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Mass Murder: The Psychology of Prediction and Prevention

February 14th, 2016 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 303 views | Print this Article

Mass Murder:

The Psychology of Prediction and Prevention

by Robert DePaolo


This article discusses the dynamics of human aggression and specifically the proclivity toward killing strangers, via the mass murder scenario. The point is made that a package of traits involving perceived estrangement, pseudo-familiarity toward the victims, a nihilistic outlook (depression), obsession and ego-dysfunction combine to increase the probability of such an act.

Genes and the Ego…

If one asks a liberal democrat why people engage in mass murder he or she will typically say it has to do with the availability of guns in American society. If one asks a conservative the same question, he or she will likely say it has to do with mental illness and that the mere presence of guns does not correlate with the act of committing mass murder- anymore than watching violent movies automatically foments violent behavior. If one were to conduct a statistical correlation study of the number and/or percentage of gun owners vs. the number and percentage of people who use guns to commit mass murder the correlation would be so low as to be statistically insignificant (Peterson, 2014) (Kennedy, Skeem et. al 2012). The same would be true with regard to people diagnosed with mental illness, including psychotic disorders. In fact it takes a fairly organized mind to plan such an act, as well as an intact enough reality orientation to select targets, obtain weapons, plan on time, place etc.

Of course guns are used to kill, and some mass murderers have been presumed to have mental disorders. Yet developing a predictive model by which to identify potential mass murderers would seem to require more than a liberal or conservative argument and perhaps encompass more than gun ownership or severe mental illness. That raises a question. To wit, if neither mental illness nor gun ownership are necessary and sufficient antecedents where does one look to find a preventative model?

Genes and Detachment…

A number of biologists have surmised that imbedded in virtually all organisms is a disposition to behave altruistically toward those within the same gene pool, and/or those with whom one has familiarity on a regular basis (Thompson, Hurd 2013), (Wendell, 2013) – especially if the relationship involves cooperative, mutually beneficial interactions. On the other hand it seems that as the genetic and social ties drift off into dissimilarity and non-mutuality the potential for aggression increases. It isn’t necessarily that our genes foment hate based on the differences between organism A and organism B. It’s just that with differences (real or perceived) the protective instinct dissipates. With respect to the psychology of Homo sapiens it is left to the individual to fill in gaps. Various outcomes can arise from that sense of estrangement.

As the most social of the primates we are extremely dependent on social interaction. As exemplified by a survey conducted by the Self Help Collective, various studies on public speaking and other potentially performance-related experiences suggest humans fear ostracism more than death (2014). When children are neglected or ignored in early development they not only become un-socialized but resentful and aggressive.

In a sense the necessary ties we have with one another comprise our greatest strength; giving us hospitals, caring parents, mentors, supportive agencies, even clerics willing to hear about our sins, trials and tribulations and offer solace. However when that “social compact” (i.e. the expectation of nurturance and reciprocity) is violated it is often perceived as betrayal. That can lead to retaliation.

If detachment revenge were all there is to it, prediction and prevention would be fairly easy and rather ominously, there would be more potential mass murderers. Obviously there is more to it than that. In fact another, paradoxical and dual psychic component seems prerequisite. One part consists of a self-perceived closeness to the target group or individual because it is difficult to hate, let alone kill people who are inconsequential in one’s life. In order to develop the essential mindset enabling one to pass beyond the regulatory barriers of ego and superego the avenger must categorize his victims to a point of utter familiarity. A second part (comprising the paradox) involves the perception that the targets are alien and distressingly unrecognizable.

It is a paradigm adopted by Adolph Hitler, who first espoused clear separation between the “Arian race” and virtually all others, then assigned distinctive traits to his targets (Jews and others) by turning them into them familiar entities. Recognition – separation; these elements can set the stage for ostensibly any anti-social act, including mass murder.

Such a dynamic can be seen with what might be called estrangement murders as well. Mark David Chapman (the murderer of John Lennon) and Ted Bundy, who targeted women who resembled a woman who rejected him prior to his rampage yet were in fact complete strangers are prime examples of this. It has also typified the onset of wars throughout human history, whereby specific traits and distinctions were assigned to enemies – by race, religion, ethnicity, thus releasing the demons within our species to freely kill and maim.

The Freedom of Psychic Rigidity…

Thus far, the elements of estrangement and quasi-familiarity have been viewed as requisite psychological components. In fact there are other variables to consider. One is considered here to be a kind of “theory of everything” with respect to anti-social behavior – the obsession. In order to discuss this it might be best to begin with Freud’s concept of the ego. This notion is a bit general but can be said to correspond to the self-awareness, linguistic, planning and regulatory functions of the prefrontal cortical lobes. Functionally the ego is designed to prevent extremes. It is a psychic clearing house, an arbiter of reason invariably weighing factors such as risk, reward, self image congruence, social ramifications and emotional repercussions in the process of behavioral selection (Strahey, 1990). If it can be bypassed, all those modulating capabilities can go by the boards, making each of us capable of extreme behavior patterns. With a depleted ego man can indeed potentially devolve into a “killer ape.”

