The Malicious Encouragement of Suicide

A Case Study

On July 4th 2015, the M3 at Sunbury in Surrey had to be closed for two hours as police dealt with an incident involving a woman who was threatening to jump from a motorway bridge. Not long after the incident came to the attention of the police, various news outlets picked up the story.

The headlines made for upsetting reading. “Anger as Distressed Woman Taunted on M3 Bridge,” “Police Criticise Motorists for Taunting Woman Who Threatened Suicide on M3,” “Police Condemn Motorists Stuck on M3 who Taunted Suicidal Woman Threatening to Jump off Bridge.”

These headlines described the response of some members of the public who were caught in the build-up of traffic which had resulted from the motorway closure. Taking to social media, some people shared their frustration at the delays by cruelly taunting the woman with comments such as, “Tell her to get on with it… ruining everyone’s weekend,” and “To the person causing traffic jam on the M3… you selfish, selfish t***.”

Inspector Julie Hillman of Surrey Police released the following statement: “Having members of the public taunt somebody who is clearly in a distressed state, as we did earlier today, is completely unacceptable.”

Dylan Yount

The case in Surrey had a relatively positive ending. The police were able to lead the woman to safety and she was detained under the Mental Health Act.

The predominant response from the public to her story has been one of support for her and condemnation of the cruelty shown by those who had so heartlessly taunted her. She will hopefully never be made aware of the cruel comments that were directed at her. The same cannot be said of another case of what has become known as ‘Suicide Baiting’; that of Dylan Yount.

Dylan was 32 years old when he ended his life in 2010, by jumping off the roof of his San-Francisco apartment. As Dylan stood at the top of the building and contemplated ending his life, a crowd gathered and soon there were eye-witness reports that described certain sections of the crowd encouraging the young man to jump to his death.

There were shouts of, “Jump!” and, “Just do it already!” People recorded Dylan on their mobile phones, and posted cruel comments on social media. Police at the scene reportedly made no attempt to stop the abuse from the crowd. Dylan eventually did jump to his death.

Psychology of Suicide Baiting

Stories such as these are rare, but as social media becomes an ever-more prominent fixture in our lives, we are hearing more and more cases of people being taunted with cruel comments, with some being so affected by these comments that they feel that suicide is their only option.

Suicide baiting may be a relatively rare occurrence, but it does still happen. So how do we explain it? How can human beings actively encourage someone who is clearly in distress to take that final, irreversible step?

Crowd Behaviour and Suicide Baiting

The notion of suicide baiting has led to research being carried out by psychologists in an attempt to understand the circumstances in which people would actively encourage a distressed person to end their life. Much of this research has focused on how people behave differently in a crowd than individually.

A 1981 study by Leon Mann examined newspaper accounts of 21 cases in which a crowd was present when a person threatened to jump off a building, bridge, or tower. Mann found that in ten of these cases, the crowd baited or jeered the person. Mann’s analysis suggested that there were several factors present in the cases where baiting occurred which may have contributed to a concept known as ‘deindividuation’. Mann believed that it was the presence of a sense of deindividuation in the individuals who baited the victims that led to the crowd behaving as they did.

What is Deindividuation, and How Does this Contribute to Understanding Suicide Baiting?

Researchers Leon Festinger, Albert Pepitone and Theodore Newcomb coined the term deindividuation in 1952, following a review of the research on the concept of crowd psychology that was available at that time.

The prevailing hypothesis in previous research on crowds was that crowd behaviour was a result of the individual members of the crowd feeling anonymous due to a loss of their sense of self, which was caused by the emergence of a “group mind”. Festinger and colleagues built on this idea by suggesting that there was indeed a loss of self when individuals found themselves as part of a group, but that this loss of self was a result of a process which took place in the individual, in response to the social context of the group, rather than a shift to a “group mind”.

Festinger and colleagues proposed that being present in a group leads to a psychological shift towards deindividuation, in which we lose our sense of self, and this leads to an observable change in behaviour in response to the social context of the group we are in.

Other research has provided evidence that deindividuation can indeed cause a change in our behaviour in a group. A study by Mullen (1986), for example, found that lynch mobs with greater numbers displayed higher levels of brutality. So can this theory be used to explain what happens in cases of suicide baiting?

The Role of Deindividuation in the Suicide Baiting of Dylan Yount

With respect to Dylan Yount, there may be a case for arguing that deindividuation was taking place amongst the crowd who encouraged him to jump to his death. Deindividuation may have occurred due to several contributing factors which would have been present on that fateful day in San Francisco.

The sense of being part of a large group, the focus on the dramatic event unfolding in front of them, and the behaviour of the other members of the group could all have contributed to a loss of self, amongst the individuals in the group. This loss of self would have led to a lack of self-awareness and a reduced sense of moral culpability. The experience of being in this particular group, in this particular set of circumstances, could have led to the observed behaviours, which most people who were not part of the group find so difficult to process and understand.

