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…
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…
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…
In the animal world, males are expected to compete for the attention of sexual partners and humankind is no different. Those who are able to hold on to the elusive achievement of “manhood” are generally seen as having a higher status than those who can’t and enjoy greater access to women because of it.
In human tribal culture, studies have shown that competitive success in adolescence can determine a man’s social status for the rest of his lifetime, meaning that young adulthood can be a make or break time for males who seek positions of power. Anthropological studies of the Yanomamo tribal culture in South America have discovered that males who’d killed other males had more wives than men who hadn’t, and that a man’s standing was based on how viable his threats of violence were.
Of course, in modern society, those who don’t “prove themselves” early on face psychological challenges…
In a society where social dominance is determined by the measure of one’s manhood, which in turn is linked to aggressive behavior, competitiveness and violence, where does that leave men who fall outside the status quo of “manliness”?
Nearly all mass killers seem to fall into the category of the so-called “beta male.” The opposite of an “alpha,” beta males struggle socially, tend to be seen as weak or unattractive, have difficulty finding mates and consider themselves to be outcasts.
Of course, the idea that men can be divided into these two categories at all is a social construct, and a dangerous one at that.
As humans, we compete with one another for attention, with attention comes status and power. Those unable to command attention from those around them often have driving feelings of envy and anger, which are almost always present in the lives of those who commit mass killings.
Of course, most people who experience feelings of envy and anger don’t go on to kill others en masse. So what bridges the gap between angry men and angry men who commit murder?
Give a Man a Gun
Elliot Rodgers, who committed the gruesome 2014 Isla Vista sorority murders, spoke about his first experience handling a gun with a deep reverence.
“After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power… Who’s the alpha male now, b***hes?”
A 2006 study was conducted to try and measure male responses to handguns. The subjects who were given a gun experienced a rise in testosterone levels. The participants were then asked to douse a glass of water with hot sauce and were told that it would be ingested by someone else. Men who’d previously handled the gun added more hot sauce and expressed more disappointment upon learning that no one would be drinking the water than the men who hadn’t previously handled the gun.
What else connects men who commit mass killings? Read on…
Other Psychological Factors
In addition to feeling envious, angry and on the fringe of society, men who have committed mass shootings often experienced childhood abuse, neglectful parenting, or have a history of hurting animals or committing arson. Personality wise, they tend to lack empathy or compassion, possess a streak of self-centeredness or entitlement and tend to dwell on perceived past “injustices” to an unhealthy degree.
There’s also a physiological element at play…
High Testosterone Levels
Another factor that seems to implicate younger men in violent acts is their testosterone levels. Testosterone production tends to peak when men are in their teenage and young adult years and slowly decreases after the age of 30.
Studies that have been conducted on chimpanzees, our closest relative, indicate that high-ranking male chimps tend to have the highest levels of testosterone along with the highest level of aggression. A male chimp’s testosterone levels are also highest when they are around an ovulating female.
While you might think that this scenario would also lead to a higher rate of sexual activity, you’d be wrong. It does, however, lead to an increase in violent behavior against other males.
One thing we know about violent behavior is that it begets more violent behavior. This is true of mass shootings as well…
Are mass shootings contagious?
Evidence supports the theory that occurrences like suicide, eating disorders, mood swings and violent behavior can be “contagious,” meaning one such incident will incite others. Humans learn behavior through observation, so it’s no surprise that mass shootings are also thought to be infectious.
Mass shootings have been known to inspire copycats, particularly in the first 13 days after an event. Studies have shown that between 20% and 30% of all mass shootings are copycat incidents. Many mass shooters are later found to have revered those who’ve committed similar crimes before them and admit to wanting to emulate other killers. For example, the 1999 Columbine shooting has inspired approximately 21 successful incidents as well as 53 plots that were stopped by police before they could occur.
So, how do we stop this contagion from spreading? We can start with the media…
The Media’s Role
One factor that contributes to the copycat effect and also provides the “status” these killers subconsciously seek is the media coverage that follows such an incident. Terms like “lone wolf,” which is frequently used to describe attackers, tends to glamorize them in a way that can inspire other outcasts to commit similar acts of violence.
It’s also thought that by publicizing the name of the shooter, it underlines the belief that someone will finally achieve status and fame by committing mass murder. The FBI backed campaign “Don’t Name Them” advocates for media and law enforcement to black out the names of mass killers and refrain from using their image, thus denying them the satisfaction of infamy. In recent years, journalists like Anderson Cooper and Megyn Kelley have stopped reporting on the identities of mass shooters.
What can the rest of us do? We have a few ideas…
What can be done?
Every mass shooting is followed by a series of political brawls regarding gun control and the treatment of mental illness. Sadly, little to no movement seems to ever happen on either of these fronts, despite the growing bloodshed.
Although we cannot undo thousands of years of evolutionary changes the male mind and body have undergone, by understanding them, we can perhaps begin to ease the societal pressures young men face today.
In the same way we’ve encouraged women to move away from traditional gender roles, we as a society need to start extending the same courtesy to men. By turning away from the very narrow and outdated definition of manhood we currently adhere to, perhaps we can begin to heal the deep wounds the notion has left behind – and prevent future tragedy in the process.