Werther Effect

In 1747, German author, Johann von Goethe, wrote one of the most important and influential novels in the history of literature.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) is about a young artist named Werther who writes letters to a friend about a woman he has fallen in love with. Sadly, the story ends when Werther sees no path of marrying Charlotte and decides to die by suicide.

This book launched the career of Goethe and made him an overnight literary celebrity. The book also triggered one of the first known examples of Copycat Suicides, where young men would dress like the hero and die by suicide. As reports began to surface, the book and clothing would eventually be banned in some parts of Europe.

What’s happening here?

It turns out that social conditions that cause one person to die by suicide can trigger others to die accidentally.

Today, when a story of suicide becomes highly publicized the number of people that die in commercial-airline crashes increases by 1,000 percent. And it isn’t just airplanes, but also, automobile fatalities significantly increase too.

David Phillips calls this the Werther Effect.

In his research, he showed that two months after every front-page story of someone dying by suicide leads to fifty-eight more people dying who otherwise would have gone living. In addition, stories of suicides in which only one person dies will generate accidents with only one person involved. Stories with suicide-murder generate accidents with multiple deaths.

In Utah, the leading cause of death for 10 to 17-year-olds is suicide. Many are often left wondering, how can this be happening?

It’s really important to note here, that Goethe’s work parrels what is happening here in Utah. Goethe’s writing did not cause or encourage readers to die by suicide; they were already thinking about it. The readers saw themselves as the hero in Goethe’s story and it was the permission they have been looking for to imitate. This is how memes and idea viruses spread; people decide how they act on the basis of some other person’s behavior.

It can be simply understood by this simple sentence: People like us do stuff like this. Suicide begets suicide. So when we see someone like us die by suicide, we are more susceptible to die by suicide. The good news is you are not in a situation of no choice, just no easy choices left to make. That life begets life. The tide can change when we can see people like us who do hard things like this.

[This is unofficially part three of a topic I have been deeply thinking about to explain the teen suicide epidemic we are facing in Utah. Here is part one about the idea virus and part two about contagiousness and closure.]



The problem with the consequences of our actions is that you don’t have to deal with them at the moment. Quite often, you can push them back for a different day.

Eating one marshmallow (such as sweets, cigarettes, not studying for a test…) doesn’t cause metaphorical diabetes or cancer. But do it again 10,000 times and then you have to live with the consequences.

It’s easy to say yes in the short-term because that’s the moment we live in. And since we only live once, it’s difficult to imagine a world without us in it.

The challenges are not things like climate change, these are side effects. The challenge is saying no to the thrill of instant gratification. It’s investing into tomorrow today.

Static vs. dynamic cultures

Static cultures, the kind of cultures that have stayed the same for multiple generations, are a real problem.

For a long time, your culture was able to survive by resisting change.

Today, this is far from true.

Farmers in the third world that refuse to plant a new seed or use modern techniques that will produce better yields resist this idea of change.


Because that isn’t what their parents taught them. It isn’t the seed they grew up using. Worse, what would my neighbors think if it doesn’t work?

With so little room for error, you stick with you know. You can’t imagine more than $3 per day, then why act any different?

The world has shifted so much in the last 200 years, and again the last three decades. Knowledge continues to accumulate faster than anyone could ever process. Change continues to come.

Yet, with all the tools at our disposal, is the culture you are building dynamic?

Are you willing to change jobs in a shrinking field?

Do you consistently ship work that might fail?

Are you able to survive a layoff for the next six months?

Change is uncomfortable. The longer you wait the more painful it becomes.

99% certain

Why do we say we are 99% certain about something?

Because we want to leave room to back out of a corner.

Because we are afraid.

Afraid we will be judged if we are wrong.

Today, the cost of failure is almost zero.

If you missed the mark and were fired from your job, you can find a new one.

If one blog post didn’t resonate with the community, you can write another.

If you are going to be 99% about something, you might as well be 100%.

The future is 100% uncertain.

Be confident in uncertainty.

When was the last time a police officer pulled you over for doing something well?

Probably, never.

By contrast, how many times have you been pulled over for making a mistake?

This doesn’t incentivize drivers to get better but to hide their mistakes.

Hence the problem. Drivers are always making mistakes. Rightfully so.

Time and motion studies have discovered that on average, drivers will make 400 observations, 40 decisions and one mistake every two miles. Every 500 miles, one of those mistakes leads to a near collision.

When you build a system to try and catch the wrong type of behavior, you don’t change it. Instead, you amplify it.

Notice what happens to your body language when you read the words, “License and registration, please.” Does it make your teeth cringe?

Changing norms requires more than catching the wrong kind of behavior or demanding compliance. It’s much more effective to focus on the right kinds of behaviors and rewarding them.

Seriously, why do we need speed traps anyway?

The hard work is setting a culture where you wouldn’t need one.

Imagine a world where a police officer pulled you over and asked you to sit with them for 15 minutes to watch traffic; pointing out the close calls while showing the statistics of accidents that involve texting and driving. Imagine if he could show you all the good drivers during that time block and what they are doing. Imagine if a police officer pulled you over and simply brought to your attention to slow down, “you’re worth it.” Imagine if a police officer was able to record you in the act of a good driving sequence and was able to send it to you in the mail as a surprise.

How would that change our driving habits?


They don’t believe me

Because they don’t see what you see.

Take a look at this juxtaposition of Ignaz Semmelweiss and Barry Marshall.

Both of them knew something that the rest medical community didn’t know. Both had an important discovery that would save many lives or make them substantially better. And they both were being shunned for their heresy.

The only difference between the two was that Semmelweiss couldn’t produce data to support his claims.

Even then, with all the research to support Marshall’s claim, it wasn’t accepted in the cannon right away.

Because facts don’t tell a story. They only amplify them.

Yes, you have to do the research, get it peered reviewed, produce the data, put it on a spreadsheet, present it in a PowerPoint presentation…

But ask yourself this: When was the last time you changed your mind after watching a PowerPoint presentation?

It doesn’t happen.

Proving something to be true and convincing others of it are two separate skills. The latter being the challenge of our day in the increasing reactionary, sorted world we are building.

We have plenty of data to support whatever claim we make, now it is about finding the truth that can help us build a better culture.

One that we can all be proud of.

Your mindset matters

Ellen Langer has pointed out that simply by suggesting to chambermaids that what they did for a living was exercise, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index.

That when the chambermaids saw themselves as people who exercised they acted as if they were people who exercised.

While it was reported that the chambermaids did not change their habits, we know that a placebo is powerful enough to change our behavior and even our chemistry.

Your mindset matters.

It matters because if you never see yourself as someone who goes to college then why would you graduate from high school? It matters because if you don’t see yourself giving a TED talk then why would I ever apply for one?

Because when we see ourselves as someone who loses their temper, we ignore all the times we keep it in check. And if we label our child with Opposition Defiance Disorder then we only highlight the moments he is not compliant.

The truth is, we are not always defiant. We have moments of defiance.

The label is easy to embrace when we struggle to ask for compliance. We embrace the label because of how it makes us feel. We think it lets off the hook.

To prove a point, Ellen Langer reminds us that when we go to the eye doctor and read off the chart, that at some point we know there is going to be a line we cannot read.


You know what happens when we flip the chart around?

Image result for ellen langer eye chart

Our vision improves. Why? Because we know as we go down the chart we are expected to eventually read it. We are expected to eventually succeed. And it is enough to improve our vision.

It is the same chart but with different interpretations.

Teens are the same way.