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Mass Shooters: Mentally Ill or Show-off?

Uploaded 7/16/2022, approx. 18 minute read

Okay, Shoshanim, I know that you have all been missing my cheerfulness, my optimism, my hopefulness and generally my Pollyannaish character.

So today I'm going to give you what you've all been craving for. I'm going to discuss the darkest resources of the human mind, the psychology of mass shooters. I'm going to send you all back to bed, pondering, sobbing uncontrollably and considering unforetold circumstances and options. I will not go into details.

My name is Sam Vaknin. I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

And unfortunately for my students, I'm also a professor of psychology.

A few service announcements before we dive deep into these inky murky characters.

The seminar in Tulu Sevevin, the Cold Therapy seminar is going to take place in the second half of September. You're all encouraged to write to me should you wish to participate.

There are only a few seats left. The demand has been utterly overwhelming. We have over 300 people registered and the hall is about field to capacity. So hurry up. Write to me at samvaknin at gmail.com. That's samvaknin at gmail.com and be sure to reserve your seat.

Okay, so from cold therapy to a very cold topic, mass shooters.

They go into schools, they enter shopping malls, they visit workplaces, carrying shotguns, revolvers, machine guns, and then they mow down. They kill as many people as they can cold-bloodedly, deliberately, and with glee sometimes.

What happens in the minds of these people? Are they human at all? Or are they the reification of evil, its embodiment on earth?

We used to consider serial killers as the most extreme form of human depravity and cruelty. No longer mass shooters have supplanted and uprooted them in the race for mass media attention. There's on average 1.5 mass shootings every single day. A mass shooting is defined as a shooting by an active shooter which involves four fatalities at least. You can do the math.

Well over a thousand people get murdered, killed in mass shootings every year in the United States alone. And yes, it's mostly an American phenomenon. About 90% of mass shooting incidents occur within the contiguous United States. It has a lot to do with the availability of guns.

This is not my position. This is what mass shooters have attested to.

Many mass shooters have told investigators and later psychologists and evaluators. Many mass shooters said, if I didn't have a ready access to a gun, I would have never gone out and obtained an illegal piece.

It is my access to legal firearms that had precipitated and facilitated the crime.

Mass shooters admit that the availability of legal guns, legally registered guns, is the number one factor in the events that they perpetrate.

But I'm not here to discuss public policy issues. The political paralysis in the United States and quite a few other countries, surprisingly, is well known. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have done a good job of restraining access to guns and other firearms.

Consequently, by the way, they saw the incidence of mass shootings plummet following legislation.

But that's a public policy issue.

What I want to discuss today is the psychology of mass shooters.

And as usual, in my typical iconoclastic manner, let us first review the data.

I know it's not in fashion to rely on data, but, you know, at my age, I'm old fashioned. As old as some of the extinct dinosaurs.

Most mass shooters are white. Most mass shooters are male, the overwhelming vast majority are male. And most mass shooters are young, white, young males. It's a crime of white young men, not women, not members of the minorities, and not anyone above age 35, typically.

Now I'm not talking about a mass shooting that involves an intimate grievance. We have mass shootings. There's a class of mass shootings where someone had been fired or mistreated in the workplace, and then he returns with a gun or with a machine gun, and he kills all his former colleagues. That's an intimate grievance mass shooting. That's not the kind of mass shooting I will be discussing today.

What I will be discussing today is known as stranger incident mass shooting. It's when someone walks into public space and just kills everyone in sight, whether this person is, whether the victims are known to him or not known to him. So strangers are the typical targets of this type of mass shootings by, I repeat, white young men.

Mass shooting is a spectacle. It's a spectacle. It's a show. It's a theater play, carefully staged and orchestrated, well in advance, well in advance. It's a form of showmanship. It's a movie. It's intended to attract an audience.

At the same time, the preparations for the event, purchasing the guns, preparing oneself physically and mentally, exercising, and so on and so forth, acquiring agility, all these make sense of life. They render life meaningful.

Many mass shooters report an all-pervasive sense of aimlessness and emptiness, and the idea of killing multiple people in a single location is kind of a substitute for reality, an alternative reality. It is often perceived by the mass shooter as somehow unreal or not real, and it gives the mass shooter an exoskeleton, an external skeleton, a direction, a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, something to look forward to, the careful analysis, scouting the joint, analyzing every move, orchestrating in a delicate, subtle choreography, imagining the events, and then dwelling upon and in the fantasy.

