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.”

Looking for dynamics in our psyche that we might have in common with mass shooters is a delicate subject. We keep our distance as if they belong to a different species. Yet these shootings have been occurring for many years now and could become more frequent. We have to consider possible answers that lie closer to home.

Let’s start by examining a profile that fits many mass shooters. These murderers are often quite intelligent, yet through acute self-centeredness they are likely to be socially awkward or inept. They crave notice and fame to compensate for how deeply they dismiss their own value and feel like nobodies. They also lack empathy and have little or no affect, a condition that relates to the indifference or disdain they have for their own existence.

Negative emotions accumulate inside them, producing bitterness, anger, despair, and, finally, rage. Their rage, even when hidden from others, produces a third-rate sense of power that covers up their emotional entanglement in hopelessness and passivity. They crave power because they feel so powerless, yet in their dark negativity they can express only negative, destructive power. They seek death because they feel so powerfully overwhelmed by life.

Because their weak self-regulation compels them to continually recycle negative emotions, they hold on to grudges. These grudges and grievances accumulate in them, giving them a feeling of substance, a place of being to which they cling in the chaos of their inner conflict.

The killer-to-be has also passively allowed himself to plunge so deeply into self-abandonment and self-hatred—meaning his aggressive rejection of all that is good or decent in him—that, like a drowning person, he gasps for the one last “breath” of the only power now available to him, which is to do evil.

An additional factor shapes these menacing time-bombs. These killers-to-be have acquired a fervent interest in guns. Influenced by others, they passively elevate the gun or the rifle to level of a fetish. In another time and place, they’re the kind of people who might have joined a cult. For a troubled individual who is drowning in negativity, to adore guns is to worship death.

From this we can assume that the murderous instincts of rampage shooters originate from profound inner weakness and emotional conflict in their psyche. Their aggression, in part, is based on their reaction to their overflowing negative emotions and their resulting lack of self-regulation. By way of comparison, many everyday people have considerable deposits of anger, cynicism, and bitterness. They hold on to this negativity for dear life. Convinced that their bitterness is justified by the alleged cruelty or insensitivity of others, they express various levels of malice toward others. This is the key point: We have to learn and understand that our bitterness is not due to the malice of others. Rather, the bitterness and rage we may experience is a cover-up for our willingness to indulge in feeling victimized in some manner or other. If we don’t understand this, then the difference between us and rampage shooters is just a matter of degree.

To heed Jung’s warning, we must grow our consciousness. This inner progress would enable parents, teachers, clergy, and others to become more insightful about the emotional state of others and more confident about initiating some form of intervention. As well, potential killers will likely moderate their deadly instincts when they are surrounded by more conscious people, exposed to better psychological knowledge, and made through saner weapons regulation to understand that the death instinct, easily spawned where weapons are sanctified, is a social taboo.

Reform may require that more of us access, at least on paper, the best information concerning the dynamics of emotional conflict. How many people understand, for instance, that during preparations for their assaults, killers-to-be become fixated on images of their helpless, desperate victims, as they identify masochistically with the helpless despair they feel so strongly in themselves? Vital knowledge about human nature can permeate the culture, raising the collective consciousness. When disseminated in the media, the knowledge seeps into the minds of even the least intellectually inclined.

What are some essentials of this knowledge? We have to learn that our negative impressions, impulses, and emotions are not caused exclusively by external factors, even when life is difficult and seems unfair. Unconsciously, we prefer to believe that our hurt, anger, and rage are produced by the oversights and malice of others. This irrational belief stems from our unconscious attempt to cover up our participation in our suffering. When people begin to understand how they produce their own suffering, they stop projecting on to others (and experiencing by way of transference from others) the negativity churned up by their own unresolved emotions. Now they no longer despise others or see them as the enemy.

As long as people go on believing that their suffering is caused by others, they’ll be compelled to become angry at others because they’re required, through their unconscious defenses, to blame others for allegedly bullying, punishing, oppressing, or persecuting them. In ongoing stubborn denial of their participation in their suffering and failure, some take their anger to the next level and begin to generate rage toward their alleged victimizers.

Once we understand this basic concept, we have nowhere to turn for relief but inward toward self-knowledge. When we do so, we can rescue ourselves from our suffering. Parents need to learn this so they represent this truth in their dealings with both normal and troubled children. Liberation from pain and suffering is the next great expansion of our freedoms.

Once we turn our intelligence inward, we come across two great insights. The first involves our understanding of the roles played in our psyche between aggression and passivity. (Read, “Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity.”) These two aspects of our psyche are in conflict with each other; the more dysfunctional or neurotic we are, the more intense the conflict is likely to be. Typically, people are aware of the painful symptoms of the conflict but not the conflict itself.

Second, we’re inclined to recycle and replay, no matter how painful, whatever negative emotions are unresolved in our psyche. (Read, “Why Our Emotional Suffering Persists.”) Inner passivity, a kind of existential self-doubt with which many of us identify, is one of these negative emotions. It causes troubled individuals to feel that aggression, including extravagant displays of it, is their only recourse.

Learning this knowledge makes us wiser and more astute. The troubled people who cross our path are also helped in unseen ways by our evolved nature.