The intact ego is pan-influential, so most of us operate via multiple faculties, weaving cognition, emotion, perception, memory and behavior into socially acceptable patterns. That’s why most people with guns do not murder and why most viewers of violent movies do not go out and commit violent crimes. The ego filter is a greater deterrent to sociopathy than gun laws or artistic restrictions. It provides a pro-social tether that can rein in aggression so we can think beyond the moment. On the other hand the tether can be severed by obsession-compulsive features.

In order to override the ego’s considerable breadth and influence requires extraordinary force. An emotion-induced obsession suits that purpose very well. But it must be more than an episodic occurrence produced, for example by situational or “state” anxiety. It must be a fairly ingrained trait, created either by innate temperament, doctrinaire conversions, trauma or neurologically induced rigidity – the latter of which can produce hyperactive, perseverative tendencies in the brain, forcing it to operate on a single track to the exclusion of peripheral inputs and sensations.

Language and Tunnel Vision…

As Simon has demonstrated emotional states tend to create a narrow focus (1967). This trait is adaptive in nature but often maladaptive in society. Being pursued by a predator certainly requires a singular focus on escape. On the other hand many social situations require subtlety even in emotional circumstances. Thus the human animal must be able to modulate what is essentially an adaptive mandate. The only way for this to occur is through the self-regulatory capacities of language. The ego is ultimately a language medium. One must not only have expressive skills, but two other linguistic skills are needed to rein in destructive emotional behavior. One is a capability (honed through practice) to talk one’s self through duress. The other is a set of experiences whereby, through interactions with others, a sense of consensual reality is developed so that the individual can “think as others think” and thereby preclude extreme thoughts and feelings.

All of those skills are ego-driven as Freud suggested, thus language habits (particularly a capacity for self-reflection and regular opportunities to “check in” with others in conversation) are a critical component in deterring the urge to kill.


Seligman wrote about depression as being typically accompanied by a sense of helplessness (1975) i.e. the perception that one’s behavior cannot resolve disparities between needs and frustrations. While depression might seem a harmless emotional state- at least in its impact on others, it is in fact quite dangerous. Running out of solutions leads to nihilism, i.e. a belief that nothing matters. That leads to a ‘nothing to lose’ mindset which can not only remove the fear of retribution but make it seem somehow attractive.


Thus far several variables have been discussed with respect to the psychological makeup of a mass murderer. One obvious feature – aggression – has been left out. One might assume that to engage in mass murder requires an aggressive outlook. There is one problem with that, however. People get angry all the time yet do not act out in such extreme ways. Moreover, mass murderers often do not seem to respond to grudges or momentary pique. Nor do they necessarily have a history of assaultive behavior (Hsu 2012). Indeed the act can sometimes appear random and devoid of imminent rancor toward those around him prior to the act. Thus mass murder might not be purely an act of rage. As strange as it seems the act might be in its essence more cognitive than emotional. The question is…what cognitive process would it involve?

Totem Pole Demons…

Recently, President Obama (and many others) expressed frustration over the fact that mass murder happens much more often in American society than in all other advanced societies – thus his call for stricter gun laws. He is probably wrong about that, since many nations have experienced mass murder, including Russia, England. Germany and many other advanced countries, going even further back than Jack the Ripper. In that context it makes sense to look beyond a specific nation for the solution – indeed to the very nature of our species. Homo sapiens is a primate, or at least shares many neurobehavioral traits with other primates. One such trait is a large brain, which in turn disposes all primates to be highly social. The reason is fairly obvious. Big brains enable their owners to perceive faces, behaviors, physical characteristics, vocalizations and visual inputs in more detail. As a result primates are better able to distinguish among members of the group; for example to determine which ones are dominant, submissive, sexually receptive, emotionally unsteady, intelligent, wily, deceptive and so on. As Pinker (1997) has noted some of the impetus for expansion of the human brain was to enhance social perception to meet the demands of increasingly complex human interaction,.

One of the most significant byproducts of this process in humans is something that can be referred to as the “equi-hierarchy.” In chimp and gorilla social groups there is little question of rank. The silver back runs the show in gorilla groups and the alpha male rules in chimp society. Most of this is based on size and strength. Yet the chimps in particular experience political revolutions from time to time as lower ranked males stage a coup against the alpha male. That is in part because they can see beyond size and strength. They see numbers as an advantage. They can also consider the age and physical decline of the alpha and other signs that he is “losing it” and plot against him in accord with those perceptions.

