The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

The Weapons of Male Violent Fantasy

The Newtown massacre was not predictable but assault weapons made it so deadly

Twenty-two young Chinese children are alive this morning because their government does not allow hundreds of millions of Chinese men ready access to ultra-efficient, semi-automatic assault weapons.   

Early on Friday morning, a few hours before the awful news from Sandy Hook in Connecticut broke, a man in Henan Province in China attacked children entering an elementary school, stabbing 22 of them.

This event was swamped by news of the murder of 20 schoolchildren and 5 of their teachers in Newtown by a 20-year-old who was likely as mentally disturbed as the Chinese attacker.

Tens of millions of men across the world enjoy violent fantasies and act out them out every day in graphic video games where their proxies — black, body-armor-clad avatars — mow down enemies and innocents alike with knives, axes and semi-automatic assault weapons — and with apparent abandon and enjoyment.

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The Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik was dressed like this when he slaughtered 69 people on Utøya Island. For the year before the mass killing, he locked himself in his bedroom in his mother's house and did nothing except play violent video games like World of Warcraft, eat and sleep — for an entire year. 

Even very short exposure to such violent video games has been shown to have effects on the brain, in the form of 'desensitizing' the brain to violent or cruel images such that the emotional and physiological reactions are dulled and that in some cases even pleasure can be triggered by previously horrifying images[i]. Exposure to such games not only dulls emotional responding, an effect which lasts long after the actual video has stopped [ii], it also increases the probability of actual violent behavior. Exposure to violence in other media and in real life have similar effects and the scientific evidence for such effects is strong. [iii]

I have no idea whether or not the Sandy Hook murderer Adam Lanza played these games or was exposed to violent images in other media or real life. He was, however, certainly acting out in tragic reality a popularly-enacted script of random murder similar to that which millions of men act out every day in fantasy.

I am not arguing that violent video games caused the Sandy Hook massacre — that would be absurd. Hundreds of millions of men have violent fantasies and many nourish them in an increasingly realistic and brutally violent virtual world. Only a handful of such men — an almost infinitely small percentage of the world’s male population — end up acting out these common fantasies of revenge and punishment.

Some of these men are mentally disturbed and some, like Anders Breivik — are frighteningly sane. But the percentage is too tiny for us ever to be able to detect and prevent their murderous outbursts — bizarrely suggested as the solution by the otherwise intelligent New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The Sandy Hook and the Chinese attacks differed in one major way. The violent-fantasy-fuelled Chinese man didn’t manage to kill any of his victims — but with stomach-churning efficiency, Adam Lanza killed all of his.

Apart from in a few failed states like Somalia and the Congo, the United States is the only country in the world where military-grade, semi-automatic assault weapons are widely available to that tiny fraction of violent fantasy prone men whose fantasies bleed out into reality.

Mass murdering men will never be eliminated. But the efficiency of their mass-murders will be decimated if they do not have access to semi-automatic assault weapons. Twenty-two elementary school Chinese children are alive this morning because military hardware wasn’t made available to the men of their country.

@ihrobertson 

[i] Psychological Science September 2001 vol. 12 no. 5 353-359

[ii] Social Psychological and Personality Science January 2011 vol. 2 no. 1 29-32

[iii] Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 47, Issue 5, September 2011, Pages 1033–1036

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and the author of The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure.

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