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The Psychology of Mass Shooters


For decades now, Americans have struggled with how best to protect the public from people who commit mass shootings or hate crimes.  At the University of Virginia the work of one scholar suggests one problem we need to solve – the tendency of groups to leave some people out.

As a social scientist, Andy Hales will tell you humans have certain psychological needs: the need to belong, the need for self-esteem, the need for control and the need for meaningful existence.

At the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, he’s studied people who are prevented from belonging, feeling important and in control.  Of course it can make them miserable, but Hales says shunning can eventually help people to fit in.

“The pain of ostracism is important. It sends a signal that maybe something is wrong that you need to fix," he explains. " Maybe you’re behaving in a disagreeable way that’s causing people to want to ostracize you.  Maybe you need to find a new group to belong to.”

But others care less about being liked and more about being seen. When they’re left out, they can become violent.

“Almost all documented cases of school shootings were preceded by some form of ostracism or social rejection,” Hales says.

Hales has studied ostracism through a video game called cyber-ball.

“Cyber-ball is a quick way to administer a small dose of ostracism. It’s just an online ball tossing game between three players, and you control one of the players.  Unbeknownst to you, the other two players are controlled by a computer, and it’s set up so that based on random assignment half of our participants will be included fairly in the game, and the other half will get a few throws in the beginning, so they see how the game is supposed to work, but then after that the other players without explanation stop throwing the ball," he says.

Afterward, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire.

“So, for example, one of the belonging items is: During the game I felt like an outsider, and a self esteem item might be: During the game I felt bad about myself,” Hales explains.

Researchers found some people – like psychopaths – didn’t mind so much, but for most the experience of being left out was painful.

“It seemed reasonable that certain people would be affected more than others.  For example you might expect that people who are highly introverted, maybe they don’t mind so much, because they’re accustomed to being less social, but early studies found again and again and again surprisingly little variation across different personality types.  It tends to hurt everyone quite a bit.”

Doing this research in a bar, they found alcohol was helpful in dulling the pain, but Hales says there are better ways to cope.

“In other experiments I’ve found that things like saying a prayer if you’re religious or engaging in self-affirmation exercises or even just distracting yourself and trying to take your mind off of it can also help.”

And – for better or worse – those who are ostracized sometimes find comfort online.

“Subgroups and sub-cultures are able to find each other in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to in the past. It’s also worth mentioning that after all of these experiments there’s a thorough debriefing session, and people are told about the experiment and why it was necessary to not reveal all of the information.”

As a post doctoral student at UVA, Andy Hales plans to continue this work -- hoping to learn more about how people can overcome the pain of being left out and how to promote inclusion in schools and other social situations.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief