Sunday, August 5, 2012

Part 1 (Mass Massacres): Examining the Psychology and Sociology Behind Individuals who Commit Them

This analysis examines the psychology and sociology behind individuals who commit heinous acts.  The hope is to provide possible insight and offer an understanding into how future mass massacres may be prevented. Prevention of mass massacres will be specifically addressed in Part 2 (Mass Massacres): Society Plays the Blame Game While Perpetrators Blame Society Itself.

Take a look at the profile of some recent shooting spree perpetrators:
  • Elliot Rodgers, UC Santa Barbara mass shooter, posted a video before his rampage titled Elliot Rodger's Retribution. In the video, he states his plans to "have my revenge against humanity" due to his accounts of being unable to fit into a college culture he so desired. Son of assistant director for The Hunger Games, Elliot describes himself as "the perfect guy". He is a conventionally attractive, educated and rich young white male. However, he sought retribution against "the hottest sorority house at UCSB" for daring to reject him,"the supreme gentleman." His perceived privileges, now UNDESIRABLE.   [a]
  • Adam Lanza, Newton CT elementary school shooter, "wore a pocket protector when he was in high school and was an honor student, and was called "remote" and "one of the goths" by classmates. A law enforcement official said he may have had a personality disorder. He grew up in an affluent neighborhood of well-tended homes with neighbors who worked as executives at companies like IBM." Essentially, he was an outcast that did not fit in with his affluent community and was labeled a 'misfit' by peers.  [0]
  • James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter (Batman: The Dark Knight Rises), purchased his rifle the same day he failed a key Oral Exam for his PhD program (which he subsequently dropped out of). Before that, he obtained a BS degree in Neuroscience from UC Riverside (with honors) and quickly became frustrated when the only work he could find was at McDonald's. 4+ years of college - USELESS. [1]
  • Professor Amy Bishop, Huntsville shooter (University of Alabama), was recently denied tenure. Other Professors have claimed that: "The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching. ... You probably can't get another job." 20+ years devoted to research/teaching - DOWN THE DRAIN. ([2])
  • Jared Loughner, Tuscan shooter (Gabrielle Giffords), was kicked out of his college three months prior to the shooting. He expressed erratic behaviors before that, mumbling his fears about becoming homeless: "This is the school that I go to. This is my genocide school, where I'm going to be homeless because of this school...This is Pima Community College, one of the biggest scams in America." A lifetime of attempting to fit into society - FAILED he is stigmatized and pushed aside into obscurity (homelessness) for being mentally ill (and financially poor). ([3])
  •  + countless other perpetrators of mass massacres. ([4])
What do these perpetrators all have in common and what could possibly trigger them to commit such horrific acts? Only they -themselves- truly know. So lets get into their minds and quote one of them. From Jared Loughner: "If the student is unable to locate the external universe, the student is unable to locate the internal universe."

Interpretation: If a person fails at finding his way in this (external) world, he becomes lost mentally (in his internal universe).

These perpetrators all considered themselves failures, which negatively affected them psychologically. However, not everyone who fails at life (or has a mental breakdown) go on to commit such acts. In addition to experiencing a recent failure and being mentally ill, there are 3 other factors these perpetrators all shared:

(1). The individual has delusions of self-importance (individual attitude)
(2). The individual was exposed to a society that is mainly heartless and dismissive
(societal attitudes)
(3). The individual desires to be accepted into the society and sincerely attempts to live according to their rules (individual attitude about the societal attitude)

Each factor, alone, means nothing. It is a combination of (1) individual attitude + (2) societal attitudes + (3) individual attitude about the societal attitude. These 3 factors combined, when followed by a significant failure, can possibly trigger someone who is already mentally ill. Let's go over each factor:

