Psychology of Mass Shootings

Psychology of Mass Shootings

Guns, knives, ropes, tire irons, cars, even bombs don’t kill people; people kill people! Let’s get that settled from the start. More specifically, it is human behavior that kills people and perpetrates, seemingly senseless, mass-shootings.

So let’s cut the political crap and get down to the real causes of these horrors.

The reality is that America is in a steep social and cultural decline, for a great many reasons; way too many complex reasons to list here. Please see my other blogs on this and related topics.

The psychological health of our children, youth and adults has worsened over the past 60 years and there is currently no end to America’s degradation in sight.

However, there are immediate useful principles that are revealed by the “copy-cat nature” of America’s mass-shootings. They tend to run in fairly close groupings and are clear examples of Bad Behavioral Contagion. This is a term I use, based upon much research in the fields of psychology, sociology and others. I define bad behavioral contagion as the spread of harmful behavior within a population via biological, social and psychological principles. And yes, there is Good Behavioral Contagion. For its definition simply change the word “harmful” to “healthy” in my definition.

The most immediate principles involved in this spreading of bad behaviors in America are those of modeling and imitation. This starts when individuals behave in certain ways and are heavily rewarded for their actions. When other individuals see this behavior heavily rewarded they tend to imitate that behavior, or something very similar to it. Humans, both the psychosocially healthy and psychologically disturbed, tend to imitate the behavior of others that are consistent with their value systems.

Humans are master imitators of the behaviors of others and this is plain to see by simply observing the actions of infants, children, teens and adults in your family, or others who you know very well. When simple observations and decades of strong research findings are in accord, there may be super- important Laws and principles involved. For example, when a population of over 300 million humans see others (the models) behave in certain ways and get big rewards for their actions, this commonly increases the probability that some observers will imitate that behavior. The more attractive, desirable, popular, similar, or powerful a model is to the observers, the more likely it is the behavior will be imitated. This is psychology 101!

Now consider the shooters in America’s mass-shooter bad behavior contagion. Note the shooter’s psychological profile. They are mentally disturbed, strange, sometimes bizarre looking and/or behaving; young, socially rejected, dejected, bullied, isolated, virtually unemployable, angry, hateful, rage-filled teens or young men.

What, specifically, could possibly motivate such barbaric behavior?!

We could speak of the thrill of adrenalin-drenched symbolic revenge for all of the hurts, rejections and disappointments of their lives, and more about the internal thoughts and motives of such madness. And, of course, displaced aggression. All of this can be true, but this is not my focus. Let us look at the immediate reinforcers ( the twisted “rewards”) for such actions.

What do you think would happen to the probability that the rate of imitation, in our large and growing psychologically disturbed population in America, if they witnessed someone similar to themselves, kill lots of people: Precious sweet innocent children, teachers, grandparents, mothers and fathers, faithful worshipers, police officers or other public servants; and then the killer’s horrific deeds were replayed over and over, and over to hundreds of millions of others, by our pervasive and invasive social media.

Included in this “festival” of tragedy is the killer’s history of suffered damaging neglect and abuse, broadcasted pictures of them plastered all-over the national and international news, and the details of their careful preparations for murder are meticulously reported. Also show-cased is the pain and suffering of their innocent victims, the interviews of the stunned observers and tearful family members, the monuments of flowers and pictures of victims at the tragic sites of attack, the funerals, and heart-rending eulogies for the dead. The analyses of how security efforts had failed, the allegations of blame against the killer’s parents, friends, accomplices, security, police, fire, and others. The killer’s social media writings and rantings, sick and bizarre “manifestos” are detailed; exactly how they did what they did, how they escaped, how they were captured, the many compiling charges against them, the numerous media briefings by officials and the media’s frenzied questioning of them, the suspense of unanswered questions. The future trial, the unfolding details of the trial, and sometimes mention of possible Capital Punishment, that if applied will probably not occur for decades. There will possibly be a series of appeals and future news-worthy trials.

The killers incandescent international “fame” would be virtually everyone else’s horrific infamy! But to a small minority of citizens, the killer, against all of their troubled and painful odds, has achieved the “mega-rewards” of immortal “super-stardom”. From that small minority of citizens will come a smaller minority who begin to dream about these “eternal glories” for them selves. Among these, a very “select-few” will seek to imitate their world-famous model(s).

And, it is right there that we will again be confronted with what we have fostered and are are addicted to in America: If it bleeds, it leads, in “The home of the brave” and the Land of The Too-Free!

Our Founding Fathers gave us our Constitutional First and Second Amendments and I am firmly in support of them both. The Fathers would clearly support law abiding citizens to be armed for self-protection, if they chose to do so, and they would certainly support our free press.

However, I cannot believe they would have ever allowed the sale of guns to known criminals or mentally ill citizens who threatened, or are likely to kill innocent people.

Nor could I believe the Fathers would think it proper to “reward” and “celebrate”, with protracted notoriety, the hateful and/or mentally ill (models) who used guns, cars, bombs, etc. to kill individuals or masses of innocent citizens. Who are then repeatedly “Rewarded” via obsessive-compulsive pandemic news coverage by our social media amplifying their most personal details,

I am a strong Constitutional Conservative. There must be a way to begin to use principles of psychology that improve the quality of our population’s behavior, within the Constitutional laws and traditions that made America Great. One premier law of psychology is The law of Effect. Again, it states that: Consequences Control Behavior. Within populations, normally rewarding consequences tend to increase the probability of the behaviors they follow. Within populations, generally punishing consequences decrease the probability of the behaviors they follow. And within populations, generally withholding rewards for particular behaviors tend to decrease the probability of those behaviors.

