Sunday, 18 November 2012

I'm Not Sure You Should Read This - It Might Kill You!


The principle of social proof has been an area of much research for psychologists and their findings are quite frankly terrifying. Walter Lippmann - an American intellectual, Pulitzer Prize winner & one of the first men to introduce the concept of the Cold War - quoted: 'Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.' In many ways this could be a definition of social proof - the influences of what we consider correct behaviour. We view a behaviour as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it, especially those who we consider similar to ourselves. It is surprising how much we imitate others. This is hardly surprising when from an early age it has been drummed into us as part of our socialization. It's no wonder advertisers love chatting to Joe Blogs about his favourite horse racing magazine -because if he's like you and me - and if it's good enough for him, then it will do for us.

This next piece of research by David Phillips 1979 is quite startling. In fact, it makes me wonder if I dare read another newspaper, watch tv or even read your blog. Phillips discovered that immediately following highly publicized suicide stories, the number of people who died in commercial-airline crashes increased by 1000 percent! Also, the number of automobile fatalities shot up substantially.


An explanation put forward that the same social conditions that caused some people to commit suicide cause other suicide-prone people to take their own life. While others will be distracted by such news relating to their own problems they become less safe - and fatalities increase. So there is a correlation between suicide stories and fatal crashes. But this isn't the complete story. Fatal crashes only increased in those regions where the suicides had been highly publicized. In fact, the more publicity the more crashes. Even more worrying is that newspaper stories reporting suicide victims who died alone produced an increase in the frequency of single-fatality wrecks only, whereas stories reporting suicide-plus-murder incidents produced an increase in multiple-fatality wrecks only. This data is very specific.


Phillips considered the 'Werther effect' to be the cause.


The Werther effect is both chilling and intriguing. More than two centuries ago, John von Goethe, a German literature published a novel entitled Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrow of Young Werther). In the book, the main character Werthers commits suicided. The publication sparked a wave of suicides across Europe to the point the novel was banned in many countries. Pillips was convinced that the Werther Effect could explain the increase in deaths following a front-page suicide incident: imitation, copycat - call it what you may - they are considered all the effects of the influence of social proof. While some simply commit suicide others would have seemed to have died accidentally. Imitation was considered the key to these horrific statistics. If the principle of social proof is behind the phenomenon, there should be a similarity between the victim of the highly publicized suicide and those who subsequently die. Phillip's research showed that the suicide of a young person led to the fatality of more young drivers. This was similarly noted with older victims. It would seem that social proof  is so wide ranging and powerful that its domain extends to the fundamental decision for life or death.


But how does this relate to gambling psychology. Clearly what we read influences our mindset, especially those people who we consider are like ourselves. What they say and do has an impact on how we behave. As a blogging community we all take an interest in how the gambling day has gone - hence we like to read about the highs and lows. But consider for a moment how reading about someones losing run may unconsciously affect our own betting. Did the news of John's Betfair Profit & Loss Blog (and his disastrous loss) have a negative effect on your betting on that day or shortly afterwards? In ways it all seems a little too sci-fi for its own good but perhaps the Werther Effect comes into play in all aspects of our life. If this is true, then it would seem a good move to surround ourselves with positivity and those have that winning edge. Winners breed winners, so they say. It is a thought provoking subject to say the least.


Phillips' additional research identified similar patterns to many aspects of life.


It would seem there is never a good day for bad press.