial plane crashes. Alternative explanations for the findings are tested. The best available explanation is that publicized murder-suicide stories trigger additional, imitative murder-suicides, some of which are disguised as airplane accidents. The second half of the paper moves from the empirical findings towards a modern sociological theory of imitation and suggestion. Some nineteenth century sociologists began to theorize upon this topic, but modern sociologists have virtually ignored it. Both the empirical evidence and the theoretical discussion presented in this paper suggest that it may be worth reopening a line of research which has been closed since the turn of this century.