Copy-cat Crimes

Copy-cat Crimes


A copycat crime is known to be majorly associated with the media due to its aggression and violent contents, delivered to the public. The contents have both direct and indirect impact on individuals, especially those who tend to mimic what is delivered. This paper aims to motivate future researchers by addressing several copycat crime concepts and theories that are vital in conceptualizing its dynamics. The media is portrayed as the main contributor to copycat crimes in diverse ways. Despite the effect of the media in enhancing copycat crimes in society, several recommendations might help in solving the problem. However, more research on copycat crime is needed to develop a deeper understanding on the social phenomenon.

Keywords: Media, Copycat crime, Society, Influence











Traditionally, copycat crime has been conceived from emphasizing direct exposure to live person to person model. As a source of crime models, the media has been downplayed historically. With more advancement of the media in the 21st century, research on mediated copycat crime models emerged. There is also a dominant contemporary view that the media is the main source of copycat crimes (Surette, 2017). In the contemporary world, copycat crimes are associated with movies, literature, music, television shows, videogames and television, and print news. Even though their concerns and many studies on the relationship between violent media and social aggression, rigorous research on copycat crime has been lagging.

It is evident that individuals who often mimic crime from the media especially violent movies and news are commonly known to have previous criminal records, histories of violence and severe mental issues (Chadee et al., 2017). This shows that the media has an indirect effect on individuals rather than direct. Conversely, individuals are given the idea of committing a crime by the media, through the indirect influence. As such, the kind of reactions given by the media concerning crimes determines the paths of many copycat criminals since most of them are on the shock value of their whereabouts. Mostly, copycat criminals engage in activities that cause high media coverage due to attention as well as to horrify the population.

In contemporary society, appearing in public places armed and dressing up like a villain is what most criminals are trying to do, or other times they even imitate movie scenes. In contrast, during medieval times, most crimes were associated with snakes, the devil, and witches. In both scenarios, crimes are sparked by public interest. The term copycat effect came up in 1916 due to the crimes that were stirred up by Jack the Ripper (Surette, 2017). Essentially, criminologists started realizing that the media was playing a major role in inspiring criminals to commit crimes as most of them replicated the crimes committed in the TV and movie shows.

Ferguson (2018) argues that a person’s interaction between emotional development and violent media content, play a role in copycat behaviors. People with less emotional development have a higher tendency of committing crimes they see in movies and TV shows. There are also characteristic that influences the copycat behavior among individuals, including criminal factors like social isolation, mental disorders, lack of identity, and alienation. Also, demographics like age and sex as well as cultural environment factors and mixed with media characteristics influence a person’s copycat behavior. Therefore, People’s relationship with the media, including their media literacy, trust in the media and their identification with the characters seen in movies, mostly affects their behaviors which sometimes may result in copycat crimes.

Concepts and Theories Related to Copycat Crimes

The foundation of understanding the social phenomenon of copycat crime begins with the concept of imitation. Gabriel Tarde being the first criminologist to begin the study on criminal imitation, argued that crime was learned just like any other law-abiding behavior (Tarde, 1912). According to Tarde, the concept of suggest-imitative assaults explained copycat crime, which spread from cities to rural communities and higher classes to lower classes. He also found out copycat crime to be common since he made imitation a central point in conceptualization of the society: “The criminal always imitates somebody, even when he originates; that is to say when he uses in combination imitations obtained from various sources. He always needs to be encouraged by the example and approval of a group of men” (Tarde, 1912). Therefore, elements of imitation, including replication other people’s behaviors, are the necessary components of copycat crime.

From the social learning theory perspective, Surette (2015) argued that the belief of copycat offenders in their criminal abilities and self-efficacy are the essential copier characteristics that make them commit the crime. The high self-efficacy belief on crime motivates individuals to commit a crime since it raises their criminal goals, their willingness to expand crime, challenging persistence situations, and their pliability to challenges. Additionally, low self-efficacy on an individual’s ability to hold or get a job may lead to basic copycat crimes by people who avoid hard tasks. The higher perceptions of criminal efficacy have, therefore, been hypothesized to be associated with prior existence of offense records.

Punishment is another concept argued to be associated with copycat crime (Surette, 2015). Its relation is based on three ways one of them being the punishment viewed on media channels. Another way is through the expected punishment by the potential copycat copier while the last one is through the experienced punishment. In the contemporary generation where copycat behaviors prevail, the first sense punishment is not likely to decrease copycat crime, since the estimated punishment of the second sense is also not likely to be concurrently decreased (Chadee et al., 2017). The most vital matter involves an individual’s ability to portray punishment to deter copying. This means that when inaccurate predictors of reinforcement guide punishments, then copying will continue unless punitive results can eradicate the faulty expectation of positive ones.

