Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-x24gv Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-22T17:44:09.211Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Werther effect after television films: new evidence for an old hypothesis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 July 2009

A. Schmidtke
Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, FRG
H. Häfner*
Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, FRG
1Address for Correspondence: Dr A. Schmidtke, Unit of Clinical Psychology, Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Würzburg, Füchsleinstrasse 15, D-8700 Würtzburg, FRG.


In this study it was possible to prove the Werther effect in suicides after watching fictional models for the first time. A twice-broadcast (1981, 1982) six-episode weekly serial showing the railway suicide of a 19-year-old male student provided a quasi-experimental ABABA design to investigate differential effects of suicide imitation. Imitation effects were most clearly observable in the groups whose age and sex were closest to those of the model. Over extended periods (up to 70 days after the first episode), the number of railway suicides increased most sharply among 15- to 19-year-old males (up to 175%); the effect steadily decreased in the older age groups, so that no effect was observable for males over 40 years and females over 30 years. Also, the imitation effects remained detectable for longer periods in the groups closest in age to the model. The increases observed after the first and second broadcast for males aged > 30 years closely corresponded with the respective audience figures for the two showings.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1988

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Altheide, D. L. (1981). Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media: comment on Phillips. Social Forces 60, 593596.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bandura, A. (1976). Lernen am Modell. Klett Stuttgart.Google Scholar
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Towards a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review 84, 191215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baron, J. N. & Reiss, P. C. (1985 a). Same time, next year: aggregate analyses of the mass media and violent behavior. American Sociological Review 50, 347363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baron, J. N. & Reiss, P. C. (1985 b). Reply to Phillips and Bollen. American Sociological Review 50, 372376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barraclough, B, Shepherd, D. & Jennings, C (1977) Do newspaper reports of coroner's inquests incite people to commit suicide? British Journal of Psychiatry 131, 528532.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Berman, A. L. (1987 a). Interventions in the media and entertainment sectors to prevent suicide. Manuscript.Google Scholar
Berman, A. (1987 b). Fictional suicide and imitation effects. Manuscript.Google Scholar
Blumenthal, S. & Bergner, L. (1973). Suicide and newspapers: a replicated study. American Journal of Psychiatry 130, 468471.Google ScholarPubMed
Bollen, K. A. & Phillips, D. P (1981) Suicidal motor vehicle fatalities in Detroit: a replication. American Journal of Sociology 87, 404412.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bollen, K. A. & Phillips, D. P. (1982). Imitative suicides: a national study of effects of television news stories. American Sociological Review 47, 802809.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bortz, J. (1985). Lehrbuch der Stalistik. Springer: Berlin.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Box, G. E. P. & Jenkins, G. M. (1979). Time Series Analysis Forecasting and Control. Holden-Day: San Francisco.Google Scholar
Comslock, G. (1980). Television in America. Sage: Beverly Hills.Google Scholar
Crawford, J. P. & Willis, J. H. (1966). Double suicide in psychiatric hospital patients. British Journal of Psychiatry 112, 12311235.Google Scholar
Daniels, R. G. (1986). Emotional crises imitating television (letter). Lancet i, 856.Google Scholar
Demi, A. S. (1978). Adjustment to widowhood after a sudden death: suicide and nonsuicide survivors compared. Communicating Nursing Research 11, 9199.Google ScholarPubMed