If citizens, law-makers, business, and media leaders will respect and support the psychological principles reported here, they will develop guidelines to limit the hyper-in-depth, detailed and extended personal coverage of psychopathic mass and other individual murderers to the very bare-essentials. Exactly how this can be done, and to what extent remains to be decided and experimented with within our states. But a rational America must begin to radically diminish the bad behavioral contagion-stimulating, sick-notoriety rewards for perpetrators of murder and mayhem.

Regarding the punishment of these murders, technically speaking, there is no such thing. Prison is full of rewarding activities and prison is notoriously unlikely to eliminate criminal behaviors. Capital Punishment does reduce the future probability of bad behavior, but it is only because the individual they can’t behave anymore.

Never the less, capital punishment terminates an evil and murderous gene pool from our population and that insures it will not be passed to others in the future. Understand that many prisons have “conjugal visits” for prisoners.

If America will see the advantages of making the legal changes necessary to apply swift and certain executions for mass-and other murderers. It will free-up a good deal of tax monies for preventive interventions, which in turn will save America great future suffering and moneys spent on unneeded law, crime, legal and maintenance for prison populations. I understand this may sound crass, but I ask you to understand that America’s war against crime is nothing less than a war. Such changes may provide us the time and money to begin to work on the only possible humane way to profoundly reduce this lethal scourge of America: Primary and Secondary Prevention!

Regarding the availability of firearms to the dangerously mentally ill and criminals, red flag laws are in place in many States, and should be the law of the land. It is important to note that the majority of those who suffer from psychological disorders are off no danger to others. It is essential that there be strong protections against unprincipled citizens using Red Flag Laws to punish those they may hate or wish to harm. Just as there is for citizens who report the abuse or neglect of children to our Child Protection Agencies. There must also be very strong protections against any governmental efforts to use Red Flag Laws as a mechanism to punish political opponents, or to increasingly disarm law abiding American Citizens. On this last matter, as our Founding Father’s would admonish: Trust is foolhardy!

Without these and many other political, social, and cultural changes, America’s historically unmatched Constitutional Republic will continue its sad decline.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 7/11/22.

Professor Emeritus of Psychology and President Behavioral Psychological Family Services.

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5 Responses to “Psychology of Mass Shootings”

  1. vtmawhinney Says:

    Reblogged this on Cultural Survival Skills and commented:

    It happens over and over. And it is symbolic of a psychologically damaged America. 3/28/23 VTM


  2. R. Damaske Says:

    Dr. Tom,
    This phenomena which you portray in this brilliant article is trending towards the “uncivilization” of the human race, and is much more than merely a psychological “natural selection” of the human species. We can review all the phases that this country has gone through since it’s inception and how it reacts and causes it’s populations to change, but I really believe the root cause and source of today’s troubling world is the basic separation of from God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Simply said, our country has swept away the Ten Commandments and replaced it with secular progressive political correctness, CRT, and Woke theory. Our younger generations have evolved into an omniscient source of knowledge, but unfortunately, it has lacked in basic wisdom and common sense. Entitlement has replaced ambition and effort. Spirituality has faded in the sunset, because the world of today has darkened so many souls. Mankind has less and less time for God in their “busy” lives.
    The fading of faith and spirituality has opened the door to evil ambitions and desires. Little or no accountability and a disconnect with integrity. Young people today especially suffer because they are being robbed by not being able to properly pursue that once dreamed of “American Dream”.
    The “explosion of knowledge” and technology (spoken of in the Bible prophesies) unfortunately is part of the reason for much of the disconnect of today’s youth. No need to elaborate about the divide created with “social media” between parents and their maturing children…
    Our parents and forefathers would be beside themselves in what our generation is allowing to happen to this (once great) nation. Whatever happened to that “Norman Rockwell” view of American living and its families?
    I rest my case.
    May God have Mercy and may our our land return to the Judea Christian nation’s principles it was founded on.


    • vtmawhinney Says:

      I tried to send a reply to you..did you get it? I have published your outstanding remarks about my blog. If you wish me to take it down
      I will do so. But, I really hope you let my readers see it on the main page, not just in the comments section that fewer people read. Blessings and thanks, Tom


      • Ray D. Says:

        Thank you, Dr . Tom
        Your writings on your blog are heartfelt and necessary for a pondering mind. Today’s world we live in needs to be closely watched; because so much is falling into the abyss of biblical prophesies and people are ambivalent to it. God gives us the red flags and warnings, it just seems no one is paying attention anymore 🤷🏼 Mankind is just too smart and way too busy 🤔😉.
        Let’s hope some of your loyal readers pick up that dusty old family Bible and starts to connect the dots 👍🤞🙏
        Take care my friend…
        PS: Sure do miss our Bruder Lee.
        A patriot and a great friend… I know you guys were close.
        Take care!


        • vtmawhinney Says:

          I truly miss knowing that Lee is not in our world working his special ways. Thanks for your kind remarks and the Godly messages you send into cyber-space! Blessings, Tom


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