Authorities have been trying unsuccessfully to come up with a motive to explain the massacre carried out by a lone gunman in Las Vegas this week. The killer didn’t appear to be motivated by political, social, or religious views.
The principles of depth psychology reveal a possible motive. This motive, however, would have been unconscious to the killer. He wouldn’t have had any notion of it.
To discover this motive, an analysis of the killer’s psyche is required. Information is needed about his everyday personality, quirks, traits, and behaviors. Some of that information can be found in a report in The New York Times, titled “Stephen Paddock Chased Gambling’s Payouts and Perks,” published four days after the massacre.
For the purposes of psychological analysis, the newspaper’s profile of the 64-year-old killer, Stephen Paddock, is sketchy and incomplete. But the article does provide enough clues for me to make an analysis.
Paddock’s primary motivation, unbeknownst to himself, was to shift or displace his self-hatred, a result of intensifying inner conflict, onto others. Paddock’s evil aggression was facilitated by an accumulation of self-aggression that had built up in his psyche. He was likely being assailed with pure self-rejection and self-hatred that emanated from his inner critic or superego. In his psyche, he was unable to protect himself from this onslaught because of his own passive nature.
This passivity in his psyche, a psychological disconnect from his better self, accounted in large part for why he became an unevolved, degraded person, in the form of a compulsive gambler who spent many hours at a time, over many years, planted in front of a video poker machine in a cold, calculating, almost trance-like state.
Many people gamble compulsively at these kinds of machines, and they do not, of course, become killers as a result. People who play home video games for hours on end remain law-abiding, though they can in the process plunge into inner passivity, often with some degree of disconnection from self, if not dissociation or depersonalization, that can undermine their ability to flourish in the world. In Paddock’s case, other factors would have been at play, including possibly a genetic effect from his criminal father that predisposed the son to psychopathic tendencies and more intense inner conflict than the average person experiences. News reports say another of Paddock’s brothers, Bruce, was involved in criminal behaviors. Criminals as a group are heavily inflicted with inner passivity.
Despite possible genetic influences, depth psychology informs us that the destructive aggression that Paddock displayed would still be, in some measure, an extreme reaction to his underlying passivity and inner conflict. (Paddock’s girlfriend spoke of his moaning and crying out in bed, an indication he was experiencing intense inner conflict and anxiety. Authorities say he was taking the anti-anxiety drug Valium.) Because of that passivity, he failed inwardly to protect himself from the cruel onslaught of his inner critic’s self-aggression. I’ll say more about how this works.
First, consider that even when a mass killer’s motive is identified as political or religious, the psychological dynamics described here can be the starting point for the hatred and violence. Extremist beliefs often just serve as a “cover story” to account for immense hatred that’s being produced internally in the individual’s own psyche. Mental illness, as well, can be, in large measure, an intensification or worsening of inner dynamics that are universal to human nature.
We can start by understanding the nature of the passivity that had congested in Paddock’s psyche. This passivity is present, in varying degrees, in everyone’s psyche. I call it inner passivity, and I’ve written extensively about it at this website. One of my books, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity, deals with this topic in detail. This passivity is a major component of the human psyche, and it is responsible for much of the indecision, procrastination, confusion, defensiveness, loneliness, anxiety, fearfulness, compulsions, addictions, self-doubt, and violence that plague humanity.
Inner passivity exists within our psyche largely as a biological impediment or flaw, a leftover from the many years of childhood that are experienced by us through helplessness, dependency, and lack of autonomy. Inner passivity is also an aspect of our psychological immaturity and our lack of evolvement and consciousness. We have a difficult time seeing it clearly or objectively because we feel (to the degree that it’s even noticed by us) that it is a normal condition, just part and parcel of who we are.
We can begin to free ourselves from inner passivity’s many self-defeating symptoms and the limitations it imposes upon us by bringing it into focus, understanding it as a clinical entity, and seeing how it intrudes into our daily life.
