Scary Reality: The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings

 

I could make the assumption that many of my readers had the same reaction as I did when they heard about the Las Vegas mass shooting a couple of weeks ago: silence.

After 11,686 shootings that resulted in deaths in 2017 alone in the U.S., is there anything new to say? Haven’t we said it all? Many of us can only react with rhetorical again’s, and why’s, because we know these simple questions can encompass extensive, complicated answers that are hard to put into words.

There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for this massive amount of shootings, but they all have some reasons in common. For the purpose of this essay, I will attempt to briefly analyze the psychology behind the Las Vegas shooting only, and I invite my active readers to find similarities with other gun tragedies.

 

Ostracism

Even though we all vary in how friendly we are, we have evolved up to this point partly due to our social brains. We depend on others and others depend on us, so in order to form social connections, we are motivated to fit in. We fit in because we do not like to feel neglected or ostracized, which is defined as being excluded from a group.

On our social path as humans, depending on where we fit in and where we do not, we form our notion of ingroup and outgroup. We identify with our ingroup and do not identify with our outgroup. For example, if I support a certain hockey team, I identify with those who support my team and do not identify with those who support the opponent. This is why we have no problem with yelling awful names at them at the stadium.

What happens with ostracism is that our ingroup shrinks and our outgroup expands. Eventually, chronic ostracism leads to a decrease in empathy and increase in hostility. Why? Because rejection hurts, and extended periods of rejection hurt a lot. And once we have been hurt that much we cannot relate to anyone any more so our empathy decreases.

Ostracized people cope with the pain in a variety of ways, and some ways are not sustainable in the sense that they will not make us feel better. Is it fair to say Stephen Paddock, the perpetrator of the Las Vegas shooting, had been ostracized?

 

 

First, when Stephen was only 16 years old, his father, a bank robber, made it to the 10 most searched fugitives by the FBI. Could it be that the psychopathy his father suffered was hereditary, therefore, Stephen might have had a predisposition to feel different from everyone else?  

Second, Stephen got married, got divorced, got married again, and got divorced again. It is possible that his inability to maintain relationships was an indication of how his ingroup was always small. Furthermore, his inability to stay married might have been because of poor emotional regulation, which allows us to see or experience something from someone else's point of view and hence form healthy relationships.

Third, Stephen had no kids nor he had any political or religious affiliations. He was “an army of one”, as his brother Eric Paddock claims. But what is the problem with a well-armed army of one? Precisely that—he is only one. He had reduced his ingroup to the point that no one he had had contact with expected his attack. He had been ostracized in a way that he acted alone and confided in no one his scary plans, as far as we know.

Fourth and last, Stephen was a gambler. Although correlation does not entail causation, gamblers are known for having anxiety, and Stephen had been prescribed Valium in order to deal with this. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Valium side effects include aggression, rage and irritability. Moreover, gambling is not normally done in a group, at least not for Stephen. He gambled alone, got anxious alone and suffered the side effects of his medication alone—until that October night.

 

Normalizing war

Now that I have analyzed the psychology behind the case on a micro level—how Stephen’s immediate relationships (or lack of them) affected his rage—I will analyze it on a macro level, or how constant exposure to violence in the U.S. might have had an effect on the shooting.

Anyone who has studied some U.S. history knows that, for pretty much its entire existence, the U.S. has been involved in some type of war. From before the Seven Year War (1756) up until the Invasion of Iraq (2003), the U.S. has been sending troops to most parts of the world. So what do France, Morocco, Great Britain, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Italy, Korea, Vietnam, Panama and Afghanistan have in common? War with the U.S.

American citizens have been habituated to see violence and aggression in the media, consequently militarism has come to be seen as “normal”. This state of constant warfare has lead Americans to act almost unvexed, as if it was not something out of the ordinary, when they learn about a new military deployment. This explanation extends to people’s reaction after learning about a recent mass shooting in the U.S. Truly, some of us would not describe the Las Vegas shooting as an extraordinary event - although it should. Respectively, it is not longer an entirely absurd notion the fact that the second amendment of the U.S. constitution defends their citizens’ rights to bear arms for the purposes of self-defense, presumably against people like Stephen Paddock.

 

 

Some opponents of the second amendment claim that it only takes a day to buy an AR-15, but six months to get an X-ray in America - a scary statement that makes many shiver. And although this statement may not be entirely accurate, the shocking part is how many people do believe it to be true. And why do they? Because of a thinking model called availability heuristic.

The availability heuristic explains why we are more scared of sharks than bees when, statistically, more people are killed by bees than sharks each year. While sharks are depicted constantly on the media as scary creatures that kill people, bees are not. Therefore, we think shark attacks happen more often than bees attacks. Likewise, mass shootings get extensive media coverage each time they happen. For this reason, people think they are much more common than they actually are. With so much violence exposure, we eventually normalize violence: we believe it is a regular event. As I mentioned before, when we learn that a guy opened fire at a school in Colorado, we are regrettably less surprised than we should be.

 

As a result, when you join habituation to violence and easy gun availability, you end up with 58 fatalities and over 500 injuries after 15 minutes of rage.

Allowing violence-prone individuals that lack empathy and have a surplus of hostility to own guns never struck me as a smart idea, and now all of the mourners of the Las Vegas mass shooting and us have more reasons to believe so.

 

While the complexity of mass shootings allows for an vast amount of responses, in accordance with my psychology studies, my personal response was to try to understand the reasons behind them. I must clarify that I do not consider this analysis a complete recount of all of the factors motivating Stephen Paddock’s murderous operation. However, I do consider it to be a valid interpretation of the shooting that aims to describe two crucial motives behind it.