(1). The individual has delusions of self-importance
These perpetrators believed every rejection was a personal attack. This stems from their individual attitude; they were more important than anyone else, and so couldn't grasps when others looked down on them.
  •  Elliot Rodgers stated in his retribution video that he couldn't understand why others weren't attracted to him. "I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me ... It's an injustice, a crime because I don't know what you don't see in me, I'm the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman." ""The popular kids, you never accepted me and now you will all pay for it." He proclaims numerous times of his delusions of self-importance in the video: "I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male"; "I will be a god compared to you" He even wrote a 140 page  manifesto.
  • Amy Bishop was convinced she would be known to the world. An inventor and writer trying to redeem herself after 'accidentally' shooting her brother. 'I am Dr. Amy Bishop!' she exclaims, after "punching a woman in the head [who] had taken the last booster seat, [and] demanded it for one of her children.” ([5]) So who is Dr. Amy Bishop, and why does she think she deserves respect? Maybe it's because she's the second cousin to author John Irving? "Bishop often dropped Irving's name [and] was always trying to figure out a way to use that connection." ([6])
  • Jared Loughner hasn't "forgotten the teacher that gave [him] a B for freedom of speech," he states in a youtube video.  "Loughner said his freedom of speech was being taken away [and] that under the Constitution, he had the right to his "'freedom of thought,' and whatever he thought in his head he could also put on paper. By placing his thoughts within his homework assignment, his teacher 'must be required to accept it' as a passing grade," according to campus police records." ([7])
  • James Holmes was used to a life of privilege. Growing up middle class in a highly regarded school district, he was an average looking white guy involved in athletics and excelling in academics. During college "He really distinguished himself from an academic point of view during his four years [at UC Riverside], graduating with highest honors." However, friends note that "James seemed frustrated after earning his undergraduate degree in neuroscience when the only job he could get was at McDonald's." He then applied to graduate school but withdrew after failing a year-end exam for his Doctoral program. He is no longer living the life of prestige and success that he was used to. He is no longer important and significant, which may be difficult for him to grasp. ([8])
  • Seung-Hui Cho felt so self-important that he mailed videos and photos of himself to NBC news, letting the world know he is becoming a martyr like 'Jesus Christ': "You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy's life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people....You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off." ([9])

(2). The individual was exposed to a society that is mainly heartless and dismissive

Compare these 2 statements:
  • Britney Spears (in response to why she shaved her head): "because of you" ([10])
  • Seung-Hui Cho (VTech shooter): "you caused me to do this." ([11])
Now, it's no surprise that someone who is mentally ill and constantly ridiculed/mocked will get sick of it and abruptly snap back. However there was a difference in how society treated them.
  • After exhibiting irrational behavior, peers of Cho either dismissed him or continued to mock him. People who had earlier tried to befriend him, gradually stopped talking to him and told their friends, especially female classmates, not to visit his room. Classmates often treated him like a subhuman and made snide comments about him. Due to his silent nature, "a classmate once offered him $10 just to say hello but got nothing" ([12]) Other classmates sometimes joked with their friends that Cho was "the kind of guy who might go on a rampage killing," ..."the kind of guy who is going to walk into a classroom and start shooting people." ([13])
  • After exhibiting irrational behavior, fans and family of Britney rallied behind her and got her help. Although the media mocked her violent outbursts and odd nature, she was NOT completely dismissed as a crazy psycho by peers, nor ignored and pushed aside into obscurity (homelessness). There were millions of adoring fans who DEFENDED her and wished well for her recovery. "Leave Britney Alone!" was the popular saying amongst fans. Her financial/social status also helped secure her with quality treatment for her mental health problems. And her PR connections helped control and reverse the stigma she received as a mentally ill individual. "She’s working with the best people in the business.” So in order to maintain her sanity, she was "totally reliant on her team of career minders in order to function professionally. [...], they’d take her by the hand and lead her..."  ([14])
Due to the prevalent influence of mass media, society as a whole is heartless and dismissive to those who are different by nature. Fortunately, the rich and famous (being exposed to a larger and diverse audience) are more able to find escape from complete cruelty. In fact, you rarely hear of celebrities committing mass massacres during their mental breakdowns (they usually resort to suicide). None of these common folk perpetrators, however, were rich and famous enough to experience a kinder world amongst the midst of ridicule and marginalization for their shortcomings.

(3). The individual desires to be accepted into the society and sincerely attempts to live according to their rules
It is entirely possible to be mentally unstable (even delusional) and a failure to society, but remain non-violent. In fact, millions of people are consistently mocked and marginalized by the mainstream every second and do not feel the need to snap back at society. How are they not incited to violence?  It is in their individual attitude about the societal attitudes. They do not desire to fit in with 'mainstream society' (or whatever sub-society it is that mocks them). Whether hobo, redneck, obese, goth, geek, etc., there are no feelings of revenge when they are viewed as losers or freaks by this external society since they are not invested with fitting in with them.

