China Child Attacks: Are They Copycat Crimes?

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In China this week three violent attacks on schoolchildren occurred in three days. Such strings of similar crimes seem unlikely to be coincidental. And experts who study criminology say that some crimes do seem to be contagious.

"Copycat crimes do occur," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. "The power of suggestion is what's going on. People who have some sort of frustration, they have some sort of debt they want to settle – when they hear about what goes on somewhere else, it helps embolden them."

Though details are not available yet about the motivations of the three men who committed the crimes in China — and especially why adults would kill children — they do seem to fit a pattern. In all three cases, a man entered a primary school or kindergarten and began attacking students. A fourth crime fitting that pattern occurred about a month ago in China.

Not a trigger

While news reports and public discussion of crimes can sometimes influence someone to carry out a similar act, research indicates that that person most likely would have committed some kind of crime regardless.

"You have a disturbed or already-established offender who most likely was going to do something anyway," said Ray Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. "What the media attention does is it shapes what sort of incident it is. Someone who's going to take a knife into an elementary school is probably disturbed enough that if he hadn't done that, he would have done something else."

Instead of acting as a trigger for a crime, media attention around an incident more likely acts as "a rudder," Surette said, steering a person toward a particular crime over other criminal options. But in some cases, the first crime may inspire a copycat to aim higher or do something more harmful than they would have imagined on their own.

Ross agreed that news reports are neither necessary nor sufficient to completely instigate a crime that otherwise would not have occurred.

"It's just one extra channel that the person is exposed to," Ross told LiveScience. "It may give them an idea about an alternative way to engage in crime."

Why do it?

The motivation among copycat criminals can vary.

Some, especially those who imitate particularly heinous or disruptive crimes, covet the fame the initial offender gained.

Some people think, "I wouldn’t mind seeing my face over the news, causing such havoc," Surette said. "Even being portrayed as a monster is attractive to certain individuals. Every sort of attention is attractive to some individuals."

But in fact, the majority of copycat crimes are non-violent offenses such as burglaries, Surette said. In most of these cases, criminals use information about an earlier crime, or even a fictional crime on film or television, to shape their own plans in the hopes of being more successful.

"With the bulk of copycat offenders, the goal is actually risk reduction," Surette said. "What they're hoping to pick up from the media is the techniques that will lower their risk of apprehension."

In these cases, the criminals don't crave attention, they dread it. They hope to learn from an earlier criminal's mistakes or successes to get away with a crime themselves.

In fact, copycat crime is simply another form of imitation, which is one of the basic socials skills of humans that allows us to reap the benefits of other people's trial-and-error efforts.

"We're hardwired for imitation – there's a real evolutionary advantage," Surette said. Many other species, such as chimpanzees, parrots and dolphins, also show this ability, he said.

What the media can do

Because of the risk of copycat crimes, some people question whether the media should report on some crimes at all. Officials in China have ordered domestic media not to heavily cover the attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"The media has to be careful, no question about it, if it doesn’t want to contribute to people engaging in those sorts of crimes," Ross said.

Reporters should follow certain guidelines to reduce the risk of inspiring imitators, he said.

News stories should avoid "anything that raises the celebrity status," Surette said. "If you start running photos, their final words, if you emphasize and dwell on the social disruption and the damage even. You don’t want to give instructions; you don’t want to give techniques."

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.