Many people think about killing – why do only a few act on it?

by Marc Wilson / 19 October, 2017
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Harry Treadaway as mass killer Brady Hartsfield in the TV series Mr Mercedes.

Many of the mass killings since Trump’s election involve male perpetrators estranged from their families.

'Tis the season of Stephen King adaptations. Examples include 11.22.63, an IT reboot, The Dark Tower and, most recently, Gerald’s Game and Mr Mercedes. It’s this last that I’ll focus on for soon-to-be obvious reasons.

It’s not giving anything away to say that in King’s book, Mr Mercedes is the name given to the ­perpetrator of what’s called “autogenic homicide” – he runs over a lot of people with a car. The TV series is, by all accounts, a grim watch.

But watch it we will, because we are also ­fascinated. We are fascinated because we want, need, to understand why someone commits mass homicide, serial killings and the like.

A good number of us admit we’ve thought about killing someone. In one New Zealand survey, more than 50% of people questioned made this ­admission – and those most likely to do it were also the ones most likely to display traits of narcissism, psychopathy and poor self-esteem. But – and this is important – this means the vast majority of us have the thought, but never act on it.

In our quest to understand why these atrocities occur, the first thing to note is that our hunch that men commit most of them is spot-on. Although the rate varies from country to country, a good estimate of the proportion of murders committed by women (I’m not counting mass killings yet) is about 10%. Women are slightly less likely to use firearms, but ­dramatically more likely to poison their victims. Female perpetrators of mass killings are so uncommon that little is known about their motives and psychology.

So, it’s reasonable to think it’s something about being a guy. Indeed, in that New Zealand survey, men are almost two and a half times more likely to admit to having thought about killing someone.

Some experts have proposed that it’s something to do with “toxic ­masculinity” – that there are some aspects of what it culturally means to be a man that are inherently negative and that play out in the ­suppression of emotion and ­expression of ­vulnerability, and particularly dominance over others (particularly women).

The New Zealand study didn’t ask who they’d thought about killing, so I won’t speculate. What we can say, looking at just the mass killings in the US since Donald Trump’s election as President, is that a ­disproportionate number involve male ­perpetrators estranged from their families and, ­particularly, their romantic partners.

There are already a number of excellent popular ­psychology articles on this topic that you can find yourselves. So, I’ll draw a little on one by Robert King, of ­University College Cork, in which he describes an ongoing piece of research that looks at mass killings ­involving firearms in the US. He seems to ­suggest that reliance on the idea of social norms around toxic ­masculinity is, at best, only part of the picture. Instead, he says our ­understanding can be enriched by taking an evolutionary perspective.

Specifically, he says, you can divide mass killers into two groups: the average age in one is 23, the other 43. The younger group, he suggests, are embarking on establishing their future legacy – looking for a mate and the status markers that will assist that. The older group are coming to the end of that period – if they don’t do it now, they might never. Thwarted in so doing, he suggests, they make a big public spectacle to draw attention to themselves.

If they survive, the younger group get a crazy amount of female fan mail in prison, apparently, which gives them the status and attention they’re seeking. The older group, meanwhile, have elevated themselves in the ­consciousness of others.

If only we could get better at spotting the signs, rather than ­after-the-fact introspection.

This article was first published in the October 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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