The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings

To understand mass shooters, we must search our own psyche.

To understand mass shooters, we must search our own psyche.

While some mass shooters are psychotic or schizophrenic, only about five percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness. The rate of mental illness is higher—an estimated 20 percent—among rampage or serial killers. Most of the mass murders didn’t qualify for any specific psychiatric disorder, according to strict criteria. These individuals—often working-class men who had been jilted, fired, and felt humiliated, or youths who felt rejected and despised—lived next door to neighbors who never imagined them capable of such crimes.

We would like to believe that the behavior of the shooters is foreign to human nature, not something intrinsic in our psyche. Or we say that a gun-worshipping culture is to blame. Yet might there be another factor, some common element at the heart of human nature, to account in part for these horrendous events?

We all have a dark side. Psychology, literature, and mythology have chronicled this aspect of our nature, yet still we flee from examining it. Carl Jung wrote in his 1957 classic, The Undiscovered Self, that a true understanding of the inner self recognizes the existence of good and evil within us. In his view, the unconscious was being ignored “out of downright resistance to the mere possibility of there being a second psychic authority besides the ego. It seems a positive menace to the ego that its monarchy can be doubted.” Jung also wrote that a lack of insight deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil. Underestimation of the psychological factor, he added, “is likely to take a bitter revenge.” [Read more...]