It all imbues life with purpose, with a mission, and in this sense, many mass shooters have something very akin to religious zeal. They're little like suicide bombers. Only suicide bombers are usually ideologically motivated, while the psychology of mass shooters is very different to the psychology of the typical terrorists.

So, we mentioned the fact that a mass shooting is a carefully staged, spectacular event for mass consumption. This, of course, requires some kind of grandiosity.

Grandiosity is always compensatory. It compensates for something, a feeling of inferiority, a feeling of deficiency or lack.

Grandiosity is connected to a need to be seen, to stand out, to be singled out as unique and special. And, of course, it is not an accident that there's been a general rise in narcissism, concomitant with a general multiplication of the number of active shooter events.

In other words, the rise in pathological narcissism, which, of course, involves grandiosity, the rise in pathological narcissism in the general population is correlated very strongly with the increase in the number of mass shootings, and this correlation is mediated through the artifact or the element of grandiosity.

Mass shooters are grandiose. The more grandiose people we have in the general population, the higher the likelihood of mass shootings.

Relative positioning on social media is also a very important factor. The vast majority of mass shooters have a strong presence on social media. They post manifestos. They share their learned opinions and thoughts. They expose themselves as action heroes or movie stars. They actively seek the admiration, adulation, collusion, and co-optation of others, similar minded or like-minded people. They study previous mass shootings and they try to emulate their heroes, the role models, the successful mass shooters, the one who got the most number of victims.

This all takes place within the social media toxic ambience, this seething swamp of human demented minds.

And so mass shooters thrive in this environment like so many poisoned weeds. They feed off each other. They share tips. They adulate and admire idols. They analyze meticulously and in detail every shooting event in history.

Social media is a huge amplifier of both emotions attendant upon the act and of the tactical and logistical details which go into the planning of these events.

The grandiosity is a hallmark of all these activities. The perpetrator is celebrated, egged on, admired. He has fans. He has followers and he caters to their needs with his spectacular showmanship. He tailors the event to resonate maximally with his fan base. It's performance art in effect.

And this is where there are many misunderstandings in public and even among scholars or mental health practitioners.

Mass shootings and mass shooters, more generally, they don't care about suicide.

Suicidal ideation is actually quite rare among mass shooters. It's not about suicidality. It's about immortality.

Mass shooting is the exact opposite of suicide. It guarantees you an eternal life. Your renown, your fame, or your infamy will live forever. You leave a legacy behind. It's a blooded legacy, but it's thrilling. It's exciting. It attracts media attention. It gains you an entry in Wikipedia. And numerous people after your long gun, numerous people are going to study your work and emulate it. It's very gratifying.

Mass shooting is a form of immortalizing oneself. Immortality is guaranteed.

The bigger the number of victims in the event, the more likely you are to be remembered.

So mass shooting is about immortality and eternal life. It's not about suicidality. It's about legacy.

Mass shooting is also a form of exerting control.

Most mass shooters feel that their lives have spun out of control, that their lives have been rendered meaningless and aimless and purposeless, meandering through numerous unconnected, disjointed, disassociated occurrences. They can't form attachments and bonds with other people. So they float adrift. And this is a very difficult condition to be in. It creates a state of mind which is permanent anxiety.

The mass shooting focuses the resources of the mass shooter on a single target, thereby granting the mass shooter an experience of control, empowerment, and reducing his anxiety.

So mass shooting is about exerting control. It's about self-empowerment. And it's about anxiolysis, reducing anxiety.

Shooters in general have no social skills to speak of. Most of them report having felt rejected, bullied, persecuted, humiliated. Most of them consider themselves to have been failures.

Now, the rejection, the bullying, the persecution, the humiliation, strangely are mostly in the mass shooter's mind.

Objective analysis of interpersonal interactions among peers, for example, in a classroom, in a workplace, shows that these people have not been rejected. They've been embraced. People did try to reach out to them. They tried to ameliorate their clear distress. They tried to help and to extend a hand.

But strangely, the mass shooter is incapable of perceiving other people's acts of empathy and altruism.

The mass shooter, it's as if the mass shooter needs to convince himself, needs to believe that he is hated, that he is repulsive, that he is rejected, that he is bullied and persecuted and humiliated, that he is a failure, a defective person, that is an outcast in a weirdo than other people rejecting him for who he is.