Suicide Baiting on Social Media

So how does the theory of deindividuation explain examples of suicide baiting such as the case of the woman in Surrey, where the observers who were taunting her were not physically in a group but rather were responding using social media?

Festinger and colleagues’ focus on the social context of a group may be important here. The context of the group in Dylan Yount’s case was one where many of the members were explicitly hostile, and this could be seen directly by the other members of the group. The theory of deindividuation proposes that actions, regardless of what form these actions take, can be more contagious in a group setting, which makes people more susceptible to replicating the behaviours of the other members of the group.

Posting on social media, however, does not have the same points of reference- those who post cruel messages on social media cannot physically see others who post similar messages. However, in cases when social media promotes a certain social context, we may well experience similar thoughts and behaviours as if we were physically standing alongside a group of like-minded people.

Anonymity of Social Media

So if enough people post cruel and upsetting comments, would this encourage others to do the same? We certainly cannot be sure of this, but it could be an important consideration when dealing with trolling on social media. Perhaps, however, a more influential explanation for behaviour on social media relates to another aspect of crowd behaviour which much research has focussed on: that of anonymity.

Early research on crowd behaviour carried out by Le Bon in 1895 suggested that the change in behaviour when individuals were in a crowd came from their feeling that they were anonymous, having been lost in the collective of the crowd. This notion of anonymity could bring some understanding to the prevalence of trolling on social media. Social media allows us to maintain a sense of anonymity. We are shielded by the computer screen, and many people say things on social media that they wouldn’t say in a real-world setting. Unfortunately, as we see all too often, this can be a very negative side effect of social media.

Importance of Social Context in Understanding Suicide Baiting

So if the social context of a group is an important predictor of the behaviours displayed by that group, how do we get to a stage where some people believe baiting a suicide victim is acceptable? To most of us reading about cases such as that of Dylan Yount, the behaviour of the group is utterly horrifying and the polar opposite of socially acceptable.

Surely the prevailing response to seeing an individual in distress is to want to try to help them, support them, and show kindness? Why were these not the responses of those who saw Dylan Yount? Why didn’t more people shout “Don’t Jump!” to Dylan? Why didn’t the police act to change the context of the group, by reprimanding those who were encouraging Dylan to jump, or removing the group from the area before they had a chance to record video footage and take photos on their phones? Deindividuation may explain this as well.

Deindividuation can lead to a diffusion of moral culpability within a group. Instead of taking on moral responsibility on an individual basis, when we are in a group this responsibility is shared with our fellow group members.

Many people in the crowd watching Dylan Yount may have felt that they should have said something to the members who were taunting him. The shift in moral culpability, however, may have prevented them from acting on their concerns because they were waiting for others to act first. When no one did act, their concept of moral responsibility was reduced; a sense of, “Well I haven’t said anything but no one else has either so it’s not my responsibility,” may have manifested in the individuals, leading to their view that they did not need to object to the behaviour of their fellow crowd members.

Dylan’s Legacy

Dylan Yount’s death was a tragedy which has brought about a huge movement to increase awareness of suicide baiting and improve laws in the USA. Dylan’s mother, Kathie, worked tirelessly to secure a jury trial at the First District Court of Appeal, San Francisco, hoping to change the way police interact with people who are suicidal, including crowd control, and understand why California Penal Code 401 (which makes encouraging suicide a felony) was allegedly not adhered to by the police.

Five years on and the date has finally been set. Oral arguments for “Kathy Yount et al. v. City and County of San Francisco et al.” will be heard August 20, 2015, at 11:00 a.m. in the First District Court of Appeal, at the California State Building, 350 McAlllister Street, in San Francisco.

You can follow Kathie’s work via her website and facebook page.

Reading about these theories may lead us to understand crowd behaviour more, but it does not do anything to reduce the horror of stories of suicide baiting. The idea that our moral compass can be so drastically altered simply by being in the presence of a group is a daunting one.

Could you and I act in the same way as those we read about who so cruelly taunt people who are quite clearly in distress, just because everyone else around us seems to be doing it? Do we have the capacity to completely abandon our morals, values and ethics when we are lost in the crowd?

It is important to remember at this point that not every group or crowd setting produces negative behaviours. Groups and crowds can produce immensely positive outcomes. They can promote awareness of issues, enable people to stand up for their beliefs, can help us to achieve goals, and can offer immeasurable comfort to those who feel alone in life, for whatever reason.

In the case of suicide baiting, many of us are unlikely ever to understand this, nor would we wish to. However, more awareness of this could be a force for good. By acknowledging the horror of stories of suicide baiting, we can perhaps look at our behaviours more closely, and encourage others to do the same.

Written by Jennifer McElroy, The Green Rooms Psychology Assistant, and edited by Alison Barr, Director (July 2015)