The unknowable motives of mass murderers

November 7th, 2017 at 7:51 am

As you see from the title, I’m once again veering out of my econolane, but only briefly, and only to see if others share this sentiment.

My morning paper blares the banner headline “Texas Shooter Was In Domestic Dispute.” I understand that after these horrific events people want to understand what could motivate the killer. But here’s the thing: these motivations never come anywhere close to explaining the outcome.

And what possible could? What reported motivation would ever make you say, “Oh, I get it?” That’s partly because what the killer did was unimaginable to most people, and because there are always lots of people going through the same thing the killer was going through who didn’t do what he did.

We’re particularly interested in terrorist motivations, but here again, the above logic applies, does it not (I’m really asking)? I just can’t get myself to see any difference between the person who yells something “religious” in Arabic as he commits a mass crime or the person who has a background of domestic violence, a loner, or whatever. Certainly the result is the same. As humans, we strive for explanations so that we can take comfort by putting what happened into some familiar box. But this doesn’t work for me, because what these people did is unexplained by any coherent motivation.

Is not the motivation in this and every such case involving mass murder in the US some combination of severe mental illness/distress and access to guns? Is not the only headline that makes sense: “Shooter was a deeply disturbed person with an automatic weapon,” full stop? But even that motivation may fall prey to my own critique, as the vast majority of those with varying degrees of psychological stress never would engage in such murderous acts.

Back to econ, but do others share anything like this view?

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15 comments in reply to "The unknowable motives of mass murderers"

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    Hypothesize all you like, but there’s no ethical way to test the hypothesis.

    Barring the criminal’s own statement [1] either in a note or testimony after capture, all of our explanations are n=1 post hoc.

    [1] Even that’s not totally reliable — I mean, very few mass-murdering philosophers after all.


  2. People get angry says:

    There’s no explanation for these actions except that the human psyche is fragile. I’ve had discussions with many people who everyone would believe to be upstanding, perfect examples of moral citizens, but when they’re honest they all believe we as a human species have this in us. We all have it in us, and the only solution is to take these monstrous weapons out of our human’s hands — warm or dead and cold. Take the weapons away.


  3. LdeG says:

    It depends on what you mean by “severe mental illness.” The medical profession has difficulty making a clear distinction between personality disorders and organic disease.

    Most of us in similar situations do not commit crimes, or at least not violent crimes, because we have empathy and a sense that other people matter as much as we do. The root of mass murders is the same as many lesser crimes – domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, theft, whatever. it is the attitude that you are deserving of whatever you desire, and that you may take it if you can. if you see a woman you like and want to grab her, if your wife doesn’t do what you like, if your mother-in-law is critical because you beat up her daughter, if a suspect is of a race, ethnicity, gender or lifestyle you think is inferior or problematic, if you think some country is systematically destroying your culture or religion, if your making a profit depends on disregarding health and safety, you are entitled to do whatever you can – grab the woman, beat the wife, shoot the mother-in-law and her church community, beat up the suspect, wreak random terror, dump pollutants. All of that depends on power in various degrees. An automatic weapon gives you much more power. But the culture gives tacit approval to bringing up men this way, and there are parts of our culture where it is explicitly taught (although perhaps the majority where it is explicitly discouraged.)


    • People get angry says:

      Don’t let them divert you. Is it a mental illness to hate greedy rich people who have a billion dollars and create AI to manipulate you in all online interactions to buy their stuff?

      This is NOT an mental illness problem. It is a weapons availability problem.

      This should be understood by our scholars, but apparently it isn’t. People get angry.

      Asymmetric power is the reason for democracy. Democracy is tied into our psychology, and if democracy fails, our psychology of free will fails. The US fails.


  4. elkern says:

    Well, No. Few of the shooters have identifiable “severe mental illness”. Most might be diagnosed beforehand with some kind of Personality Disorder, but the same is true of most of us (used to be called “character” or “quirks”). There is no diagnostic test for “creepy hotheaded asshole” (see links below), hence no way to pre-screen gun buyers.

    Think of it this way: when the NRA suggests that we need a national database of the Mentally Ill, they are about as sincere as Republicans crying about the National Debt when a Democrat is President.

    See these links for better explanation:
    http://www.mahablog.com/2017/11/06/back-to-the-old-mental-illness-dodge/
    http://www.mahablog.com/2013/01/10/guns-as-sacred-objects/


  5. spencer says:

    When I grew up in the rural south when bad things would happen you would hear the church people saying it was “GODS WILL”.

    I wonder if anyone can tell me why God wanted these Christians to be slaughtered?
    Trump??, anyone??


  6. Bob Palmer says:

    We lock up a few known threats, but we’ve long neglected mental health support, except for those few who are both troubled and wealthy. That is not about to change, so I don’t think we should go down that road looking for a solution. Nor would I want to live in a “Minority Report” society where everyone’s emotional state is continuously monitored in order to “keep us safe” from anyone who is about to blow.

    Humans are inherently dangerous. But making guns less available will definitely reduce the severity of damage done during violent episodes. The New York Times ran an article today that includes a chart showing a dramatic and near perfect correlation between the prevalence of firearms in a nation and the number of mass killings. Guns make killing easy. If guns were harder to get there would still be gun mass killings and killings like 9-11 or the recent truck episode in New York. But the annual body count from these kinds of episodes will be a lot less than the current gun toll.


  7. Smith says:

    Is not the only headline that makes sense: “Shooter was a deeply disturbed person with an automatic weapon,”?

