Mass shootings are getting more frequent — the Kentucky school shooting this week is the 17th shooting in 2018, an outrageous number considering we’re only one month into the year.
As activists and legislators fight battles to enact common-sense gun control laws, social scientists are still exploring the other question behind the frequency of these tragedies. One recent article in American Behavioral Scientist finds a compelling new link between mass shooters and narcissistic, aggressive behavior.
Findings by Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, contrast with the widely perceived notion that mass killers tend to be timid types, suffering from self-loathing and poor self-image. “It is a myth that aggressive and violent people suffer from low self-esteem,” Bushman told PsyPost. “They are much more likely to have narcissistic tendencies,” he explained.
“Narcissists think they are special people who deserve special treatment. When they don’t get the respect they think they deserve, they lash out at others in an aggressive manner.”
As Eric Dolan writes for PsyPost, “Mass shootings are often preceded by the perpetrator being subjected to a ‘humiliating loss of face,’ such being fired from work or rejected by a romantic partner.” That certainly fits the profile of many of the violent men last year who gunned down their ex-partners and families and friends after a breakup. More widely, it makes sense considering so many shooters are also perpetrators of domestic violence.
Bushman’s research does not imply that all narcissists have violent tendencies. But as he writes in his study, “After doing research on aggression and violence for over 30 years I have come to the conclusion that the most harmful belief people can have is the belief that they are superior to others (e.g., their religion, race or ethnicity, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, political party or ideology, school, city, state, country, etc. is best). When people believe they are superior to others, they behave very badly.”
Psychologists agree that we are stuck in a cultural catch-22: we know that many mass shooters kill because they want attention, yet the constant combined coverage of shootings on 24-hour television news, written media and radio gives copycat killers exactly the attention they are seeking. PsyPost notes “that the prevalence of mass shootings has risen in relation to the mass media coverage of them.” Bushman agrees that the media assists in perpetuating violence in this way. “One should avoid mentioning the names of mass shooters or showing their photos,” he advised.
Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.