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The Werther Effect is a term coined by American sociologist Dave Phillips in 1974 to describe the phenomenon that behaviors, whether self-preservative or destructive, are copied between humans by ideas manifested in language (ex: literature, music), in addition to genetics. Named after the protagonist in The Sorrows of Young Werther, this observation is closely associated with “contagious human behaviors”, including multiple personality disorder, pathological homesickness and suicide.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a loosely autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1774. It is widely regarded as an important work of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period in German literature and its international success made Goethe one of the first literary celebrities by modern standards. Toward the end of his life, a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any young man’s tour of Europe.
The “Werther Fever” refers to the European male fashion trend inspired by the protagonist character from Goethe’s 1774 novella The Sorrows of the Young Werther, which was met by successful reception across Europe in the 18th century. In the book, main protagonist Werther falls in love with Charlotte, a fiancee already engaged to another man, and upon realizing there’s no hope for romance, he takes his own life at the end. Considered one of the first documented “literary sensations” in Europe, The Sorrows of Young Werther also reportedly led to as many as 2,000 cases of copycat suicides among young men and spawned a fashion trend of wearing custard yellow trouser and electric-blue jacket combination.
Belief in the media contagion of suicide is so pervasive that voluntary censorship is widely observed in reporting on suicide. There is evidence that many behaviors other than suicide are similarly “contagious”. Violence against others is well-studied in its relation to media contagion. The harm of violence, especially homicidal violence like murder and murder-suicide, is much greater than that of suicide.
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