Inside the mind of a killer

by Listener Archive / 08 January, 2013
What drives people such as America’s latest mass killer, Adam Lanza, to go on a rampage?
Inside the mind of a killer

Anyone who pays attention to the news will have seen coverage of the mass killing of adults and children by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on December 14. The reality is that, although it’s rare in comparison to most crime, these “spree” or “rampage” killings are common enough that we’re horrified because they’ve happened again.

I don’t think New Zealand has a tradition of serial killings, but, sadly, we do lay claim to some devastating mass killings – I won’t list them because I don’t need to, and those people whose lives have been affected know the details all too well.

Instead, I’ll talk about America, because maybe that’s a little less uncomfortable. I can’t easily put myself in Lanza’s shoes, and perhaps that’s why I do what I do – study behaviour – but I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to understand. So, what do we know?

Between 1990 and 2010, there were at least 69 of these kinds of events in the US – mass killings where the perpetrators killed themselves. University of Alabama professor Adam Lankford has analysed these killings and you won’t be surprised by some of the details. The killings are overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) by males, and the perpetrator’s average age is about 40, except where schools are involved (where it’s about 20). Half to two-thirds left suicide notes explaining their actions, except people who chose their workplace as their rampage site – about 10%.

So, that tells us a bit about who commits these crimes but doesn’t get us much closer to why. Workplace killers were much less likely to be experiencing family problems and social marginalisation (for example, being bullied or ostracised), but most school/public killers were.

School/workplace killers were much more likely to be experiencing problems associated with work or school. In more than half of public and school killings, and a whopping 80% of workplace killings, there was a clearly identified precipitating event – something happened that set off the situation.

Lankford summarises his research, which included interviews with witnesses, case notes, suicide notes and videos by the perpetrator, by suggesting mass killings of all types (including things we might think of as “terrorism”) share three things in common.

First, he says, the perpetrators are troubled by social problems and psychological distress. However, this isn’t always the case, and the nature of psychological issues, which can include psychosis, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, can vary greatly. Importantly, most people who experience psychological problems never harm others.

Second, and this can be seen in the statistics around family and school/ workplace problems, they share a feeling of being marginalised and victimised. If you’re not functioning psychologically at the top of your game, these kinds of stressors are exacerbated by whatever you’re experiencing in your head. If you’re being mistreated, you might want “justified” revenge not only against the specific people who have mistreated you but against people like them.

Finally, but again not always, it’s a public form of vengeance that is particularly motivating (whereas, for example, most spousal murder-suicides happen out of the public eye) – a public expression of pain and, yes, a guarantee of notoriety. This probably isn’t much more than confirmation of what we suspected, so what do we do?

Sadly, it’s not surprising that the answer is that we take responsibility. In most cases, people have some suspicion that things are not all right. We don’t want to overreact but we also don’t want to miss an important opportunity. At the same time, given the important role of feeling victimised and left out, it might not take much – how much would it take to say, “You seem a little off today. Want to talk?”
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