This article reports on one of many perpetrators known as ‘copycat killers’. It is not uncommon for people to copy a crime or the techniques of a particular criminal if a case or perpetrator have received particular notoriety or media coverage. More than a century after the mysterious serial killer Jack the Ripper committed atrocities in and around Whitechappel in 1888, the suspect has never been identified, leading to much notoriety and fame surrounding the case. In 2008, another man, Derek Brown, was found guilty of committing copycat crimes, which seemed heavily influenced by the Ripper ones (police found books in his home detailing Jack the Ripper’s case and murder techniques were similar to the throat cutting in the Whitechappel murders).
Social modelling is one mechanism whereby people can be influenced in to committing certain behaviours. It can work in a number of ways, such as conditioning aggressive behaviour. Albert Bandura’s famous ‘Bobo doll’ studies showed that young children could be coerced into copying aggressive behaviours towards the dolls if they observed an adult acting aggressively towards them, especially if the adult was seen to be rewarded for it (1961; 1963). Similarly, real life events show that people are very easily influenced by what garners fame in the media. For example, homicide rates have been found to increase around the times of high profile boxing matches, which apparently seem to spark similar aggression in those who view them (eg, Phillips 1986).
With regards to ‘copycat crimes’, a number of mechanisms governing the behaviour of those who commit them can be viewed as explanations. In this particular instance, the high profile of Jack the Ripper can explain the attempts to emulate him: the high-status admirer altercast postulates that we seek to be like someone with a high status. The mystery surrounding the crimes and the fact that a killer was never caught is likely to add to fascination surrounding the murders, thus making Jack the Ripper of high-status to some individuals.
Associative casting may also be a factor, whereby people seek to associate with people who they perceive as having something they desire (in this case fame and notoriety from beyond the grave). Experiments have shown that aspiring business execs are more likely to adopt product preferences for things consistent with their aspirations (Cocanougher & Bruce 1971), thus reinforcing an image they are trying to portray via their actions. By committing a spate of ‘copycat’ murders, Derek Brown was associating himself with Jack the Ripper via the media coverage which linked the two cases.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 601
Cocanougher, A. B., & Bruce, G. D. (1971). Socially distant reference groups and consumer aspirations. Journal of Marketing Research, 8(3), 379-381.
Phillips, D. P. (1986). Natural experiments on the effects of mass media violence on fatal aggression: Strengths and weaknesses of a new approach. Advances in experimental social psychology, 19, 207-250.