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Multi-Factorial Causation and the Orlando Shootings

Acts of terror are caused by multiple factors.

aseeger / pixabay
Source: aseeger / pixabay

Like so many of us, I’m horrified and disgusted by the Orlando shootings. An incident like that, which challenges our beliefs that we live in a safe place and that most people are generally “good,” shakes us at the heart of who we are.

Behavioral scientists, like myself, are particularly positioned to ask and address questions about such extreme acts of human behavior. As a behavioral scientist, I have to say that while I am sympathetic to people who believe that they are on to the ultimate cause of what happened (some say homophobia and intolerance; some say religious radicalism; etc.), I think it’s important that people appreciate the fact of multi-factorial causation when analyzing this situation that has foisted itself into our collective consciousness.

Multi-factorial causation is a truly important concept—and it’s one that, to my experience, seems to not come naturally to people. People like single-factor explanations of things. We like to believe that World War II happened, for instance, because Hitler was evil. We like to believe that the recent economic recession took place because there were unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street. We like to think that the American Revolution took place because the British government was taxing our tea. Sure, in each of these cases, the preferred explanation (e.g., Hitler’s inherently evil nature) played some role in the outcome. But life is complex. And human behavior is complex. And if students learn one thing in college about the nature of human behavior, it should be this: Nearly all human behavior is caused by a variety of variables—variables that may overlap or covary with other variables—often in a complex way. Sorry if you don’t like that, but it’s how the world works, and not a single behavioral or social scientist whom I can think of would, to my estimation, disagree with this point.

Homophobia Caused the Orlando Shootings

Homophobia is a major issue in the world, and its existence has been documented (to varying degrees) on a global scale (see Lung et al., 2012). Based on all the evidence to date, it seems unlikely that the victims and the venue for the Orlando shootings were unrelated to disturbed levels of homophobia. In fact, the killer was known as explicitly anti-gay according to recent news accounts.

Did the Orlando shootings have something to do with homophobia and discrimination coupled with hate toward the LGBT community? Yes. This much is clear. This said, homophobia was not the only cause of this tragic event.

Radical Religious Zealotry Caused the Orlando Shootings

There is no doubt that, in spite of many benefits, religion has a dark side (see Wilson, 2002). From the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust to September 11th, millions upon millions of innocent people throughout human history have died in the name of religion. And all the evidence on the Orlando shootings suggests that religious zealotry was certainly not unrelated to what transpired in Orlando. The killer had been on a watchlist for years due to connections with radical Islamist groups. The killer declared, in multiple communications, his allegiance to ISIS—and he clearly seemed to, in a highly disturbed line of thinking, believe that he was doing something for the good of God. Of course, this is sickening to think about. But it seems naive to say that his convoluted dedication to his religious beliefs was somehow unrelated to his actions.

Did the Orlando shootings have something to do with radical religious zealotry? You bet.

Gun Policies Caused the Orlando Shootings

I know that a lot of people have expressed concern about the large-scale pointing of fingers to the NRA and the gun lobby in regard to the Orlando shootings during what should be a time of mourning. And I know that pro-gun individuals say that “people kill people.” OK. This said, the United States has famously unique gun laws that allow individuals to legally purchase powerful weapons like the AR-15 that was reportedly used in the Orlando shootings (and that was purchased legally a few days before the incident). Obviously, if the killer had not been able to acquire that weapon, the event would have played out differently. To say that gun laws are somehow unrelated to what happened in Orlando is naive.

Did the Orlando shootings have something to do with gun laws in the US? It did.

Other Causes of the Orlando Shootings

As you can see, I’m a big believer that any incident rooted in human behavior has multiple causes. Can we point to other causes of the Orlando shootings, besides the three I have pointed out here? Sure. We can point to the fact that the killer was a young male, and that he, then, fits into a group of humans who are more likely to engage in random acts of violence compared with members of other groups. Perhaps he had a troubled upbringing. He may well have experienced trauma in his life. He may well have spent countless hours playing video games that revolve around killing others with guns.

Bottom Line

The Orlando shootings of June 12, 2016 will go down in history as a deeply disturbing moment in US history. At least 49 people died. Their stories are coming out now. They were individuals. They were parents. They were sons. They were daughters. They were spouses. They were brothers. They were sisters. And they are now gone—and we are left trying to figure out why.

The process of understanding how this incident could have happened is disturbing. While people gravitate toward uni-factorial explanations of complex behavior—once you think about it, it’s clear that the Orlando shootings, like any complex human behavior, has multiple causes. And any work by behavioral scientists looking to make sure that such events are less likely to take place in the future, for the good of our children, will be wise to take a multi-factorial approach.


Lung Vu, Waimar Tun, Meredith Sheehy, Dawie Nel, Levels and Correlates of Internalized Homophobia Among Men Who Have Sex with Men in Pretoria, South Africa, AIDS and Behavior, 2012, 16, 3, 717

Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.