Counterfactually, most of it is happening in the mass shooter's mind, not in reality. Most of it is perceived and imagined, not actual.

And yet, it has an enormous, exerts an enormous force on the mass shooter's mind. It shapes it. It molds it.

The perception of constant abandonment, constant humiliation, public humiliation in front of a meaningful audience of peers, the misperception of bullying and persecution, these drive the mass shooter to extremes. These radicalize the mass shooter.

We know anyone who has been listening to this channel knows what the mass shooter is going through. It's called the collapse.

The mass shooter is grandiose, very much like a narcissist. And when he perceives himself to have been excommunicated and ostracized and mocked and derided and decried and chastised, when he perceives himself to have been criticized, this kind of person collapses exactly like the narcissist.

And the collapse has the same effects that it does in narcissism. It causes the mass shooter to transition to another self-state, a self-state which is essentially a psychopathic self-state, but it's a factor to psychopathy.

So, the typical mass shooter, exposed in his own mind to social rejection, experiencing social shyness and social anxiety, acutely to the point of developing uncontrollable anxiety, self-medicates and so soothes himself by embarking on the project of mass shooting. It gives him direction and meaning and imbues him with Superman powers.

He suddenly feels superior because he's privy to a secret that no one else has access to.

Plus, in his mind, he becomes god-like. He is holding the keys to the life and death of so many.

His decision to wave his gun right or left determines the course and the trajectory of life of other people.

It's very intoxicating, this feeling of omnipotence, this sudden empowerment.

And clinically, this kind of person transitions into a psychopathic self-state factor to psychopath, a reckless psychopath with no impulse control.

However, the act of mass shooting is just a culmination of a long deliberative intentional process of planning, obtaining resources, honing one's skills, exercising in order to develop physical stamina and so on.

Most mass shooters occur after anywhere between six months to one year of investment.

So, the collapse drives the mass shooter into an alternative self-state, which persists for a very long time because it's very gratifying. It's very rewarding to feel that you hold the destinies and the futures of so many people in your hand after having been mocked, ridiculed, put down, derided and rejected for so long.

Suddenly, you transition from slave to master, from inferior to superior, from underdog to predator. This transition is dopaminergic. It is so pleasurable that the mass shooter fixates, embedded, remains fixed in the new self-state, which is a psychopathic self-state.

Mass shooters congregate. They have echo chambers. They have thought silos, spaces, especially on social media, where they flock together, exchange opinions and views and judgments and tips, analyze previous events, previous mass shootings, anticipate new ones, follow up the news, etc.

Mass shootings is therefore a subculture.

So, mass shooters constitute a subculture.

The process of planning a mass shooting, let alone executing one, instantly acquires for the mass shooter a social circle.

The mass shooter is typically a schizoid, socially inept, a social failure, deficient in social skill.

And here, suddenly, with a single decision, with a single announcement, he acquires instantly a whole, admiring, fawning, helpful and supportive social circle.

Exactly like smoking, for example, or drinking, there is a social dimension to mass shooting, which is essentially addictive.

That's why the state of mind that leads on the path to violence is a persistent state of mind.

There is a science known as threat assessment. It's a branch of psychology, which analyzes the psychology of mass shooters.

And these dimensions, these elements that I mentioned, have all been noted.

The path to violence involves an increase in the level of aggression, which is aimed at the out group. The mass shooter has an in group. These are his fans, his followers, other people interested in mass shootings. That is his in group.

And all the others are the out group. Aggression towards the out group is legitimized. Violence towards the out group is adulated, encouraged, and considered to be bonton appropriate.

So it is through aggressing, it is by aggressing, by directing violence at outsiders, that the mass shooter gets to be an insider.

He therefore, as a duality of nature, is both an insider in his own group, in his own impromptu, new social circle, but he accomplishes this status of an insider by attacking outsiders.

Now this is very common behavior in many, many violent groups, terrorist groups, cults, militias. They all share the same psychological features that mass shooters, with mass shooters.

Mass shooters are immersed and marinated in negative affectivity. Negative affectivity are negative emotions, such as hatred and envy and rage.

Mass shooters seethe and kind of boil in these toxic fumes of these emotions. These emotions engulf them, consume them. These emotions permeate every cell of the mass shooter.

