Expert Commentary

New psychological study finds traits common to ‘active shooters’

A 2015 study published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law examines the relationship between psychological "identification" and acts of targeted violence, including school shootings and terrorism

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Mass shootings have increased significantly in the United States, according to the most recent data available from the FBI. Statistics show that from 2000 to 2007, mass shooting incidents averaged 6.4 incidents annually, while from 2008 to 2013, they increased to 16.4.

As a result of this increase, several studies have looked at the individual motivations and psychological “micro-foundations” that drive targeted violence–everything from video games to religious beliefs–in an effort to help law enforcement officials understand mass shooting, hate crimes, terrorism, and violence not only in the United States but also abroad.

A 2015 study published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, “The Concept of Identification in Threat Assessment,” examines the relationship between psychological “identification”–or the process by which an unstable person subsumes his or her own identity and models themselves after a violent aggressor–and acts of targeted violence. The researchers are based at the University of California-San Diego and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University as well as the San Diego Psychoanalytic Center, the firm Operational Consulting International and the Institute of Psychology and Threat Management in Germany.

The authors drew on information from reviews and indirect assessment of evidence of criminal cases, as well as consultation with psychiatrists, psychologists and judicial officials who had direct access to primary investigative evidence on the cases. They also examined four detailed case studies on perpetrators of targeted violence: Antares Wong, Seung-Hui Cho, Joseph Paul Franklin and Anders Breivik. In analyzing the psychology of the four “active shooters,” the study authors drew on the work of psychiatrists Sigmund and Anna Freud and Erik Erikson on psychosocial development.

The study’s findings include:

  • The four perpetrators committed different acts of targeted violence, at different points in time, killing and injuring innocent people in the United States and abroad. Despite their differences, they all evidenced common expressions of “identification.”
  • “In the context of threat assessment, identity becomes embedded in aggressive identifications, if not extremely violent images of the self in action, most often apparent in the fantasies of the young adult as a perpetrator of homicide against another.”
  • Identification is characterized by one or more of five characteristics: pseudo-commando, warrior mentality, close association with weapons or other law-enforcement/military paraphernalia, identification with other attackers/assassins, and becoming an agent to advance a particular cause or belief system.
  • Authors identified eight warning behaviors, including:
    • Pathway warning behavior: research, planning, preparation, or implementation of an attack
    • Fixation warning behavior: an increasingly pathological preoccupation with a person or a cause
    • Identification warning behavior: a psychological desire to be a “pseudo-commando,” have a “warrior mentality,” closely associate with weapons or other military or law enforcement paraphernalia
    • Novel aggression warning behavior: an act of violence that appears unrelated to any targeted violence pathway behavior which is committed for the first time
    • Energy burst warning behavior: an increase in the frequency or variety of any noted activities related to the target
    • Leakage warning behavior: the communication to a third party of intent to do harm to a target through an attack
    • Last resort warning behavior: evidence of a violent “action/time imperative”
    • Directly communicated threat warning behavior: the communication of a direct threat to the target or to law enforcement before at attack.

Study authors, J. Reid Meloy, Kris Mohandie, James L. Knoll, and Jens Hoffmann, contend that “identification, and its observable correlates, has emerged as one important warning behavior in threat assessment for targeted or intended violence.” Therefore, the relevance of the study is not only theoretical, but also operational. For example, as police agencies adopt a stronger predictive approach to prevent violence, the role of social psychology may be of particular importance in designing more accurate and rigorous predictive models. The challenges of making a timely identification of these psychological patterns are considerable. Particularly because these characteristics are often intertwined and dynamic in nature. For example, the identification with other attackers or assassins by perpetrators may be both historical or contemporary, fictional or nonfictional, and even involve a deity. Despite the differences and contexts in the way in which these acts of violence are committed, finding shared psychological patterns may be of help to policymakers, first responders and law-enforcement agencies.

Related research: A 2013 study, “Identification Matters: A Moderated Mediation Model of Media Interactivity, Character Identification and Video Game Violence on Aggression,” found that test subjects associated more with a video game’s aggressive characters traits when they played a game versus when they passively observed a game being played, thus confirming the hypothesis that interaction is key to fostering aggression in subjects.

Keywords: crime, policing, terrorism


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