“When I was thirteen years old I had a voice from God to help me govern my conduct. And the first time I was very fearful. And came this voice, about the hour of noon, in the summer-time, in my father’s garden. I heard the voice on the right-hand side, towards the church; and rarely do I hear it without a brightness. This brightness comes from the same side as the voice is heard. This voice has always guarded me well and I have always understood it clearly.”

The teenage girl who experienced the divine guidance showed up a short tim later at the court of the King of France and declared that she had been sent by God to lay siege to the English occupiers of her country and to chase them out. Many people—English and French—died in the bloody process. Despite numerous successes she was eventually captured by the English, who tried her and found her guilty of  what was then called “insubordination” (but which would today be called terrorism), and burned at the stake. Twenty five years later she was exonerated by a different court, and nearly five centuries later she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. This was, of course, Joan of Arc. Goes to show you: One person’s terrorist can be another person’s saint.

 What Really Determines Behavior?

The book, The Purpose Driven Life, by the Reverend Rick Warren, and whose subtitle is What on Earth Am I Here For? has inspired a great many people to reflect on why indeed they are here and what their purpose in life is. Of those, many have no doubt experienced what is commonly called an epiphany, which refers to a significant shift in how they see the world and their role in it.

Psychologists have long been inclined to favor the view that behavior is determined largely by its consequences: that we do what we are rewarded for and avoid doing things we are either punished for or which simply lead us nowhere. In recent decades this view has been expanded somewhat to include “cognitive-behavioral” psychology, or the idea that our thoughts control our actions. Therefore, if I fear you I will avoid you; conversely if I tell myself that you are my friend I will approach you.

 Certainly to some extent both pure behaviorism and cognitive-behaviorism have some validity. I would argue, however, that they are most valid when it comes to explaining the behavior of animals, and to some extent the behavior of very young children. However, once the developmental process referred to by the psychologist Erik Erikson as identity kicks in, human behavior becomes heavily influenced by whatever identify each of us eventually embraces.

Visions, Light and Dark

Although we may all want to believe that the “purpose” that emerges from an epiphany, and which Rick Warren clearly advocates, will be a pro-social one, the fact is that this is not always the case. In my twenty year career as a forensic psychologist, for example, I have interviewed hundred of men whose guiding “epiphany” proved to be something like this:

  • It is better to be able to beat someone up than to get beaten up. I am a tough guy.
  • The world is divided into predators and prey, and I do not intend to be prey.
  • Rules are for fools.
  • I am a proud member of the ______ gang.

Going even further, identity development can be seen to account for much of the terrorism that has become part of life in this new century, from Columbine to Aurora to the Boston Marathon. Ironically—and alarmingly—the perpetrators of these acts most likely would see themselves as more in the ilk of Joan or Arc than the cold blooded killers the rest of us see them as. Let’s look at a couple of examples.


Columbine High School shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were described in this way by a classmate who knew them both:

“The impression I always got was that they kind of wanted to be outcasts. It wasn’t that they were labeled that way. It’s what they chose to be.”

Reports detailing the personalities of Harris and Klebold attest to the fact that both were very bright but also alienated: never a part of the social mainstream in their school. In many ways they spent their teen years on the outside looking in at that scene. That said, it seems clear that their identities as “trench coaters” and troublemakers were not simply forced upon them as much as they were willfully embraced. This is further attested to by the violent videos and blogs they posted on the Internet.


James Holmes stands accused of entering a midnight showing of the film The Dark Night Rises heavily armed and dressed in tactical armor, and then killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. He had dyed his hair bright red--a spooky specter of the evil Batman character, the Joker. And typical of the Joker, Holmes had booby trapped his apartment. A Batman mask was later found in the apartment.

Like Harris and Klebold, Holmes was bright; also like Harris and Klebold, he was alienated, having dropped out of graduate school and living a life of isolation. It was in this context that Holmes embraced a vengeful identity that he eventually acted upon. A few weeks before his attack he’d told a classmate at school that he wanted to kill people.


Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused, along with his younger brother Dzhokhar, of building and setting off two improvised explosive devices at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, Killing three people and wounding over 170 others, many seriously. Tamerlan has been described as—you guessed it—bright. There is also reason to believe that he, too, had traveled down a road to alienation that eventually led to a dark vision of his identity and purpose in life. He had, for example, been denied an application for citizenship. At the time of the crime he was not working but staying home with his toddler daughter while his wife worked 60 or more hours a week to support them. In this context Tamerlan—like Harris, Klebold, and Holmes—turned toward an identity that included embracing violent jihadist teachings. A six month visit to his homeland in Russia may not have completed what some have referred to as his “brainwashing” so much as it may have been the final step in the solidification of his identity as a jihadist terrorist.

 “Brainwashing”, or Identity Development?

It can be tempting—but dangerous in my opinion—to suggest that people who commit violent crimes like those described above have done so because they were somehow “brainwashed,” either intentionally by others or as the result of spending too much time playing violent video or computer games. Rather, the more disturbing reality may very well be that the same internal processes that can lead to a positive “purpose driven life” have the potential to lead to a life driven by a dark identity and sense of purpose.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately not many people go down the path of Harris, Holmes, and Tsarnaev (or Adam Lanza in Newtown Connecticut). Even so, the damage that this small minority can do, both to their victims and to society as a whole, is truly devastating. So, what can we do to help prevent more such incidents?

The first thing we must do is recognize that identity development can follow either one of two paths. What we hope for is that it will follow the positive path, toward the light and toward making a meaningful contribution to society. However, it can also go in the opposite direction, toward darkness and evil.

Second, we must recognize that once an identity is crystralized it exerts a powerful influence on perception and behavior: on how a person sees the world and their place in it. What may seem like a heinous crime or act of terror to the rest of us may seem like Joan of Arc’s holy mission from their perspective.

Third, we need to recognize the limitations of some of the interventions we have come to rely on to modify behavior. Harris and Klebold, for example, were both mandated to take “anger management” classes as a result of their antisocial behavior. They both got A’s.  Clearly the anger management classes did not scratch the surface of the underlying identities that were driving them.

Last, we as a society—from parents to clergy to mental health professionals—must be more vigilant for alienation, especially among our youths, and its potential to lead to a dark vision, an evil epiphany. We must be ready and willing to explore that alienation, discover its roots, and as much as possible offer up alternatives to it. We ignore this at our peril. Even as I write this youths in different parts of the world are having such epiphanies and embracing identities that include death and destruction as their “purpose driven life.”

@2013 by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D.

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