Human perception enables us to see an even greater number of variables. Size strength, intelligence, artistic ability, social notoriety, sexual prowess, financial status and so many other features are symbols carved out on the totem pole of human experience. The net result is that the human hierarchy is so fluid as to be virtually in the eyes of the beholder. One might even argue that beyond historical stimuli such as the Magna Carta, Locke’s treatise on the social contract or the Declaration of Independence, it was basic human neuro-psychology that created an inevitable drift toward democracy, particularly after the advent of the handgun, which really leveled the playing field.

The equi-hierarchical phenomenon has enormous impact on human thought which is reflected in the obsessive human need for attention, approval, fame etc. It disposes us to feel entitled to totem pole ascendency; not just as a possibility but as a basic right. One byproduct of a doctrine of equality (not just before the law – which was the sole intent of the constitutional framers – but in all aspects of life) is potential conflict; both within the individual and in his interactions with society. This dynamic can provide justification for a mass murderer. The attitude…”if society deems me equal to all others yet I fail to ascend the ranks it is the fault of society and I am no longer obliged to live by its rules” can prevail, making mass murder less an emotional act than an intellectual assessment.

In that context, President Obama might be more accurate to say such crimes are more prevalent in societies with a low emphasis on acceptance, with highly fluid versions of equality and in societies where (perhaps through media-fueled emphasis on universal fame and notoriety) citizens are unable to find satisfaction in life’s smaller conquests and achievements. By that reasoning a philosophical society, or one with religious overtones – for example via the teaching of acceptance and a capacity to defer to a higher power – might well produce fewer violent individuals than a non-philosophical or godless society.

Diagnostics and Prevention…

The ultimate question is whether the above discussion can be applied to prevention. While no system is even close to perfect in predicting human behavior there are criteria that could increase the likelihood of detection and prevention of mass murder. For example an individual might be disposed to mass violence when…

1. There has been a long period of social isolation wherein ego functions could have been depleted by lack of normalizing social interaction and where an internal language capacity honed by faith or moral teaching is absent or diminished.

2. The individual expresses a sense of threat and betrayal due to a perceived, threatening disparity between his aspirations, self perceptions and his idealized status and actual life outcomes.

3. When parents and family dynamics emphasize the “specialness” of the individual despite his or her average traits and accomplishments – which would set the stage for threat inducing cognitive dissonance.

4. When cognitive and language habits reflect the ultra-familiarity with the traits, habits and motives of potential targets with whom the individual has no familiarity.

5. The presence of mental rigidity, in the form of repeated complaints, use of phrases in the characterization of others, reliance on rituals and habits, extreme emotional resistance to change, and even rigid eye focus, i.e. lack of shifting eye movements that correspond to deliberation, the weighing of ideas and also reflect a pause capability between feeling and acting that can indicate working ego functions.

6. The presence of depressive traits, with accompanying feelings of helpless and a nothing to lose mentality. That particular trait removes to an extent the fear of getting caught and punished and skews the risk-reward ratio toward anti-social behavior.

Each of the above factors could be seen in the behaviors of various mass murderers and serial killers. Certain factors might be more pronounced than others; for example some might have ample social contact but excessive rigidity and dissonance between self image and actual status as well as a closeness-detachment fixation toward others. Just how these factors could be used for prediction scenario, either by clinicians, family members, police or the courts is hard to say. It could be a question of proportion whereby some of these factors might be non-existent while others might be pronounced.

This does at least hopefully provide a beginning model to identify individuals at risk that can be used even in non clinical settings as a mean of reducing, if not eliminating the occurrence of such acts.


Freud, S. (1990) The Ego and the Id; The Standard Edition of the Compete Works of Sigmund Freud. J. Strahey (Ed.) W. W. Norton.

Hsu, J. From an Article in Tech. News Daily Dec. 14, 2012. Can Mental Screening Predict Mass Murder?

Kennedy, P. Skeem, J. Bray, B. Zvonkovic, A. Law and Human Behavior.

Peterson, J. How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede criminal behavior among offenders with mental Illness? Article in American Psychological Association Newsletter 21, 2004.

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. W.W. Norton

Self Help Reference: Fear of Ostracism discussion was derived from a list compiled by the Self Help Collective at self help in 2014.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1975) Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death. San Francisco, W.H. Freeman

Simon, H. (1967) Motivational and Emotional Controls of Cognition. Psychology Review. 174 (1) 29-39.

Thompson,, G.L. Hurd, P.L., Crespi, B.J. (2013) Genes Underlying Altruism. Biology Letters

Wendell, J. (2013) Epigenetics Sheds New Light on Altruism. Genetic Literary Project

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