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Psychology of Copycat Criminals

Though the term copycat crime was coined following grisly attempts to mimic the crimes of London’s Jack the Ripper, criminal imitation has likely been around much longer. In recent years, however, the frequency and brutality of crimes that mimic others has captured headlines while rocking communities around the world, giving rise to questions about this phenomena and the psychology behind it.

Understanding Copycat Crime

Copycat crimes are defined as those that are inspired, motivated or modeled after acts that have occurred before. The inspiration point can be a real crime, as was the case for Jack the Ripper copycats. They can also be modeled after fictional works, such as the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting that was allegedly inspired by the Joker character in the movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” The crimes themselves can mirror the inspiring acts or simply be based upon them.

The Psychology Behind Them

Psychologists point to a number of factors that may motivate copycats to act out on crimes of the past or crimes of fiction. Though the behavior itself is criminal, evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber writes that these acts seem to “lie outside rational analysis and more in the realm of psychological disorders. After all, why would a sane person use the persona of a comic book character to murder innocent people he does not even know?”

Explanations that delve into the psychology behind copycat crimes, especially those of a violent nature, tend to hinge on two main theories:

Depersonalization

This potential explanation applies to those who commit violent crimes. These criminals may seek to copycat others as a way to adopt a persona that enables them to better account for violent actions. Depersonalization is present in a number of contexts – not just copycat slayings. It is used to justify actions in riots, warfare and, of course, rampage killings. Just as warriors on ancient battlefields painted their faces to adopt a new persona for battle, copycat killers mimic their inspiration to reduce their inhibitions, this theory contends.

The Copycat Effect

This potential explanation for the behavior centers on the idea that copycats thrive on the attention and publicity gained by the original crime and the subsequent attention their acts will undoubtedly receive.

A study conducted in the late 1960s by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura sheds some light on this particular explanation. Bandura’s study sought to find out if aggression was a learned behavior. The study showed that even children could learn aggression, most especially if they saw others being rewarded for the behavior. As it applies to copycat crimes, the main idea behind the theory is that these crimes draw media attention, which essentially rewards the perpetrator.

Though the copycat effect and depersonalization can explain some of the psychology behind this type of crime, some psychology experts contend that those who commit copycat crimes are already at risk for committing a crime in the first place. Still, sensationalizing these types of crimes increases the risk that similar crimes will be carried out by individuals who seek the same level of attention, according to some experts.

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