All the perpetrators committing these mass massacres, however, lived their life according to societal expectations in order to fit into a society -- but it is a society that does not accommodate their differences. They sought higher education, and a few of them even aimed at a prestigious career. Deep down, they wanted to fit into this mainstream/prestigious society and considered it a failure to stray away from its norms and values.

Unfortunately, once they were not able to achieve mainstream societal standards of 'success', they can only conclude that there is nothing left to live for (as well as nothing left to lose). But in reality, they have been brainwashed by mainstream media into believing they are NOTHING without these 'norms' .

Regarding the shooting spree on Dec. 5, 2012, Adam Lanza was an outcast who did not fit in with the norms of his affluent community. However, by being an honor student, it appears he still wanted to fit into some semblance of society and follow their rules. Unfortunately, this society has already rejected him and peers have labeled him a 'misfit' that does not belong into their elite society. [0]

In the UC Santa Barbara shooting on May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodgers felt rejected from the college culture he expected. The sex, partying and booze often portrayed in movies as being the "typical college experience" was a disconnect to what he actually experienced. "College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. In those years I've had to rot in loneliness, it's not fair." This was a shock to him. He would be regarded privileged in many aspects of his life (appearance, education, wealth, prestige, etc).  So this may have prompted him to feel entitled to the advantages that society would assume someone of his background to automatically have (beautiful girls, being part of the popular crowd, exciting campus life, etc.). However, he realized this was not the reality. [1] 

So how do these factors combine to possibly trigger those who are already mentally ill and inclined to violent outbursts?

(1) Having a delusional sense of self-importance, these perpetrators regarded achieving significance highly.
(2) But when they are rejected by society, these perpetrators felt their significance reduced.
(3) And since they wanted to fit into this society, they saw no other avenues at finding significance

So because of their failure to achieve significance with the 'status quo', they mentally break-down and resort to other desperate attempts at significance. Violence, especially mass massacres, never fails to satisfy anyone's need for significance and acceptance/connection:
  • One can feel significant knowing their image and story will be plastered on media articles/videos around the globe. They have influenced mass society and left their legacy behind in this universe (a feat only a select few are able to do, including unfortunate ones such as Hitler and Pol Pot).
  • One can feel accepted/connected because people now pay attention and talk about them. They care about them! (albeit negatively).
Katherine Newman, sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, explains: "Many mass shooters, rather than wanting to be alone, have a history of struggling to connect. They experience rejection by their peers...believe they're perceived as insignificant [...] They want to be seen as notorious, and unfortunately, there's a lot of social reinforcement for the glamour of being notorious. They imagine how cool it will be when everybody knows their name. I know this sounds absurd, but in some ways, revulsion or notoriety is preferable from their point of view from anonymous and insignificant."  ([15])

"As [motivational speaker] Tony Robbins explained, some people even resort to violence to achieve that feeling of significance. If you hold someone’s life in the palm of your hand and you know it and they know it, then you are instantly significant and the center of attention. We crave significance in any form, and will do whatever it takes to get it, be it by holding someone at gunpoint, donating thousands of dollars to a charity, or throwing a temper tantrum in a store. Without some degree of significance or uniqueness, we would just be another person in the crowd, undistinguishable and unimportant. Nobody wants that." ([16])

We cannot control the behavior of those who are mentally ill, nor can those individuals be shielded from failures in life. However, the likelihood of triggering a violent outburst can possibly be reduced by tackling the 3 factors mentioned:

(1). The individual has delusions of self-importance
(individual attitude)
(2). The individual was exposed to a society that is mainly heartless and dismissive
(societal attitudes)
(3). The individual desires to be accepted into the society and sincerely attempts to live according to their rules (individual attitude about the societal attitude)

Solutions are centered on the individual, however, society also has a role to not incite them further. In the next blog post, possible solutions will be offered for tackling each of these 3 factors.

Possible solutions to preventing mass massacres is addressed in Part 2 (Mass Massacres): Society Plays the Blame Game While Perpetrators Blame Society Itself.


  1. This is great stuff. We can thank the govt and media outlet for most of the ills of society. Just my two cents......

  2. This was extremely interesting I enjoyed reading it

  3. My only nit is that you used the names of the killers. Their names should be rarely used even as we refer to their crimes by geography (e.g. "Aurora," or "Stockton") or by some other reference as, "the Tucson Giffords shooting." The perpetrators need to fade into obscurity rather than becoming household words. This is to avoid copycats.

  4. I agree with Anonymous above. It's something I hadn't noticed.


Blog Directory