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Running Amok

Running Amok

An empirical analysis of spree killings finds that two distinct patterns emerge.

· 7 min read

“Woman up!”

“Be a woman about it”

“How do you expect any man to be attracted to you if you don’t have a high paying job?”

“What do you mean you are ‘sick’? That’s just ‘woman flu.’”

“Girls don’t cry.”

“Reach down and don’t find a pair.”

If these phrases sound odd, that’s because we sometimes forget that men navigate currents of social status like salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Be tough; have independent resources to draw on; jealously guard your honour against humiliation. Many men’s lives end in fights “over nothing” (as recorded in police reports). Pool table disputes. Jostling someone’s arm in the pub. “You lookin’ at my girl?” But these fights were not over nothing. They were over male status.

Call it “face.” Or “honour.” Or “prestige.” The differences (and they do exist) between different types of status do not need to concern us right now. The point is that we are all descended from men who cared about it. We have done the genetic analysis, and most males throughout human history (60 percent) did not get to reproduce. Status was—and still is, to some extent—exquisitely linked to male reproductive success, and the men who were blind to its protection simply did not have descendants.

We have partly tamed, and redirected, this status-seeking in modern society. We give it acceptable—even useful—outlets. Sport. Awards. Elaborate public rituals in which we show that a person has so much status to spare that they can even survive being roasted by professional comedians. Not everyone plays by these relatively recent rules, however. And, sometimes, fear of loss of status drives a violent reaction.

A few years back, on the Jeremy Kyle Show (think Jerry Springer but with British accents) they brought on a man who routinely beat his girlfriend. There were the expected jeers and catcalls from the studio audience, but the man looked Kyle in the eye and told him that his poor girlfriend regularly “did his head in,” and, when she did this, he would “get the red mist.” In other words, he could not help but lash out at her.

“Look what you made me do!” has been the cry of the bully down the ages.

Showing an unexpected flair for experimental social psychology, Kyle brought on one of the bouncers employed on the show—about 6’-4” and—as you would expect—built like someone who throws people out of places for a living. The bouncer proceeded to insult the bully, poking him in the chest a few times and pushing him backwards. “Where’s the ‘red mist’ now?” Kyle politely enquired. “He’s twice my size!” spluttered the bully.

So, not quite the uncontrollable reflex action that he had led us to believe.

Most complex behaviours are like this. Not mere reflexes but exquisitely attuned to local context. This is true even of violent behaviours which, in social primates like ourselves, takes account of the features of other primates in the vicinity: their size, status, and formidability.

In the 1960s, the renowned neuroscientist José Delgado performed some disturbingly insightful experiments using radio-controlled electrodes implanted in mammalian brains. He could stimulate, or block, the centres of aggression in cats, primates, and, once, (famously, on live TV) a charging bull—stopping it in its tracks before it hit him. And, what happened when the aggression centres were provoked in social primates? They did not just lash out mindlessly at any other monkey around them. On the contrary, the pre-established social hierarchies were visible in the patterns of aggression that resulted. Alpha males lashed out at ones lower down, but not at females they had recently partnered with. Lower-ranking males lashed out at the youngsters. As the saying goes, the crap tends to flow downhill, just as it does with humans. I think this partly helps explain why schoolchildren are so regularly targets of mass killings.

America has had roughly one mass shooting a day for the last decade—roughly the time when we first started looking at this phenomenon. Some of the responses to our first paper surprised me. I hadn’t realized that, up until 2015, the framing of gun violence as a public health issue was actually forbidden by Congress, resulting in a strange generational skew in investigations and a lack of investigators. In addition, America’s addiction to guns (something that, as scientists, we were utterly uninterested in to begin with, except as a control measure to further our analysis) started to look like a nicotine addict’s ingenious ways to keep nicotine in their life. Almost every day someone sends me details of bulletproof backpacks for junior schoolers, rapidly assembled bulletproof school walls, suggestions about arming teachers, and similar ingenious (or downright potty) ideas. They remind me of my ingenious attempts to stop smoking 20 years ago. I tried a pipe. I tried nicotine gum. I tried patches. I’d try anything rather than face up to being addicted to nicotine. As the Onion puts it with gallows humour, “No way to prevent this, says the only nation where this regularly happens.”