Diekstra, R. F. W. (1974). A social learning approach to the prediction of suicidal behaviour.In Proceedings 7th International Conference for Suicide Prevention (ed. Speyer, N., Diekstra, R. F. W. and van de Loo, K. J. M.), pp. 5566. Amsterdam, 27–30 08 1973. Swets & Zeitlinger: Amsterdam.Google Scholar
Doan, M. (1984). As ‘cluster suicides’ take toll of teenagers. US News & World Report 12 12 97, 4950.Google Scholar
Durkheim, E. (1897). Le Suicide: Etude de Sociologie. Alcan: Paris. [German edition, 1973 Der Selbstmord. Neuwied: Luchterhand.]Google Scholar
Egeland, J. A. & Sussex, J. N. (1985). Suicide and family loading for affective disorders. Journal of the American Medical Association 254,915918.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Ellis, S. J. & Walsh, S. (1986). Soap may seriously damage your health. Lancet i, 686.Google Scholar
Fowler, B. P., (1986). Emotional crisis imitating television (letter). Lancet i, 10361037.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fox, J., Manitowabi, D. & Ward, J. (1984). An Indian community with a high suicide rate - 5 years after. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 29, 425427.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gould, M. S. & Shaffer, D. (1986). The impact of suicide in television movies. New England Journal of Medicine 315, 690694.Google Scholar
Groebel, J. (1986 a). International research on television violence: Synopsis and critique. In Television and the Aggressive Child: A Cross-National Comparison (ed. Huesman, L. R. and Eron, L.), pp. 259281. Lawrence Erlbaum: Hillsdale N.J.Google Scholar
Groebel, J. (1986 b). Fernseh- und Videogewalt: der aktuelle Forschungsgegenstund. Unterrichtswissenschaft 2, 154167.Google Scholar
Groffmann, K. J. (1982). Lernen am Modell – Experimente und Theorien. In Orientierungen zum pädagogischen Handeln. (ed. Seidel, G.). pp. 5171. Hogrefe: Göttingen.Google Scholar
Groffmann, K. J., Kroh-Püschel, E. & Wender, I. (1982). A study of social information processing: some experiments on imitation. In Studies in Decision Making: Social, Psychological and Socioeconomic Studies (ed. Irle, M.), pp. 195234. Springer: New York.Google Scholar
Häfner, H. & Schmidtke, A. (1988). Do televised suicide models produce suicides? In New Biopsychosocial Perspectives on Youth Suicide (ed. Pfeffer, C.). American Psychiatric Press: New York. (In the press.)Google Scholar
Harbauer, H. (1978). Krisen der Pubertät und Suizid. Medizinische Welt 29, 13621364.Google Scholar
Hays, W. L. (1981). Statistics. Holt, Rinehart & Winston: New YorkGoogle Scholar
Hemenway, H. (1911). To what extent are suicide and other crimes against the person due to suggestion from the press? Bulletin of the American Academy of Medicine 12, 253263.Google Scholar
Hull, C. H. & Nie, N. P. (1981) SPSS Update 7–9. New Procedures and Facilities for Releases 79 McGraw-Hill: New York.Google Scholar
Kessler, R. C. & Stipp, H. (1984). The impact of fictional television suicide stories on US fatalities: a replication. American Journal of Sociology 90, 151167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kreitman, N., Smith, P. & Tan, E. S. (1969). Attempted suicide in social networks. British Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine 23, 116123.Google ScholarPubMed
Kreitman, N., Smith, P. & Tan, E. S. (1970) Attempted suicide as language: an empirical study. British Journal of Psychiatry 116, 465473.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Littmann, S. K. (1985). Suicide epidemics and newspaper reporting. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 15, 4350.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Maris, R. (1981). Pathways to Suicide. Johns Hopkins: Baltimore.Google Scholar
Matthews, P. C. (1968). Epidemic self-injury in an adolescent unit. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 14, 125133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Meichenbaum, D. (1971). Examination of model characteristics in reducing avoidance behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17, 298307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Milavsky, J. R., Kessler, R. C. & Stipp, H. H. (1987). Do television news reports of suicide cause suicide?Paper presented at the Combined Meeting of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), and the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP),San Francisco,1987.Google Scholar
