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Will Smith, Chris Rock, and viral copycat psychology

Prediction: There will be a rise in physical assault cases in the US in the first half of April 2022, as a consequence of the viral clip of Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars ceremony.

Psychologists understand the ‘copycat effect‘ as ‘behavioural contagion‘, which happens when someone who is exposed to a particular behaviour (such as violent behaviour), becomes more likely to elicit a similar behaviour themselves. Evidence suggests that behavioural contagion is commonplace and can be amplified through sensationalist online and media coverage. For example, US national suicide rates jumped 12% in the weeks following high profile media coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide.

So, as video snippets spread online of Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscar ceremony last night, we can expect behavioural contagion to happen, and this will be visible as a spike in assault cases over the next few weeks.

Online behavioural contagion was the topic of my PhD, in which I explored the evidence and psychology behind this contagion effect.

The short-hand explanation is that online behavioural contagion happens because of what can be called behavioural licensing‘ – people can use media representations, particularly those involving celebrities, or those we admire – e.g. a viral clip of Will Smith hitting Chris Rock – as a ‘script’ to follow if they find themselves in a similar situation, and are conflicted about how to respond. It’s a special case of role modelling, in which people can feel ‘licensed to hit’ as media representations prime and legitimatise a script to follow in ambiguous situations. The result is ‘disinhibition’ – as we feel less inhibited about taking a particular course of action, such as hitting someone.

In plain language, just as James Bond is licensed to kill, Will Smith has licensed people to hit.

Psychology aside, expect to see more reports of male violence over the next few days and weeks, and expect to see more male violence yourself. Specifically, expect more violent reactions to partners being insulted, particularly among men who might identify with Will Smith.

So, think twice before spreading the viral clip online.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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29 comments
  • Chris Rock just proved that a lot of people sometimes have absolutely no idea who they are dealing with and what can happen in the next moment and you need to control your words, and jokes about your hair just shows that as a comedian you’re over and have long, fully deserved it.

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  • This is a case of toxic masculinity, where the man has to “defend” his partner’s honor. Being real masculine would have been A: Chris not making a joke about another man’s wife and B: Will simply telling him that wasn’t okay.

  • Days after the board’s meeting to start the disciplinary process against him, he resigned. Whether Smith was asked to leave the awards ceremony after hitting Rock is still up for debate.

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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.