Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

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CommentI woke up this morning and expected to see something about the elementary school shootings.  Why don’t you discuss current events more often?

Anonymous By Request

Earlier today, a 36 year old walked into an elementary school in Chenpeng village, Henan province, China, and stabbed 22 children with a knife.  

A few hours later, a 24 year old walked into a Connecticut primary school in the United States and shot, according to early (updated) reports, 26 people with a firearm, 20 of whom were children.

Anyone who wants to know why these attacks seem to be escalating needs to read Robert Cialdini’s “Influence”, which describes that pattern identified in murders and suicides that cause the behavior to replicate quickly within a 72 hour window across diverse geography and seemingly non-connected people.  

[mainbodyad]The media needs to shut down coverage now, and put the story in a black box nobody discusses.  The more they discuss the details, players, motives, and events, the more they will happen.  That is one of the major reasons I don’t talk about certain things going on in the news.  As the site has become larger, I don’t want to provide yet another voice in the cacophony that escalates the problem.

We have known this relationship, especially in regards to suicide, since Goethe published his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774.  Readers were so enthralled with the best seller that they began to commit suicide, in the same manner as the protagonist, en masse.  In psychology, it’s called the Werther Effect.  It is one of the “big 100” mental models you need to know. 

Candidly, if someone sees another person engaging in a mass shooting, they are more likely to consider mass shooting themselves.  It’s the dark side of the May 6th, 1954 miracle by Roger Bannister when he broke the holy grail of running, achieving a sub-four-minute mile.  People had tried forever to reach that mark.  The moment Bannister did it, a collective, “it can be done” went off in the subconscious of runners across the world and it became far more common.  People are influenced by people.

The Werther Effect Mental Model

The Werther Effect was discovered in the 1700’s. If suicides are reported or read about more frequently, cases of suicides increase, resulting in a self-reinforcing cycle.

There is a similar relationship to murder and spree shootings, as well as plane crashes.  If you go back to the shooting in the Colorado movie theater, the attacks appear to have escalated, which is exactly what you would expect.  The Oregon mall shooting was 72 hours ago, which is the exact peak time of similar violence as discussed by Cialdini.

There is considerable reason to believe that had there not been an Oregon mall shooting, or had the media chosen not to cover it, it is unlikely the elementary school shooting would have happened this morning.  Yet well-meaning people are going to continue to plaster these events all over the front pages of newspapers, magazines, on television screens, and referenced in popular culture.  It’s like trying to put out a fire by throwing more gasoline on it.

You are also going to see confirmation bias come out like crazy.  

People who are against guns are going to be convinced the problem is guns, ignoring the nearly identical knife attack a few hours earlier across the globe.  

People who are radically religious are going to believe the attacks are due to a backslidden nation no longer aligned with God’s ideals.  

People who are against a certain political party are going to try and figure out whether the attacker was Republican or Democrat and blame the attacks on the ideology they personally find disagreeable.  

[mainbodyad]There is no winning here.  Events like this are a mirror that, unless you’ve trained yourself to view them through mental models, are going to reveal more about you and your core beliefs that anything else.

Finally, most events aren’t discussed because of the human cost.  Imagine that five years from now, one of the parents of some horrific event came upon my site, reading about dividends and businesses, economics and video games, cooking and books.  Suddenly, they are forced to relive the greatest tragedy of their life.  No thank you.  That’s not my role.  I don’t want to increase suffering any more than necessary.  There is already too much of it in the world.

I also trust the audience of this site is intelligent and well-read.  Virtually everyone interested enough to read a niche blog about the topics we discuss here is also likely to be engaged in a lot of self-study and not ignorant of national or global events.