Young workers keep jumping to their deaths at Foxconn, the huge Chinese factory where they make many of our most popular electronics -- the current hottest being the iPad and iPhone.
Plenty of online pundits claim this proves that life at the factory is intolerable.
Fake Steve says, with the standard sneer of anonymous online commentators today, "Ask any cop or shrink who deals with this stuff. Jumpers want to make a statement. Jumpers are trying to tell you something."
Yes. They're saying: Me, too.
Q: Why are they doing it?
A: They're imitating each other.
That sounds callous, and much too simple to be true, but it's the most important reason.
Cluster suicides are examined in Robert Cialdini's book Influence: Science and Practice. The book reports the convincing research and insights of David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California in San Diego.
Cialdini describes the principle of "social proof" -- people, especially when they're unsure of themselves, follow the lead of others similar to themselves. They do this with scary precision:
Suppose an unhappy Chinese worker named Liu, age 23, lives and works with huge numbers of others like himself, in a factory town far from home, and some of his peers kill themselves. What are the chances of Liu doing the same? Turns out, it's dramatically higher than you might imagine.
If the suicides are sensational, say by leaps from the 8th floor, the likelihood of Liu killing himself in exactly the same way is frighteningly high. Suicides feed on each other. (So do homicides.)
Copycat suicide: Research by Phillips showed:
-- Immediately after a suicide story makes the front page of newspapers or the top of TV news shows, fatal car crashes and plane crashes increase dramatically in the area where the story is publicized.
-- There are many signs that these are copycat suicides. If the suicide victim dies alone, the wrecks are single fatalities; if the story is about murder-suicide, the car wrecks will involve multiple deaths.
-- If the sensational suicide involves a young person, the fatal car crashes that follow involve young people. If the suicide involves an older person, it's older drivers who die in the crashes.
Cialdini believes that "media officials need to think deeply about how, and how prominently to present reports of (suicides and) killing sprees. Such reports are not only riveting, sensational, and newsworthy, they are malignant."