Psychology of mass shooters

I took a lot of psychology classes in college and, IIRC, got straight A’s in them. I really enjoyed them. I thought it was fascinating.

So it isn’t surprising this article was of extreme interest to me:

Massacre killers are typically marked by what are considered personality disorders: grandiosity, resentment, self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement. They become, says Dr. Knoll, ” ‘collectors of injustice’ who nurture their wounded narcissism.” To preserve their egos, they exaggerate past humiliations and externalize their anger, blaming others for their frustrations. They develop violent fantasies of heroic revenge against an uncaring world.

Mass shooters aim to tell a story through their actions. They create a narrative about how the world has forced them to act, and then must persuade themselves to believe it. The final step is crafting the story for others and telling it through spoken warnings beforehand, taunting words to victims or manifestos created for public airing.

What these findings suggest is that mass shootings are a kind of theater. Their purpose is essentially terrorism—minus, in most cases, a political agenda. The public spectacle, the mass slaughter of mostly random victims, is meant to be seen as an attack against society itself. The typical consummation of the act in suicide denies the course of justice, giving the shooter ultimate and final control.

We call mass shootings senseless not only because of the gross disregard for life but because they defy the ordinary motives for violence—robbery, envy, personal grievance—reasons we can condemn but at least wrap our minds around. But mass killings seem like a plague dispatched from some inhuman realm. They don’t just ignore our most basic ideas of justice but assault them directly.

The perverse truth is that this senselessness is just the point of mass shootings: It is the means by which the perpetrator seeks to make us feel his hatred. Like terrorists, mass shooters can be seen, in a limited sense, as rational actors, who know that if they follow the right steps they will produce the desired effect in the public consciousness.

Part of this calculus of evil is competition. Dr. Mullen spoke to a perpetrator who “gleefully admitted that he was ‘going for the record.’ ” Investigators found that the Newtown shooter kept a “score sheet” of previous mass shootings. He may have deliberately calculated how to maximize the grotesqueness of his act.

The human mind is a marvelous and sometimes bizarre thing. I’ve seen some really strange behavior from people with personality disorders. Probably the best short story is that I know someone who convinced a judge that his being caught sitting on his ex-wife’s chest on the sidewalk punching her in the face was self-defense.

Stacy, my counselor, told me people with personality disorders cannot, or will not, admit there is a problem with themselves. It’s always someone else’s fault. Keep that in mind. It’s a huge telltale. Another one, also from Stacy, is that personality disorder symptoms are more prominent when they are interacting with people in close personal relationships with. Family members and spouses get the worst of it. Co-workers and strangers may think they are perfectly normal people.

Attempting to interact with them can be challenging. Having a “model” to help understand, identify, and predict their behavior is incredibly useful. We owe a big thanks to the author of this article and the researchers who investigated the psychology of these people.

H/T Say Uncle.

11 thoughts on “Psychology of mass shooters

  1. As I’ve been saying lately; it isn’t the quality of the brain that counts as much as what’s controlling it.

    Reading your posted quote I can’t help being reminded of Obama and Rev. Wright. It seems to fit them quite well. It describes all of the world’s problems in fact. My wife verses me, and Hamas verses Israel, the Progressives’ “Social Justice” model, verses liberty, etc. Evil does an extremely good job, in its rather limited and stupid way, of pointing out our real faults and then expanding on them to the point where we just simply deserve to die as “justice” for all the suffering in the world.

  2. I’m also reminded of the story of Cain verses Able. That quote you posted could just as well describe that particular interaction. There’s nothing new under the sun– The field of psychology has only put it into different (or not all that different) words, using science as a context.

  3. Hmmm… He just learned about it reading the papers like the rest of us. no, he doesn’t know Ayres or Dorn. Well, maybe a little bit. He’s not spying on us. We can keep our plans, and it’s the insurers that are canceling our plans. He got bad intel on Benghazi. No, he never heard of “Fast and furious.” Etc.
    Yah, sure, yoo betch’a.
    Ahem.

  4. I read that article this morning, and enjoyed it. Too bad the authors had to damage what was otherwise well done with the gratuitous nod to gun banners: “Massacres also would not be nearly so lethal without the widespread availability of guns and high-capacity magazines designed more for offense than for defense.”

  5. It seems to me that mass shootings really picked up in the years after the effort to boost everyone’s “self esteem” that was first popularized in the early 1970’s. We do indeed reap what we sow.

  6. Prisons are full of folks who can’t or won’t admit guilt or responsibility for their action. Many times they blame the victims as deserving what happened to them.

  7. “They become, says Dr. Knoll, ” ‘collectors of injustice’ who nurture their wounded narcissism.” To preserve their egos, they exaggerate past humiliations and externalize their anger, blaming others for their frustrations.”

    My first thought was “or they could become president instead of mass murderers”. Then it dawned on me that the “or” could well yet be an “and”.

  8. I have benefitted from Joe Huffman’s descriptions of his interactions with Joan Peterson, and his definition of the eponymous Peterson Syndrome, in business dealings and interpersonal relationships at work. Recognizing the limits of someone else’s ability to understand facts, rationally develop a testable hypothesis, and determine correct from incorrect conclusions is invaluable.

    My wife has a shorter, simpler test for when one is dealing with a personality disorder rather than another whole person. She says, if after a conversation with someone you end up feeling like YOU are crazy, mentally replay the conversation, and you likely will see that the other person didn’t make sense.

  9. mikee; I gave my daughter a list of red flags to look for in personal relationships. It works equally well in politics and international affairs. Here are a few of them;

    Repeatedly trying to berate you, either in subtle or more overt ways.
    Trying to make you feel guilty if you don’t do what they want.
    Getting pissy when they don’t get their way.
    Dredging up past sins of yours to build themselves up.
    Taking credit for the achievements of others, while minimizing other people’s achievements.
    Taking offense when none was intended, or in odd ways, and making hay out of it.
    Trying to berate or embarrass you in front of people you respect.
    Being strangely, or overly nice and polite, or charming (they’re going to blow up at some point and make a horrible scene).
    Showing signs of pain at seeing other people having a good time or being successful, and wanting to jump in and “do” something about it.
    Minimizing or berating acts of valor or courage.
    Framing virtue or strength as stupidity, weakness, backward-mindedness or bigotry.
    Regularly accusing you or others of being a push-over, or being hyper-sensitive to the danger of being a push-over themselves (an unusual fear of being a “sucker”)
    Doing you “favors” and then unilaterally extracting payment, often behind your back, for said “favors”.
    Trying generally to make you feel guilty or insecure.
    Trying to make you feel dependent on them.
    Bragging about the number of friends they have.
    Bragging about having taken advantage of others in some way.
    Going out of their way to point out the good deeds they’ve done.
    Showing signs of taking pleasure in, or wishing for, the suffering of others, or of animals.

    A lot of these are variations on a theme, and there are many more, but that’s a good start.

  10. I forgot a major one; Blaming their personal failures on other people and/or on circumstances.

    That’s Hamas verses Israel, and probably most people verses their spouses.

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