    Emphatically no!! Sometimes there is less of a difference than others, but the distinction is very important. Lumping all acts of violence committed by psychopaths together would allow hate groups to disavow responsibility for their actions. That could lead to more directed or inspired terror incidents, which have a much greater effect on society. That’s is the whole point.
    30 people die on any given day from gun violence says we need to do something about guns, crime and mental health (surprisingly 20 of those are suicides).
    30 people die in a mass shooting says we need to do something about guns, especially non sporting and semi automatic weapons, and mental health.
    30 people die while some yells some type of political or religious slogan is a different beast. Guns and mental health may still be present as issues. But take it as a sign instead that these are the fringe participants of a larger movement which could easily take on a more organized and potent form. How would you draw the line between a crazy person who shoots a bunch of people yelling a political slogan, a crazy person who sets off a bomb yelling a political slogan, a crazy person assassinates a political leader yelling a slogan, a crazy person who downs an airplane yelling a slogan?
    I think it’s pretty easy to see the difference between deranged shooters and deranged shooters shouting very identifiable political slogans. Just as reasonable people would see gun control as an important measure to prevent all shooters, it’s common sense to attack all sources of hate and violent inspired movements which spur borderline crazies to action.

    I don’t understand why you find it difficult to see the difference. Politically inspired terrorism is designed to change and challenge an entire culture, a nation’s foreign policy, and alter the course of history. Sometimes it succeeds. Big difference.


  8. Judy Hickman McLain says:

    I read your blog in a futile attempt to teach myself, through your study and wisdom, about economics. And now you are waxing philosophical? (cracking knuckles and pushing up sleeves over keyboard)

    In light of your questions, I think now is a good time for one of your graphs. We’ve seen the bar graph (not yours) showing greater prevalence/incidence of gun violence in the US where guns are easy to purchase vs countries with more laws against ready access. I would like to see a graph that shows statistics on how much lower the rate of gun violence becomes when you utilize background checks or a waiting period but I suppose for that graph to happen a lot of policies need to change.

    This latest guy, due to his background, should not have been able to walk in anywhere and grab something semi-automatic off the shelf. When someone warps into the mindset of a mass shooter would a wait period change their mind? How can we ever know the answer to that? Too many variables.

    Graphs can explain much but there are so many components at play here. Mass shootings seem to be driven by fragile psyches but go ahead and throw in how folks isolate themselves, how we societally overlook off-putting social behaviors and never mind what happens when drugs and alcohol add to the mix, “kill them all” video games and violence on television and in movies too. Don’t forget bullying. As populations grow and grow so grows what we simply don’t understand. It seems clear, however, if guns are harder to buy the folks who make them will make fewer and fewer and now we are back to economics I suppose…


  9. Erik says:

    Neither the “mental health” reason nor the “domestic violence” is meant as a reason in any normal sense. They are both political attributions, aimed at two different targets within the gun control debate, and neither is meant to truly explain anything.

    The “mental health” rubric is a diversionary tactic, trying to move the conversation from gun control to *something* else. How seriously this excuse is meant can be seen by how many of the folks making it just voted to cut spending on mental health services, especially Medicaid.

    The “domestic violence” point isn’t intended as an explanation even by its own side. It’s meant to try to draw attention to the statistical fact/artifact that many mass shooters started out abusing their wives/girlfriends, and that it should be included in gun purchase background checks.

    This is along the same lines as the observation that many serial killers started out torturing & killing animals before graduating to killing humans. In both cases, the connection to the major crime is tenuous – the vast majority of those committing the initial offense never go on to the more serious offense, making it a dubious predictor. However, they may indicate instability at a level that would, without further checking, preclude gun ownership in a rational society. Alas, we do not live in such a society.


    • Smith says:

      You are way off base, and appear to have done no reading on the subject of “domestic violence” and “mental health”. Common sense gun control is needed, and or something close to Canada or Europe. There is no justification for semi automatic weapons. We do not countenance armed resurrection either, that question was settled in Pennsylvania in 1864 in a little town called Gettysburg. There is also the much earlier examples of Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts (1780s, under Articles of Confederation) and the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania (1790s, during Washington’s term).
      However, 2/3 of all gun deaths are suicides.
      “In 2015, homicide caused the death of 3,519 girls and women in the United States. Rates of female homicide vary by race/ethnicity (1), and nearly half of victims are killed by a current or former male intimate partner.”
      That’s out of 11,000 gun deaths from homicide.
      https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6628a1.htm
      “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence — United States, 2003–2014”
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States
      https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/most-murders-of-american-women-involve-domestic-violence_us_5971fcf6e4b09e5f6cceba87
      “The majority of mass shootings ― defined as four or more people fatally shot, not including the perpetrator ― involve domestic violence.”

      To all commenters, please google a bit if you have access to a computer and the internet before writing. None of this is that hard to find.


    • Smith says:

      My main complaint is that I haven’t seen a big campaign by anti gun control forces to use “mental health” and “domestic violence” as a shield against gun control. In fact, the mental health and domestic violence arguments can be turned into the argument for gun control. It is doubtful countries with lower gun deaths have people so much less crazy, or disinclined to domestic violence than the U.S., or that interventions for such situations are substantial enough to cause the much lower rates. Hence it is exactly identifying the difficult to treat causes being mental health and domestic violence that point to obvious and more controllable measures such as gun control. It’s easier to deal with, which is why we have the term “gun control”, vs “mental control” or “domestic control”. Easier to regulate sale of firearms than the state of someone’s mind or domestic relations.


  10. Smith says:

    Also, 9 times out of 10, there is nothing unknowable about the motives of mass murderers, even the crazy ones. That appears to be the case with the latest one too. The only thing unknowable is how to better predict who is going to act on their motivation.
    The thing that isn’t unknowable is to copy other countries or ban assault weapons and semi-automatic rifles.


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