What Makes a Murderer? The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings

Mass shootings have become such a regular occurrence in the United States that we hear news reports of a new massacre on an almost monthly basis. Prior to the 1960s, most large scale killings outside of wartime were committed in a familial setting, but since the mid-century, they have shifted to take place predominantly in public spaces and are committed against unknown bystanders.

What drives someone to want to murder strangers en masse? Experts who have studied the psychology behind mass shootings say that although it’s a problem belonging to the modern era, it’s deeply rooted in our evolutionary journey as humans. Here’s what we know about the psychology behind mass shootings:

Predominantly a Male Problem

It’s a statistical fact that over 85% of all homicides are committed by men. With the exception of the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, which was carried out by a husband and wife team, there’s a 98% chance that a mass shooting will have been committed by a male.

As much as we like to pretend that men and women are 100% equal, the truth is that physiologically the genders have many differences; males mature at a slower rate than females and their forebrains, which control impulse and awareness of consequence, don’t fully develop until their late 20s or even early 30s. Anatomical reasons aside, males are also subjected to unique societal pressures that women do not face, which could explain why mass killings are considered a “male problem.”

Some of these pressures include…

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Precarious Manhood

Across almost all societies, a pre-conceived notion of manhood exists and a male’s value and status tend to be linked to this ideal. American psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson have coined the term “precarious manhood” to identify this unique issue that modern men face. They claim that manhood, unlike womanhood, is a status that must be constantly earned throughout one’s lifetime.

Its precariousness stems from the fact that it can be easily lost by not meeting the perceived markers of manhood, whether they be bravery, physical or mental prowess or the position of being a “provider” to those around you.

But that’s not the only factor at play…

g-stockstudio / Shutterstock.com
g-stockstudio / Shutterstock.com

Young Male Syndrome

A 1975 psychological study on the links between homicide and gender found that while a woman’s chance of being murdered remains steady throughout her lifetime, a man’s likelihood of getting killed increases sixfold when he reaches his early 20s, before peaking and declining for the remainder of his life. Psychologists believe that this phenomenon, which they call “Young Male Syndrome,” can be explained by younger men’s tendency to engage in competitive, risky and sometimes violent behavior.

This period of risk-taking and adventure once served an important evolutionary purpose as it would weed out the “weaker” men and leave behind the powerful ones, who would be rewarded with an acquisition of resources, sexual partners and a rise in status for the betterment of the tribe.

Speaking of tribes…

Champion studio / Shutterstock.com
Champion studio / Shutterstock.com
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