Following one of the worst mass shootings in history, the trial of Anders Breivik has understandably attracted much attention. With his neo-fascist fist salutes, claims to be part of a “Knights Templar” commando group, and occasional references to the video game “World of Warcraft,” Breivik comes across as both freakish and sad. But these bizarre details risk distracting us from a better understanding of the phenomenon of mass homocide.
Take Breivik’s statements about video games. To be clear, Breivik didn’t claim he was motivated by violent games (indeed he seems to have dismissed that idea) but rather that they helped him improve his accuracy. And in his manifesto, Breivik spent far more time discussing how he was influenced by the Byzantine Empire and Islamic expansion than he did video games.
It’s easy to blame video games when the shooter is a young male, since almost all young men play violent video games. But sometimes video games are ignored in favor of other ‘boogeymen.” The 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona was originally blamed on political vitriol in general and Sarah Palin in particular. And in the case of a shooting at the University of Alabama by a 44-year-old Amy Bishop in 2012, the tenure system was blamed (Bishop was a biology professor who had been denied tenure.) Society tends to focus on idiosyncratic elements of individual cases rather than looking for commonalities between them. This approach, while psychologically understandable — we like quick answers for why something happened, particularly if they appear to offer an easy “fix” – causes us to merely flop around in confusion after these events.
Fortunately, mass homicides are very rare, but there are some common threads. The best data we have on mass homicides, which I recently reviewed with colleagues Mark Coulson and Jane Barnett and which is based in part on a 2002 US Secret Service study, suggests that most perpetrators, whether teen boys or 40-something women, share three basic characteristics: long-term antisocial traits or lack of empathy, mental health problems, and the belief that they have been “wronged” by society in one fashion or another. In the case of Breivik, psychological evaluators appear split on whether he was actively psychotic or simply narcissistic, but I see little evidence to suggest he is a bastion of psychological wellness.
This is the constellation of issues that we should be looking at. Predicting and controlling mass homocides is very difficult, but focusing on video games or Sarah Palin will do nothing to prevent future events. One of the commonalities of mass shooters is that they often communicate to someone regarding their intentions. Taking any direct threats of this nature seriously could be one way to start addressing the problem. Many perpetrators also have a history of aggressive, bizarre, threatening or isolated behavior and mental health problems is one of the most consistent risk factors for violence among young people. Obviously, not all of the mentally ill are violent, but deciding, as a society, to spend a bit on those most in need of help ultimately benefit us all.