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date: 22 May 2018

Summary and Keywords

The term “copycat crime” implies that the root of a crime can be found in exposure to a live model or media content concerning a prior crime. The four basic components of a copycat crime are a “generator crime” (a media portrayal of a crime or a real-world crime that is the precursor of a subsequent crime), “criminogenic models” (media content or real-world offenders that portray a subsequently copied crime), “copycat criminal” (an individual who commits a crime after being influenced by criminogenic media content, live models, or a combination of the two), and “copycat crime” (a crime whose occurrence or form is influenced by prior exposure to media content and/or live criminal models). The linked crimes are seen as sharing a unique criminogenic dynamic with the first crime serving as a generator for later copycat crimes with substantial elements of the first crime present in the second. The premise of copycat crime is that exposure to a generator crime is the linking mechanism and that the removal of the exposure would eliminate the occurrence or form of the subsequent copycat crime.

There is no theory of copycat crime, but there are four theoretical perspectives that are pertinent. Under the first perspective, imitation has been examined as a general human behavior within biology and psychology. The second perspective, social contagion, studies imitation in collective groups with a focus on the life cycle of crime waves. The third perspective is the study of the diffusion of social innovations and focuses on the factors that encourage adoption of a new, socially accepted and advocated behavior. In diffusion research, criminal behaviors have not been a major consideration. The final theoretical perspective is social learning theory, which focuses on how humans learn new behaviors in social settings. Despite the attention of these four research streams, research on copycat crime has not been extensive. One reason for the deficiency is the difficulty in identifying copycat crimes. Whereas other crimes are relatively straightforward to quantify and are routinely tallied in official law enforcement statistics, copycat crimes are not counted in any systematic way.

Copycat crime has traditionally been conceived within an emphasis on direct exposure to live person-to-person models. The media as a source of crime models has historically been downplayed. As the media evolved in the 20th century the study of mediated copycat crime models ascended so that the dominant contemporary view of copycat crime is that of media-sourced transmissions. Copycat crimes are today linked to literature, movies, television shows, music, video games, and print and television news, but despite concern and a large number of studies of violent media’s relationship to social aggression, the rigorous study of copycat crime has lagged. At this time, copycat effects are felt to be relatively rare and are most likely to appear in at-risk individuals predisposed to crime and in preexisting criminal populations. The effect of the media is thought to be more qualitative (affecting criminal behavior) than quantitative (affecting the number of criminals). Whether copycat crime effects influence any particular individual depends on the interaction of the content of a particular media product (its characterizations of crime and criminals), the individual’s predispositions toward crime (personal criminal history, family, and environmental factors), and the media’s social context (preexisting cultural norms toward crime, crime opportunities, and nature of the mass media). The most likely individual to be a copycat offender is hypothesized to be a socially isolated but criminally confident offender who is exposed to multiple live criminal models and has immersed themselves in criminogenic media.

Keywords: copycat crime, copycat criminals, generator crimes, crime waves, imitation, contagion, diffusion, social learning, terrorism, media and crime

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