But that’s not quite fair. Spree killings are not uniquely American. Indeed, we are currently documenting and analysing killings, with exactly the same profiles, worldwide—but typically using vehicles or knives. What is unique about America is the ready availability of firearms coupled with a lobbying body that resists any attempts at restricting their access. That means that the death rate in other countries is much lower. Also, the phenomenon of mass public killings of strangers by men is not new. It was not that long ago that such killings were regarded as an old and culture-bound syndrome. After all, “amok” is a Malay word. And here is how one contemporary (from a couple of centuries ago) described it:

A man — it was almost always a man — would feel he had endured an unbearable indignity. After a period of brooding, he lashed out by attacking everyone in sight with knives or other sharp weapons, hacking away until fellow villagers or the authorities finally killed him.

Mass killings are statistically unlikely ways to die, but crude, consequentialist, corpse-counting is not the only way to assess damage in a civilised society. Although the absolute risk of dying at the hands of such a killer is low, many people stubbornly refuse to acknowledge how low the likelihood is. This should not surprise us. Mass killings are, among many other things, a deliberately public, attention-seeking attempt to drive a wedge into the existing social order. Some of these motives are obviously political—in such cases, the intent is to sow fear and destabilise governments—and I will not have much to say about those (although we suspect some of such attempts are beginning to overlap). What about more individual motives?

Our initial study was an archival study of 70 mass killers going back nearly a century. Our methodology was highly conservative, using only those killings for which we could obtain independent corroboration of details. The media tend to get highly speculative about these events, and we did not want to get taken up any garden paths. We restricted the search to the United States for two reasons. First, the ready presence of firearms makes the expression of such murderous desires much easier to compare between events, whereas those using vehicles or knives have fewer victims. Second, the United States has an efficient, detailed, and (at least somewhat) independent media archive.

We fed in as much data as we could get—age, number of victims, type of clothing worn, personal history, recent key events, and so on—turned the crank on the statistical machine, and saw what patterns emerged.

What we found was very interesting, and a reminder that averages can often be highly misleading. Although the average age for the mass killers in our sample was 33, this number was highly unrepresentative of the population. The range of ages was from 11 (yes, really) to 66 (yes, really). Much more interesting was that the distribution of ages was bimodal, that is, it had two peaks. And here is the surprising part: the two groups that clustered around these age peaks could not have been more different from one another.

The younger group (average age 23) tended to have been in trouble with the law, and they were more likely to have had mental illness. In other words, at the age when most young men are acquiring status (and the skills and abilities that will enable them to do so) these men were showing signs that they were on a fast track to reproductive oblivion. In ancestral times—times without highly trained and equipped SWAT teams—a Hail Mary attempt to attract attention and make “them” take you seriously might (just might) have worked. This age group also tended to be less likely to be killed at the end of their murderous spree. Follow-up work we have done suggests that many of this younger type attract a significant amount of female attention when in prison.

The older group (average age 41) were much more likely to be married, and they often had children. They were significantly less likely to have had prior legal issues or mental illnesses. They were also more likely to die in the rampage—either through suicide or suicide by cop. And, a peek into their personal details (so far as we were able to) revealed that they had a pattern of recent status loss. A job. A relationship. A custody battle. A looming scandal. These older guys were not so much trying to acquire status; their actions looked more like a highly pathological attempt to not lose it. “Death before dishonour” is a cruel joke—especially when what you actually get is both. However, self-perceived status loss could be a missing piece of several murderous motivational mysteries.

Perhaps because we behavioural scientists tend to be rather timid, bookish types, we tend to see violence as alien and inexplicable. Our psychology textbooks call it “mindless” or “anti-social,” but these are not helpful epithets. Indeed, they blind us to some of the instrumental features of violence. As the famously irascible philosopher Jerry Fodor was apt to say, in response to platitudes like “To understand is to forgive,” we can thump the table and go “No, sometimes it just sharpens your contempt.” And what could be more contemptible than murdering innocent children in the furtherance of your aims? What makes us gasp at this is the thought that even violence like this could be, at some level, explicable. Alas, we do not have the luxury of just wringing our hands and wishing away our hierarchical primate natures. Are we really so insecure about our moral commitments that we need to announce in our methodologies that we think that killing innocent children is wrong? And do we really need to get into asinine definitional exchanges about what does, or does not, constitute an “assault weapon”?

For talk of toxic masculinity to have meaning, attention needs to be paid to the toxic soils in which it grows. Pretended innocence about human nature will not help us here.

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