A search for meaning gone horribly wrong – How mass shooters twist a universal desire to make a difference in the world

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By Arie Kruglanski, University of Maryland

Painful questions are raised by the recent tragic mass shootings at a Texas school and a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. As with similar atrocities in recent years at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a Walmart in El Paso, and a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, people want to know how such senseless acts of violence can happen, why they happen so often, and if anything is wrong. can be done to turn their terrible tide.

An easy answer has been to shift the discourse to mental illness as the cause and thus marginalize the problem and find a ready-made, albeit superficial, solution to it: improving mental health. It also relieves the rest of society of the responsibility to address a pernicious trend of mass shootings that killed 1,363 people between 2009 and 2020 in the US alone, more than anywhere else in the world.

The idea that committing atrocities and killing innocent victims reflects mental illness has long been rejected by terrorism researchers like me. The more than 40,000 foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State organization to kill and die were not all mentally disturbed, nor were the mass shooters who carried out nearly 200 attacks on American soil in the first 19 weeks of 2022.

There is certainly a mental and psychological dimension to the problem, but it is not a disease or pathology. It is the universal human search for meaning and respect – the mother, I think, of all social motives.

I am a psychologist who studies this ubiquitous motivation and its far-reaching implications. My research shows that this quest is an important factor in human affairs. It determines the course of world history and determines the fate of nations.

It also plays an important role in the tragic incidents of mass shootings, including, it seems, the Buffalo murders.

Start the search

This search for meaning and respect must first be aroused before it can direct behavior.

It can be caused by the experience of significant loss through humiliation and failure. When we suffer such a loss, we desperately search for meaning and respect. The search for meaning can also be triggered by an opportunity for substantial gain – becoming a hero, a martyr, a superstar.

Both conditions emerge acutely in adolescence, during the momentous life transition between childhood and adulthood, characterized by surging hormones, turbulent emotions, and nagging insecurity about one’s self-esteem. Gendron is 18; most school shootings were committed by young people between the ages of 11 and 17, although the average age of mass shooters is 33.2 years.

Yet neither age nor the search for meaning alone can explain the occurrence of mass shootings. After all, the vast majority of adolescents go through their teenage years without resorting to murderous violence. So what is it that tips the scales for those who don’t?

‘Shortcuts to fame and glory’

The research my colleagues and I have done suggests that a critical factor in turning someone into a mass murderer is the meaningful story—essentially a story—that individuals come to embrace. This story gets its persuasiveness through the support of the individual’s social network, the group from whom one seeks approval.

The common story most of us follow promises meaning and social value as a reward for hard work, remarkable achievements, and social service.

Still, alternate stories exist that offer tantalizing shortcuts to fame and glory. These identify an alleged villain, scheme, or conspiracy that threatens one’s group – race, nation, or religion. The mortal danger invoked calls for brave heroes willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of the cause.

A striking example of such a story is the so-called “white replacement theory” that Gendron is said to have embraced. It is the idea that progressive leftists intend to flood the country with people of color, with the aim of disempowering the white population and destroying its values ​​and way of life.

The sense of existential danger evoked by this theory fuels blind hatred of the alleged usurpers and alleged conspirators, an aversion that removes all limitations. It unleashes the rawest, most primal impulses that the human reptilian brain is capable of. Murderous anger and chaos often result.

In 21st century America, such toxic stories are not only spreading but also gaining more and more legitimacy and value in public discourse. Some politicians are quick to recognize the seductive appeal of these ideas, especially in times of widespread, meaning-threatening uncertainty caused by creeping economic inequalities, the pandemic, inflation and other destabilizing problems.

The wide availability of social media platforms exacerbates the problem by orders of magnitude. In the not-so-distant past, people with horrific views would have to search hard for like-minded others. But nowadays, no matter how deviant or morally repugnant their beliefs are, people have no trouble finding soulmates on 4chan, 8chan or Telegram.

Understand the psychology first

This technologically based predicament, and the primitive appeal of violence as a pathway to meaning, makes the problem of violence in our public space extremely difficult and unlikely to respond quickly to quick fixes.

I have studied this appeal to violence for decades, and I believe that to overcome it, one must first understand the psychology that drives it all. It requires parents to appreciate the fear of insignificance their children may experience, their quest to prove themselves worthy, and how the combination of human needs, stories and networks can lead to murder.

It also requires educational and community institutions to offer young people idealistic alternatives to violence to quench their thirst for business.

It requires attention to social justice and economic inequalities that leave millions feeling disrespected and left behind. And it requires resolutely confronting hateful stories and our demonization of each other.

Undoubtedly, these challenges are daunting and require the effort of an entire society, all hands on deck. But if we can’t handle the task, murder won’t stop. Recent horrific shootings are just grim reminders of the evil that can happen. Ignoring it is at your own risk.

This is an updated version of an article published on May 19, 2022, parts of which originally appeared in an article published on March 11, 2021.The conversation

Arie Kruglanski, professor of psychology, University of Maryland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.