Motto, J. A. (1967). Suicide and suggestibility – the role of the press. American Journal of Psychiatry 124, 252256.Google Scholar
Motto, J. A. (1970). Newspaper influence on suicide. Archives of General Psychiatry 23, 143148.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Murphy, G. E. & Wetzel, R. D. (1982). Family history of suicidal behaviour among suicide attempters. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 170, 8690.Google Scholar
Olin, H. S. (1980). Management precautions for surviving patients after a ward suicide. Hospital and Community Psychiatry 31, 348349.Google Scholar
Ostroff, R. B., Behrends, R. W., Kinson, L. & Oliphant, J. (1985). Adolescent suicides modeled after television movie. American Journal of Psychiatry 142, 989.Google Scholar
Pell, B. & Watters, D. (1982). Newspaper policies on suicide stories. Canada's Mental Health 30, 89.Google Scholar
Phelps, E. (1911). Neurotic books and newspapers as factors in the mortality of suicide and crime. Journal of Social Medicine 12, 264306.Google Scholar
Phillips, D. P. (1974). The influence of suggestion on suicide: substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review 39, 340354.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Phillips, D. P. (1978) Airplane accident fatalities increase just after newspaper stones about murder and suicide. Science 201, 748749.Google Scholar
Phillips, D. P. (1979). Suicide, motor-vehicle fatalities and the massmedia: evidence towards a theory of suggestion. American Journal of Sociology 84, 11501174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Phillips, D. P. (1980). Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media: towards a theory of imitation and suggestion. Social Forces 58, 10011024.Google Scholar
Phillips, D. P. (1982). The impact of fictional television stories on U.S. adult fatalities: new evidence on the effect of the mass media on violence. American Journal of Sociology 87, 13401359.Google Scholar
Phillips, D. P. (1985). The Werther effect. Suicide, and other forms of violence, are contagious. The Sciences 7/8, 3239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Phillips, D. P. & Bollen, K. A. (1985). Same time, last year: selective data dredging for negative findings. American Sociological Review 50, 364371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Phillips, D. P. & Carstensen, L. L. (1986). Clustering of teenage suicides after television news stories about suicide. New England Journal of Medicine 315, 685689.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Platt, S. (1987). The aftermath of Angie's overdose: is soap (opera) damaging to your health? British Medical Journal 294, 954957.Google Scholar
Platt, S. (1988) The consequences of a televised soap opera drug overdose: is there a mass media imitation effect? In Attitudinal Factors in Suicidal Behaviour and its Prevention (ed. Diekstra, R. F. W., Maris, R. W., Platt, S. D., Schmidtke, A. and Sonneck, G.), Swets & Zeitlinger: Amsterdam, (in press).Google Scholar
Pöldinger, W. (1982). Familie und Suizid. Schweizerische Ärztezeitung 63, 668673.Google Scholar
Popov, N. M. (1911). The present epidemic of school suicides in Russia. Nevrologichesk.īǏ Vêstnik 18, 312317.Google Scholar
Rada, R. T. & James, W. (1982). Urethral insertion of foreign bodies. A report of contagious self-mutilation in a maximum-security hospital. Archives of General Psychiatry 39, 423429.Google Scholar
Ringel, E., Spiel, W. & Stepan, M. (1955). Untersuchungen uber kindliche Selbstmordversuche. Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie 4, 161168.Google Scholar
Robbins, D. & Conroy, R. C. (1983). A cluster of adolescent suicide attempts: is suicide contagious? Journal of Adolescent Health Care 3, 253255.Google Scholar
Rost, H. (1912). Der Selbstmord in den deutschen Slädten. Schöningh: Paderborn.Google Scholar