In our psyche, inner passivity operates as something of an enabler of the self-aggression dispensed by our primitive inner critic or superego. This self-aggression, as Sigmund Freud famously noted, is a biological force, an imperfection in human nature, a corruption of the innate aggression that predatory human beings needed over millennia to survive. Our passive side cowers before our inner critic’s misleading accusations and scornful condemnation, and this inner weakness gives credence or legitimacy to these accusations, even when they’re entirely irrational. Inner passivity often tries to defend us from the inner critic, but it usually does so quite ineffectively.
The primary conflict in the human psyche is the one that takes place between inner passivity and the aggressive inner critic. The more neurotic we are, the more intense this inner conflict between our passive and aggressive sides.
Inner passivity often produces, as a compensation for its weakening effect, a desire to feel powerful and in control. One authority quoted in the Times article said, “Video poker is the crack cocaine of gambling.” Eric Paddock, the killer’s youngest brother, said Paddock, an expert who had played video poker for 25 years, required only a few seconds of time to play each hand, often for $100 or more per hand. Ten or more hands could be played in a minute. He gambled as he lived, his brother said, methodically, systematically, always weighing the odds. He was cautious and liked to plan ahead.
Paddock was likely chasing “the high” that comes from having the power to beat the machine and make large sums of money in a matter of minutes. This “high” of feeling powerful and in control is craved to compensate for (and to cover up or defend against) the passive person’s emotional resonance with and identification with the passive side of his inner conflict.
According to the Times article, Paddock always wanted to be in control and didn’t like leaving things to chance. He was a solitary person not known for friendliness. When he played, his body was mostly still, with only his hands moving.
Depth psychology tells us that a person who is rigid and who feels the need to be in control is likely to lack self-regulation in critical ways, meaning he is prone to being out of control in ways that can be self-defeating and self-destructive. Such a person expects that if he’s not rigidly in control, he’ll instead be controlled in some manner by someone or some situation. For this individual, it’s either control or be controlled. He feels the need to prove he wants to be in control and have power in order to cover up his inner dysfunction—his expectation of being controlled, or being out of control, and his emotional identification with that unpleasant sense of self. Inner passivity creates in him irrationality in the form of a propensity to interpret everyday situations as if he really were being controlled. Much of his resulting behavior is an attempt to cover up awareness of how, in this manner, he is his own worst enemy. This emotional and behavioral problem is a direct result of inner passivity.
Paddock had ample mental prowess. “He was a math guy,” his brother Eric said. “He could tell you off the top of his head what the odds were down to a tenth of a percent on whatever machine he was playing. He studied it like it was a Ph.D. thing. It was not silly gambling. It was work.” To be successful, he calculated the probabilities when betting, avoiding acting on hunches or emotion. He did it in a way that was mechanical and computer-like, apparently insensitive to human connections and considerations.
Many of us are very smart intellectually, yet we can be complete dunces when it comes to understanding ourselves and our motivations. We are then somewhat at the mercy of powerful negative emotions and irrational beliefs, arising out of inner conflict, that cause us to suffer and to act out in self-destructive ways.
Paddock was an anomaly, an outlier, yet he was still governed by forces that are universal in the human psyche. Why did he cross the threshold into evil? We all have the capacity for evil, and we can stumble into it when we’re disconnected from our authentic self and unable thereby to appreciate the sanctity of life and of others. Our inner critic operates in a primitive manner, capable of evil in itself for how mercilessly it can assail its host—the self-centered sleep-walking creature we often are when ignorant of our psyche’s hidden dynamics.
When our inner critic is active, it pummels us with scorn, mockery, and condemnation. In some individuals, the self-aggression accumulates as self-rejection and self-hatred, often producing clinical depression and other disorders. We tend to absorb this self-hatred to the degree that our inner passivity fails to protect us from it. As we absorb it, we become increasingly disconnected from self and indifferent or hateful toward others.
The answer is to appreciate how unevolved we are, how much we have to learn, in order that we might overcome egotistic resistance to pursue the deeper knowledge that humbles us as it frees us from our dark side.
Much is still unknown about why Paddock snapped and became an evil monster. Nonetheless, it’s highly likely the unconscious dynamics described here were propelling him in that direction.