When the mass shooter ultimately gets to do his business, gets to the point, and begins to kill people, the victims, or would-be victims, often describe the intense and immense and insane amounts of rage and hatred expressed by the mass shooter prior to the act.

Strangely, in the act itself, mass shooters are usually tranquil, calm, composed, utterly in control, or even, one would say, on autopilot. They go through automated robotic motions.

This has to do with a lot of exercising, so they rehearse the mass shooting long before they engage in it.

But it also has to do with severe dissociation. During the act itself, during the mass shooting event, during the active shooting event, the active shooter or the mass shooter dissociates. He kind of puts himself on autopilot, and he just goes through the motions as a robot would.

But prior to that, when we review what is called legacy tokens, legacy tokens are farewell messages sent by would-be mass shooters. When we read their manifestos, when we survey their social media posts, these are absolutely, they absolutely wreak the enormous, deep-set, profound hatred and utterly unbridled volcanic rage.

And of course, it's connected to grievances, real and imagined. So this is the psychology of the mass shooter.


Now, how does it differ from the way mass media misinterpret the psychology of mass shooters?

So, first of all, mass shooting is a spectacle. It's a theater play. It's a movie. It's a movie, and it helps the mass shooter to make sense of life and to give him purpose and direction.

Second thing, it's about immortality, not suicidality. It's not about suicide. It's about becoming eternally famous. It's about a legacy.

Second thing, it's empowering and it reduces anxiety. It's a form of control. The social role of mass shooting cannot be overstated.

Mass shootings are social acts. The mass shooter is embedded in a social milieu of like-minded people who egg him on and then admire him if he pulls it off. The path to violence is a social path.

So we need to treat mass shooters not only as individuals, but we need to help them remove themselves from the toxic environment and onto much healthier ground.

And finally, mass shootings rarely have to do with real grievances. The mass shooter often is paranoid and imagines rejection and abandonment and bullying and harassment.

Studies show that these actually rarely happen.

And finally, we have to distinguish the stranger incident type of mass shootings from the intimate grievance type of mass shooting incident.

Intimate grievance is when you are in the workplace, you get fired, you come back the next day and you kill all your colleagues. You know these colleagues, you had an intimate relationship with them. There's a real grievance there.

And so this is perceived by the mass shooter as a way to restore justice and balance.

These two types of mass shooters should not be conflated. The mass shooter who kills strangers and relative strangers, randomly in a shopping mall, in a synagogue, in a classroom, this kind of mass shooter is essentially grandiose and uses the mass shooting the same way a narcissist would use a shared fantasy. It's a spectacle. It's a show. There's showmanship involved.

The other type of mass shooter is seeking to redress grievances. He feels that there's no other way for him to obtain justice. They don't share. They share very little in common. And it would behoove us to treat both these types of mass shooters as distinct and to provide them with different kinds of interventions and treatment on the path to violence.

Now let me dispel one or two myths.

There's no way to predict a mass shooting. There is a way to prevent a mass shooting. There is no common profile to all mass shooters, but there are always many indications that a mass shooting is about to happen.

The only way to identify a potential mass shooter is to listen to his nearest and dearest, to his loved ones and friends, to his colleagues, and to his intimate partners. They know best. They witness the deterioration in his state. He shares with them usually his intentions.

Many mass shooters are open about their plans, even on social media, monitoring, supervising, intervening, being intrusive. If necessary, committing. These are critical steps. Threat assessment should become a part of every establishment, at least in the United States, but also in other countries.

For example, the incidence of mass shootings in Scandinavia is not in Germany, is not low. So threat assessment should rise to the same level and the same stature and the same position as profiling of terrorism suspects.

We know how to prevent mass shootings. It's just that few resources are available. It's only a question of throwing money at the problem, because we have all the tools. And if we do throw money at the problem, we will have ameliorated it.

But I'm coming back to the public policy issue.

In a place where guns, legal guns, are immediately accessible, freely available, mass shootings are never going to be eradicated because when you couple narcissistic grandiosity with paranoid, the persecutory delusions, with available guns, it leads to the inevitable. It leads to an active shooter incident and it leads to loss of life, usually innocent, usually kids.

So it is shocking that alone among most industrialized nations, the United States still doesn't see the benefit of even the most rudimentary measures to control access to guns.

And perhaps this quintessentially American phenomenon should tell us a lot about the American mind, the American soul, the American exceptionalism, and the American future. And none of these are good tidings.

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