Archive for Sunday, May 31, 1998


May 31, 1998


Like many other `copycat' trends, school shootings should eventually run their course.

The author of a textbook on abnormal psychology predicted Friday that the recent trend of schoolyard murder and mayhem will fizzle out over time, just as the trend of violence by disgruntled postal workers did earlier.

``It burns out eventually,'' said David Holmes, a Kansas University expert on so-called copycat violence. ``We will see a tapering decrease. Is this now part of the culture? Yes. But we will undoubtedly get over the hump.''

Holmes, author of ``Abnormal Psychology,'' a textbook, has specialized in the study of ``behavioral contagion,'' a researcher's term for the human tendency to imitate conduct.

He said he couldn't predict how long it would take for copycat school violence to play out.

``How long this will last, I don't know,'' he said. ``This is not dissimilar in form to amok, an interesting disorder that used to be considered a culture-specific disorder among some Asian societies.''

A dictionary definition of amok is: Among Malays a psychic disturbance characterized by depression followed by overwhelming desire to murder.

``What a strange disorder,'' Holmes said. ``But now we've got it all over. There's discussion now among psychiatrists whether amok should be included as a disorder in their diagnostic manuals. What these kids have been doing basically is running amok. What Asians used to do with machetes, kids are now doing with high-powered guns.''

Why some youngsters imitate other schoolhouse murderers is simple to understand from a psychologist's perspective, Holmes said.

``A person has a need and they see someone else use a behavior that satisfies that need,'' Holmes said.

Behavioral contagion, he said, explains why the recent wave of violence has been at schools instead of other places youngsters congregate.

``The more important question is why does it stop,'' he said. ``It could be these trends burn themselves out. Or you exhaust the population of people who want to use that kind of behavior. Or alternatively people might start taking precautions and that sets up more external restraints that inhibit people. We don't really understand very well why it stops.''

Holmes said suicide is another behavior that excites copycats.

``Studies show when there is a nationally publicized suicide, the suicide rates go up 7 percent. You can get the same effect when there's a fictional suicide, say on a soap opera. After big prize fights, outbreaks of violence increase. More people are arrested for punching people out in bars.''

Holmes said it is well-established fact that publicity encourages copycat violence. But it is a dynamic that existed long before television.

``There are stories about how copycat crimes used to follow the telegraph wires,'' he said. ``It's not just modern mass media but any form of information. There are some interesting early studies where they would follow crimes and basically they would follow the telegraph lines.''

Holmes said there also is some evidence that if the media refuse to cover abnormal violent behavior, the behavior declines or disappears.

``There's an interesting historical precedent,'' he said. ``There was a case in the Netherlands or Sweden where a rash of people were throwing themselves in front of subway trains. The press there got together and decided to stop covering these things. The press stopped and the suicides stopped.''

Holmes said he wasn't prepared to offer a formula for the media to use in deciding which violence to report and which to ignore.

``It's a balancing act, I suspect,'' he said. ``I'm a scientist and won't get into issues of what the press should do and shouldn't do. But clearly, publicizing these things makes a difference.''

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is

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