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Why newspapers shouldn’t report suicides

I’ve read Robert Cialdini’s “Influence” many times. But whenever I come across the section on social proof that says every newspaper report of suicide leads…

I’ve read Robert Cialdini’s “Influence” many times. But whenever I come across the section on social proof that says every newspaper report of suicide leads to 58 additional suicides, I say, “This will only happen with crazy white people.”

Interestingly, the book also claims that suicides are usually copied by people of the same age as the victim. If a young person commits suicide, the copycats will be young people, but if the victim is an old person, the copycats will be senior citizens.

That’s not all. The copycats may also disguise their suicides as accidents in cars and—terrifyingly—even in airplanes.

Certainly, this phenomenon can’t be extrapolated to Africa. Wrong!

A few years ago, there was a lady who killed her husband in Northern Nigeria. Immediately, the authorities swung into action and started the judicial process of bringing charges against her.

Seeing that she was remanded in prison even before sentencing would appear to be a good way to deter others from committing the same crime in a fit of anger. Wrong again!

Almost suddenly (within the same period), we heard reports of women who killed their husbands or attempted to kill them.

And they were young women too, just like the lady in the original case. This happened in the very conservative Northern Nigeria.

The lesson those copycat women took from the trending case on social media was: So if my husband offends me, I have the option of simply killing him?

This reminds me of another book, “The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris, which says that peers have more influence on children than their parents.

But when it comes to social proof, this influence extends beyond children. Whenever we’re uncertain, we simply look around and do what others are doing.

Marketers have exploited this human condition for generations.

When my book, “The Social Science of Muhammad (P),” first came out in 2020, some readers didn’t know what to make of it. However, I was confident that anyone who read the first chapter couldn’t stop reading. So, I tell people, “Choose any random chapter and read it. The shortest chapter is only a couple of pages long. Read that and let me know what you think.”

By the time people started turning in their reviews of the book or expressing “what they thought” about it, even I was a little embarrassed by their excitement and the beautiful reviews.

“Started reading, and I am moving up and down,” Dr. Usman Gana wrote, “thinking the next chapters would run away before I read them. Exceptionally well-written.”

“This is an amazing masterpiece,” Pen Abdul began, “which has combined the excellent social tips found in the religion of Islam as well as what social scientists have theorized. The personal experience of the author concerning the subject, as captured in the book, is instructive enough to excite the readers.”

It did excite readers. So when I wanted others to read the book, I started publishing the reviews. This social proof nudged others to get the book, which led to more reviews, and subsequently, more social proof. Because of this strategy, TSSM became my first book to sell out.

As you can see, social proof can work both negatively and positively; whether deliberately or unconsciously. So, be on the lookout for people who will try to influence you with fake social proof.

In conclusion, the power of social proof is undeniable, as evidenced by the alarming trend outlined in Robert Cialdini’s “Influence.” The unsettling reality that every newspaper report of suicide leads to 58 additional suicides serves as a stark reminder of the influence media can have on vulnerable individuals.

This phenomenon transcends cultural boundaries and can manifest in unexpected ways, as demonstrated by real-life examples from Northern Nigeria. Just as social proof can be harnessed to promote positive outcomes, such as the success of “The Social Science of Muhammad (P),” it also carries the potential to perpetuate harmful behaviours if left unchecked.

Therefore, media outlets must exercise responsibility in their reporting, recognizing the profound impact their content can have on society. By being vigilant and discerning consumers of information, we can mitigate the negative effects of social proof and strive to create a healthier, more supportive environment for all.

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