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The Psychology Behind Copy Cat Crimes


Copying someone else’s actions is something that everyone has done for fun. Mirroring someone is in fact, a strategy used in building trust or social rapport. But how do you decide where to draw the line? Copycat killers don’t- they use imitation as a means to learn about crimes and how to commit them. They copy crimes that have occurred previously and can match their plans with a previous criminal’s to the tee. This type of crime has captured the attention of society, as well as criminologists and psychologists. This article aims to explore the nature of copycat criminal, their motives, and the factors influencing them to pursue that path.

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Nature of Copycat Crimes

A copycat crime has been influenced by previously presented crimes in media. This kind of crime is said to have occurred if the copycat criminal was exposed to the original crime through media, and if they incorporated major elements from it. There’s a unique connection shared by the two crimes, irrespective of the time or space difference between the two crimes. Media seems to be a strong link in these kinds of crimes. The generator crime, that is the influencing crime, does not necessarily have to occur in real life. Fictional crimes are enough to influence these killers as well, giving them ideas that facilitate the execution of a copycat crime.

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These crimes can be committed by an individual or a group of people, and have a large range of criminal behaviours. Copycat crimes can include crimes like theft, as well as those like murder. If the generator crime requires low skill levels and is portrayed as successfully executed, then the chance of occurrence is higher for copycat crimes. On the other hand, those that are unsuccessful have the least chance of being copied. Media focuses on presenting a crime in a way that elicits an emotional response from the audience. Thus, they grab the attention of copycat criminals. Further, if a certain kind of crime is shown more often on screen, the copycat criminal assumes it as being more acceptable as a crime.

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Who is Likely to Commit a Copycat Crime?

Professor Ray Surette, well-known in the field of criminal justice, surveyed as a part of his 2015 research article on ‘Measuring Copycat Crime’. This survey of 574 inmates (both male and female) asked questions related to criminal behaviour. It found that about 20% of them viewed media as a source of learning how to commit a crime. This minority population is also the same ones who showed more likeliness of having committed a copycat crime previously.

People who are likely to commit a copycat crime have high criminal self-efficacy. This means that they see their criminal goals as something obtainable. They also believe that they have the skills to avoid or face minimum consequences. Someone who has previously committed a crime and fears the risk of arrest might turn to the media to look for low-risk options, choosing the path of copycat crimes. They might not even necessarily be looking, but if they have had a criminal past and use media as a means to stay connected with the world, they are still at risk of committing a copycat crime. Other than that, individuals who have low self-esteem or self-control are also likely to commit these crimes.

Those who have been previously rewarded for mirroring might be inclined towards copycat crimes as a result of conditioning. People with a lower societal status, who’ve received less education (or none) are also likely to be a copycat. People who are overly obsessed with crime-related media might also show an affinity towards copycat crimes.

Role of Psychology in the Lives of Copycat Criminals:

Psychology plays a very important role in determining the thought process of any criminal. Thoughts and behaviours of all people are shaped by their experiences, upbringing and genetics. Mental health has significant contributions to the occurrence of copycat crimes. Let’s look at some factors in the lives of copycat criminals that might influence their decisions.

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1. Imitation:

This is the main aspect of copycat crimes. Imitation refers to mimicking behaviours, attitudes or beliefs that others show. Imitation can provide a means of identification with the other person. It might be a way to obtain what they have.

2. Media Influence on Copycat Crimes:

Media plays a huge role in shaping public perception. It can be through newspapers, television, radio, or other forms. When crimes are reported through media, especially sensationalized, they provide a blueprint for criminals to act on. Loren Coleman, in her book “The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines” shows that the media doesn’t portray the issues in mental health that crime offenders might be suffering from. She also mentions that the media exposes copycat criminals to the ones that they imitate, and these people adopt their persona.

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3. Vulnerability and Mental Health:

Concerns regarding the effects of mental health in shaping criminal behaviour have long existed. With poor mental health, there are some triggers that people are vulnerable to. These might be genetic as well. When exposed to these triggers, such as thoughts of committing a crime, these people might get inclined towards it. These people also experience depersonalization which lets them avoid any hesitancy that might be directed towards offending laws.

4. Sensationalized Aggression:

Albert Bandura, who proposed the social learning theory, wondered if people could learn to be aggressive. He conducted the famous Bobo Doll experiment on children. He found out that children can learn to be aggressive by observing people, especially if they are being rewarded. In this case, Bandura’s theory is relevant as copycat criminals view media attention as a reward, making them wish to copy the actions of the offenders they see on screen.

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5. Roleplay:

This concept is about child development. Similar to imitation, this concept is more intentional. This can explain those copycats that only adopt a few techniques from the generator crime, in opposition to those that follow rote imitation, where the crime is copied in every aspect.

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6. Theory of mind:

This theory allows you to understand one’s state of mind and determine accurately their intentions. Copycat criminals observe the criminals they imitate to find their failed attempts. They continue with the same criminal choices and only change the aspects of failure. They aim to execute perfectly the crime that someone else couldn’t, since they know what went wrong.

Reducing the Rates of Copycat Crimes:

Considering that media is an important contributor to copycat crimes, it is important to be responsible while reporting crime. The media needs to reduce the sensitization of crime. Further, they need to avoid providing explicit details that might become a guide for copycats. While reporting a crime, the legal consequences of it need to be highly emphasized. Intervention programs need to be readily available.

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These services should be provided to first-time offenders as well to reduce crime rates. Individuals at risk need to be identified and appropriate support should be provided to them. Initiatives need to be taken by communities. Inclusivity and positive coping mechanisms can help reduce criminal tendencies as well.

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