Editor's Note: Trigger
In 1774 an unknown author named Goethe published his first work, a slim volume titled The Sorrows of Young Werther. The story, about a lovestruck youth driven to take his own life over an unrequited crush, was a hit. The book inspired “Werther Fever,” a craze that swept across Europe and inspired a cologne, a distinctive yellow waistcoat…and a rash of suicides.
Blamed for the first recorded case of copycat suicide, the book and the clothing it inspired were banned in Leipzig in 1775. So intense was the suffering of the populace, would-be authors penned alternative endings where Werther realized his folly and lived to a contented old age.
Goethe’s work has lived on to lend its name to a modern phenomenon, the Werther effect. First coined in 1974, the term was applied following a series of events that started when a person attempted suicide by jumping from the tracks in the Vienna subway in 1983.
According to Steven Dubner, host of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “The Suicide Paradox,” the press reported the unfortunate story in detail. The one highly publicized incident was followed by seven the next year, then 10, then 13. “Finally, the Austrian Association of Suicide Prevention told the press to tone it down,” says Dubner. “It issued a whole series of recommendations: don’t include the word ‘suicide’ in the headline. Don’t print pictures of grieving relatives.”
The press listened. And they learned. It’s not about the suicides. It’s about the trigger—specifically the trigger of reporting on suicides in a way that makes them seem romantic. When the press stopped reporting the incidents, the suicides decreased dramatically.
Mental health experts have learned that all sorts of behavior are contagious and that that using different triggers can lead to vastly different outcomes. For example, when musician Kurt Cobain committed suicide, his widow Courtney Love condemned the act and spoke of the pain it caused for loved ones—causing a decrease in the suicide rate.
Behavioral triggers are all around us and can have substantial consequences. Poor management, technological change, and perverse incentives were all potential triggers for the bad behavior, including identity theft, that has plagued financial institutions in recent years. In this month’s cover story, Assistant Editor Holly Gilbert Stowell reports on the circumstances in the financial services industry that may have driven insiders, often employees, to turn to theft.
Solving insider theft in the financial industry requires the same approach as the Werther effect. Managers must coax employees away from bad behavior by promoting alternatives to a toxic workplace—by treating employees fairly, exercising transparency, and working to build trust.