Surette (2015) also presents the social cognition theory, which enables the understanding of how criminogenic information is processed socially. The media role in social cognition has increased with its persuasiveness as a source of social information. There are two decision pathways, including heuristic and systematic pathways, which are applicable in copycat crimes. Instrumental, thoughtful, and planned copycat crimes are related to the systematic path while emotional, less rational, and more spontaneous copycat crimes are related to the heuristic path. An instance of copycat offense which used central processing path which was systematic was the copied bank raid that was presented in the film Set It Off. Therefore, the way individuals socially process information supplied by the media plays a major role in the copycat crime.

The media as a contributor to Copycat Crime

Helfgott (2015) suggests that the media produces information in a networked setup, which is then published through videos, articles, and photos that influence people’s ability to interpret the delivered information. At the same time, it also influences the personal and unrelated cultural beliefs of individuals based on the model of propaganda. Some of media productions such as sniper sprees, suicidal cults, sensationalized reports on suicide, and post-office killing is person-centered. Most copycat criminals are likely to imitate the actions of violence into reality. Therefore, the media is in a large state of denial, especially on how it presents coverages on death incidents, which contributes to the destruction of lives and violence in society.

Helfgott, (2015) also address the issue of unbalanced reporting of safety and health issues in the media which are the main causes of wild notions in people’s minds regarding the relative risks of several death causes. Helfgott provides an example of pictures which were found inside the heads of interviewees who were alleged to be more influenced by violent contents found in newspapers, unlike in the real world. This was perpetuated by the way newspapers organize public understandings through their provision of overall challenging interpretations. The interest of the public, which is served by the news coverage of violent crimes is based on the number of necessary details. Consequently, the media has a strong cultural and social impact on society, including the content it delivers.

Recommendations on copycat crime

Ferguson, (2018) suggests that copycat crimes can be prevented through the use of non-sensationalistic language, which has been carefully selected on the media and law enforcement, especially when delivering crime news to the public. This will reduce copycat criminals’’ reliance on the media for information and tactics on how to conduct their crimes. It will also reduce the imitation of criminal behaviors as a result of news and contents shared through the media. The mode of media coverage, especially on crime-related issues forms a viable tool in the decision making of most individuals in society. Additionally, the media can strive to avoid perpetuating clichés and stereotypes regarding the criminals and the causes of their behavior. Through this, less information on crimes will be shared through the media, which essentially lead to a decrease in copycat crimes.

Methods of crime and names of the criminals should not be released to the public since it may encourage imitation, which may lead to further copycat crimes (Ferguson, 2018). Reporters need some guidelines on how to report violence cases as a method of avoiding potential negative effects that are likely to emanate from the mode of reporting to the public. This will encourage positive effects and also enable the reporters to select the most appropriate stories that should be delivered to the public. Through the guidelines, there is a need to develop a journalistic style guide that will determine the kind of information that is recommended due to the negative or positive effects.


In closing, the copycat crime is a social phenomenon that is commonly acknowledged, but it remains under-researched. Therefore, there is a need to study copycat crimes and understand it as both an aggregate level and an individual phenomenon. In contemporary society, the media is perceived to be the major contributor to copycat crimes through its shared contents. This is attributed to an individual’s involvement and association with the media. There are also several concepts related to copycat crimes, including imitation, the social learning theory, punishment, and social cognition. Despite the negative influence of the media on the public, different measures, including regulation of delivered content, can help reduce copycat crimes. Therefore, copycat crime is a serious social phenomenon that needs to be looked further into, and more ways to reduce the crime should be developed.














Chadee, D., Surette, R., Chadee, M., & Brewster, D. (2017). Copycat crime dynamics: The interplay of empathy, narrative persuasion, and risk with the likelihood to commit future criminality. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(2), 142.

Ferguson, C. (2018). Strawberry sabotage: what are copycat crimes and who commits them?. The Conversation, (19).

Helfgott, J. B. (2015). Criminal behavior and the copycat effect: Literature review and theoretical framework for empirical investigation. Aggression and violent behavior, 22, 46-64.

Surette, R. (2015). Thought bite: A case study of the social construction of a crime and justice concept. Crime, Media, Culture, 11(2), 105-135.

Surette, R. (2017). Copycat Crime. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Tarde, G. (1912, reprinted 1968). Penal philosophy. (Trans. R. Howell). , Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith


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