Last week's tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, have people once again asking "Why?" What would motivate a person to deliberately and callously slaughter innocent people in a movie cinema? Sadly, this is another episode in a long series of similar events that make people feel less safe in federal buildings (Oklahoma City), on college campuses (Virginia Tech), in parking lots (Tucson), and even in high schools (Columbine, less than 20 miles from Aurora).
When confronting an event that shatters our perceptions of safety, control, and predictability, people engage in a number of psychological processes that attempt to make meaning of awful events. Although normal and understandable, these responses will mostly prove futile because they attempt to restore control to a world where such control is merely an illusion and to try to identify what makes a particular person "evil." Sometimes, knee-jerk responses result from "asking the why question," and it is important to avoid bad policy decisions that reflect impetuous responses to horrible human tragedies.
The illusion of control
People seek predictability and control in their environments because it helps them meet important goals. Yet, people greatly overestimate their personal control in the world, which can lead to irrational behaviors. For example, research shows that people have greater perceptions of control in random events that they initiate than in random events that simply befall them (Langer, 1975), and people believe that their futures will be far better than the average person's future despite the fact that, by definition, the average person cannot be above average (Weinstein, 1980). Sometimes awful events happen to us all, but our minds are not built to accept this reality easily and unquestioningly
When turning to tragedies such as the Aurora shootings, asking "why?" presupposes that the massacre could have been predicted with foresight or even stoppable. Although our understanding of the events associated with the Aurora shootings is still developing, people are questioning how one can procure thousands of rounds of ammunition without coming to the attention of law enforcement or asking whether movie theaters should install metal detectors and have security officers present at all times.
This style of reasoning reflects what psychologists call counterfactual thinking—when people mentally simulate "what ifs" to change outcomes in order to understand why a set of events took place. For instance, believing that the massacre could have been avoided if only the Aurora cinema had metal detectors helps to "undo the tragedy," which makes the event seem preventable (and thus, controllable). Although functional, sometimes "what if" thinking leads to bad responses and unwarranted self-blame (Sherman & McConnell, 1995).
It turns out that people have great difficulty in accepting that sometimes unspeakable tragedies happen and they are not preventable. In one study conducted by Davis and colleagues (1995), parents who lost their children to horrible, unforeseeable events (e.g., car accidents, sudden infant death syndrome) would often blame themselves for their children's death even though, in foresight, there was no way for these parents to anticipate these tragedies (e.g., a parent cannot control a drunk driver crossing the median and hitting a car that kills one's daughter). Yet, parents blamed themselves and experienced greater depression because, for them, self-blame made the world controllable even at a heavy cost to their well-being. For many, the desire to experience control is far greater than one's need for positive self-regard.
In another study, Janoff-Bulman (1979) found that women who experienced sexual assault would often blame themselves or imagine ways that they could have "done something different" in order to avoid being raped. Often, these women focused on what they could have done differently rather than focus on the perpetrator because believing "there is something I could have done differently" increases one's sense of control. From the outside, this self-blame seems almost unimaginable because these women suffered horrible events through no fault of their own, but once again, perceiving some degree of personal control helps to make a chaotic and scary world more predictable and thus potentially controllable.
A second component of asking "why?" will also compel people to ask what critical personality trait defect did the alleged perpetrator, James Holmes, possess. From the outside, Holmes appeared to be a successful student pursuing his Ph.D. in neuroscience. He even worked as a camp counselor working with needy children. Other than a speeding ticket, there was apparently no past history of a criminal record. Yet, this man apparently planned his rampage with great deliberation and had no compunction about killing countless total strangers or in booby-trapping his apartment in such a way that it would endanger his neighbors.
Clearly most people do not perpetrate such heinous acts. But assuming that there's one crucial predictor (e.g., a key personality trait, some seminal childhood experience) for why this tragedy occurred is undoubtedly too elementary. Behavior is determined by multiple factors, and in cases like these, there is probably a very complicated mixture of temperament, cultural influences, triggering events, and yes, randomness, involved. Searching for a single critical cause is simply too simplistic.
Yet, people want control and predictability, and this desire will push them to search for the key reason. Further, in Western culture, we assume that people have stable, invariant personality traits, and thus, we believe there is a core set of characteristics that underlies every individual. In other cultures, such as interdependent cultures in places like Southeast Asia, people expect a more variable expression of behavior. Indeed, even in our own culture, there is considerable but meaningful variability in the extent to which people exhibit consistency in their selves across many contexts (McConnell, 2011).
Assuming that the answer purely lies within "the sick individual" reflects a cultural bias in how we view behavior as a singular expression of one's underlying personality. Yet, we know from many real-world cases and experimental studies that healthy people can be induced to harm others. Stanley Milgram, in his Yale laboratory in the 1960s, showed how everyday, well-adjusted people would shock helpless others merely because someone told them to do so. To be clear, the argument here is not that any person could perpetrate mass murder, but it would be erroneous to conclude that 100 percent of the explanation for the current tragedy resides within the suspect.
Unfortunately, we will probably never have a complete understanding of this, or any other similar, tragedy. And clearly, we should study these events as they occur to identify ways to reduce their likelihood going into the future. However, we often seek to oversimplify explanations because of our desire to have control and see order in a haphazard world. Further, we often believe there is a true essence to every person, but even that inclination reflects a bias of our own culture. In the public policy arena, we must resist the temptation to respond with knee-jerk solutions that do not really address important causes but only serve to satisfy our psychological needs for control and understanding others' actions. Appreciating the complexities of human behavior will help us build a better world, that hopefully, reduce the likelihood of such horrible crimes in the future.
Davis, C. G., Lehman, D. R., Wortman, C. B., Silver, R. C., & Thompson, S. C. (1995). The undoing of traumatic life events. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 187-209.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1979). Characterological versus behavioral self-blame: Inquiries into depression and rape. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1798-1809.
Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.
McConnell, A. R. (2011). The Multiple Self-aspects Framework: Self-concept representation and its implications. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 3-27.
Sherman, S. J., & McConnell, A. R. (1995). Dysfunctional implications of counterfactual thinking: When alternatives to reality fail us. In N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.), What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 199-231). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806-820.