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

by Marc Wilson / 19 October, 2017

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

RelatedArticlesModule - Mass killers

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.

Latest

Your smartphone can double as a laptop - if you keep things simple
92759 2018-06-23 00:00:00Z Tech

Your smartphone can double as a laptop - if you ke…

by Peter Griffin

Imagine it - no need to lug your laptop around, just find a screen, plug in your phone and a portable keyboard and get to work.

Read more
Great non-kauri walks you can still do around Auckland
92721 2018-06-22 09:10:23Z Auckland Issues

Great non-kauri walks you can still do around Auck…

by Catherine Smith

There are still a heap of fantastic walks you can enjoy in and around Auckland City - despite the closure of tracks to contain kauri dieback.

Read more
You're eating microplastics in ways you don't even realise
92717 2018-06-22 08:40:24Z Environment

You're eating microplastics in ways you don't even…

by Christina Thiele and Malcolm David Hudson

We know microplastics are entering the foodchain through marine life, but the other sources that aren't from the ocean may be more worrying.

Read more
There have been great movies about Alzheimer's. The Leisure Seeker isn't one
92672 2018-06-22 00:00:00Z Movies

There have been great movies about Alzheimer's. Th…

by Peter Calder

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren hit the road in a creaky comedy.

Read more
Tami Neilson is taking aim at sexism in the music industry
92659 2018-06-22 00:00:00Z Music

Tami Neilson is taking aim at sexism in the music …

by James Belfield

Tami Neilson’s new album Sassafrass! shows her at her most political, but there’s still room for family business.

Read more
Now that US war games are over, should you visit the Korean DMZ?
92663 2018-06-22 00:00:00Z Travel

Now that US war games are over, should you visit t…

by Brett Atkinson

Less than 100m across the planet’s most dangerous border, a North Korean soldier is playing peekaboo with a group of curious travellers.

Read more
Is the middle class squeezed or spoilt?
92685 2018-06-21 13:07:39Z Economy

Is the middle class squeezed or spoilt?

by Bonnie Sumner

If your household brings in $100,000 and you still struggle to make ends meet, is it your own fault or an indictment on today’s cost of living?

Read more
Climate change needs multi-party support in New Zealand – but is this it?
92652 2018-06-21 10:14:56Z Environment

Climate change needs multi-party support in New Ze…

by The Listener

The reality is that all parties in New Zealand need to reassess their core positions on some issues for any real action on climate change to be made.

Read more