Roy, A. (1983 a). Suicide in depressives. Comprehensive Psychiatry 24, 487491.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Roy, A. (1983 b). Family history of suicide. Archives of General Psychiatry 40, 971974.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Rubinstein, D. H. (1983). Epidemic suicide among Micronesian adolescents. Social Science and Medicine 17, 657665.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sandler, D. A., Connell, P. A. & Welsh, K. (1986), Emotional crises imitating television (letter). Lancet i, 856.Google Scholar
Schleiffer, R. (1979). Suizidhandlung als Familientradition. Zeitschrift Für Kinder- und Jugendpsychiatrie 7, 208218.Google Scholar
Schmidtke, A. (1981). Verhaltenstheoretische Erklärungsmodelle suizidalen Verhaltens. In Selbstmordhandlungen (ed. Welz, R. and Pohlmeier, H.), pp. 125167. Beltz: Weinheim.Google Scholar
Schmidtke, A. (1988). Verhaltenstheoretisches Erklarungsmodell suizidalen Verhaltens. Roderer: Regensburg.Google Scholar
Schmidtke, A. & Häfner, H. (1986 a). Suizide und Suizidversuche im Kindes- und Jugendalter in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Häufigkeiten und Trends. In Suizidale Handlungen bei Schülern, Jugendlichen und Heranwachsenden (ed. Specht, F. and Schmidtke, A.), pp. 2749. Roderer: Regensburg.Google Scholar
Schmidtke, A. & Häfner, H. (1986 b). Die Vermittlung von Selbstmordmotivation und Selbstmordhandlung durch fictive Modelle. Die Folgen der Fernsehserie ‘Tod eines Schulers’. Nervenarzt 57, 502510.Google Scholar
Schmidtke, A. & Häfner, H. (1988). Public attitudes towards and effects of the mass media on suicidal and deliberate self-harm behaviour. In Attitudinal Factors in Suicidal Behaviour and its Prevention (ed. Diekstra, R. F. W., Maris, R. W., Platt, S. D., Schmidtke, A. and Sonneck, G). Swets & Zeitlinger: Brill. (In the press.)Google Scholar
Schulsinger, F., Kety, S. S., Rosenthal, D. & Wender, P. H. (1979). A family study of suicide. In Origin, Prevention and Treatment of Affective Disorders (ed. Schoou, M. and Strömgren, E.), pp. 277287. Academic Press: London.Google Scholar
Shaffer, D. (1985). Suicide and depression in children and adolescents.Paper presented at the WPA Symposium ‘The Future of Epidemiology’.Edinburgh,1985.Google Scholar
Shneidman, E. S. (1972). Forword In Survivors of Suicide (ed Cain, A.), pp. ixxi. Charles A. Thomas: Springfield.Google Scholar
Shneidman, E. S. (1973). Suicide notes reconsidered. Psychiatry 36, 379394.Google Scholar
Sickel, R. Z. (1979). Children who experience parental suicide. Pediatric Nursing 5, 3739Google Scholar
Singer, U. (1980). Massenselbstmord. Hippokrates: Stuttgart.Google Scholar
Solomon, M. J. (1982/1983). The bereaved and the stigma of suicide. Omega 13, 377387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stack, S. (1987 a). Celebrities and suicide: a taxonomy and analysis, 1948–1983. American Sociological Review 52, 401412.Google Scholar
Stack, S. (1987 b). The media and suicide: a non-additive model, 19681980: a research note.*Google Scholar
Stack, S. (1987 c). Suicide: media impacts in war and peace 19101920: a research note.*CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Strahan, S. A. (1893). Suicide and Insanity. Swan Sonnenschein: London.Google Scholar
Taylor, P. (1984). Cluster phenomenon of young suicides raises ‘contagion’ theory. Washington Post II 03, A 3.Google Scholar
Toolan, J. M. (1978). Therapy of depressed and suicidal children. American Journal of Psychotherapy 32, 243251CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Unus, J. M. (1910) Kapitel I. In Über den Selbstmord insbescondere den Schülerselbstmord (ed. Vereinsleitung des Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereins), pp. 518. Bergmann: Wiesbaden.Google Scholar
Walsh, B. W. & Rosen, P. (1985). Self-mutilation and contagion: an empirical test. American Journal of Psychiatry 142, 119231.Google ScholarPubMed
Ward, J. A. & Fox, J. (1977). A suicide epidemic on an Indian reserve. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal 22, 423426.Google Scholar
Wasserman, I. M. (1984). Imitation and suicide: a reexamination of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review 49, 427436.Google Scholar
Welz, R. & Häfner, H. (1984). Imitation und Kontagiosität bei Selbstmordhandlungen. In Bestandsaufnahme der Suizidforschung (ed. Welz, R. and Möller, J.), pp. 6376. Roderer: Regensburg.Google Scholar
Williams, J. M. G., Lawton, C, Ellis, S. J., Walsh, S. & Reed, J. (1987). Copycat suicide attempts. Lancet ii, 102103.Google Scholar