Hope, Rage and Fort Hood

Can hopeless rage explain what happened at Fort Hood?

Posted Nov 10, 2009


Welcome to my blog. My name is Tony Scioli (pronounced "showli"). I am a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology who has been studying hope for several decades. For the past 10 years I have been working on a new theory of hope. Along the way, I've written two books on the topic as well as conducting a number of related experiments and developing tests to measure hope and hopelessness. Starting today, I will be blogging on hope for Psychology Today (Hence the title for this post, "Hope for Today").

In this first post, my intention was to devote most of this blog to giving you a sense of my general perspective on psychology, and introduce you to my way of understanding hope. But with news of the recent events at Fort Hood in Texas, I am going to shift my focus to this tragedy. (I will leave my introductory remarks for another blog.) Specifically, I would like to present my thoughts in a series of four questions and answers. What is hope? What is hopelessness? What is "hopeless rage"? Can hopeless rage explain what happened last week at Fort Hood?

What is hope?

Many have suggested that hope is essential for a human being, perhaps as necessary as the air we breathe. If you cannot look forward to tomorrow, how do you live today? Mindfulness and living in the moment are nice catchphrases, and there is value to being present, but seriously, as human beings we live for tomorrow, cherish and reflect on the past, and also live in the present. Nevertheless, few social scientists have bothered to examine hope in depth.

I view hope as an emotion. Like any emotion, it can be hard to control, it has a feeling tone, and it may motivate us to take action. But what exactly is an emotion? I will spare you the details of a tortured debate that occurred throughout most of the 20th century on this topic. Suffice it to say that there are two main approaches to the topic of emotions. Some experts espouse a "core" view while others endorse a "construction" view. Core theorists presume that regions or centers in the brain house individual emotions. In contrast, construction theorists assume that emotions are more like systems or networks that draw on multiple areas in the mind and body to form patterned responses. As our understanding of both mind and body becomes increasingly sophisticated, fewer and fewer emotions are being viewed as "cores".

I view hope as a future-directed, four-channel, personal network, constructed from biological, psychological, and social resources. The four channels are the mastery, attachment, survival, and spiritual systems (or sub-networks) that we have development as result of our natural endowments and environmental influences. By mastery, I mean a sense of empowerment and a belief in being able to achieve our deeper aspirations. By attachment I refer to trust and openness. The survival aspects of hope include a capacity to regulate our fear levels and the unwavering belief that we can find a way out when facing adversity, that we are not helplessness or forever trapped. The spiritual aspects of hope include faith in one or more centers of value. This may or may not include faith in a higher power but may also extend to family and friends, traditions and institutions, the government, or the self.

Our hope network is designed to regulate these four systems via both feed-forward and feedback processes (growth as well as self-regulation). Stated differently our hope network generates a greater perceived probability of power and presence as well as protection and liberation.

What is Hopelessness?

In my previous writings I have identified nine types of hopelessness, each due to a breakdown in one or more of the basic motives that comprise hope; attachment, mastery, or survival. Three of these are "pure forms" of hopelessness resulting from breakdowns in attachment (alienation), mastery (powerlessness), or survival (doom). There are also six "blended" forms of hopelessness which occur when one motive is primarily thwarted and a second is also impacted. These include: feeling uninspired (attachment and mastery), feeling forsaken (attachment and survival), feeling oppressed (mastery and attachment), feeling helpless (mastery and survival), feeling captive (survival and attachment), and feeling limited (survival and mastery).

What is Hopeless Rage?

Hopelessness can engender rage. When this happens, homicidal and suicidal impulses can become interwoven. Prior to maiming himself, Vincent Van Gogh attacked his friend Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh was so mortified by his own senseless act of aggression, that he later "cut off part of his left ear and ran into the street shouting "Gauguin, come back! You can have my ear. I'm ready to listen to you!" The Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as well as Seung-Hui-Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, ended their shooting sprees in suicide. In 1999 Andrea Yates held a knife to her neck, threatening to kill herself. Three years later she drowned her five children.

The diversity of individuals who commit acts of mass murder has stymied would-be "profilers". Nevertheless, there are certain "common denominators". For example, most "school shooters" have suffered a significant loss (attachment) and/or experienced a major failure (mastery). Many have been bullied, persecuted, or harassed (survival). Fortunately, these "hope challenges" rarely trigger suicidal or homicidal behaviors. However, when combined with other factors, including genetic predispositions, family and cultural dynamics as well as access to guns and violent video games, a critical mass or "perfect storm" of "hopeless rage" may be reached.

Three forms of hopelessness can be particularly volatile when experienced by the wrong person, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. These include the perception of being forsaken, feelings of oppression, and a sense of captivity. Note that all three involve the attachment motive. More to the point, when an individual strongly believes, correctly or incorrectly, that their basic hope needs (attachment, mastery, or survival) are being thwarted by another individual or group, they may become enraged and even contemplate "getting even".

Was Hopeless Rage Evident at Fort Hood?

Major Nadil Malik Hasan was an educated man. He had studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and received advanced training in psychiatry. His job was to counsel soldiers returning from the battlefields of the Middle East. He was described as "calm", "methodical", "mostly very quiet", and even "caring". But last week at Fort Hood military base near Killeen Texas, Major Hasan opened fire on his fellow soldiers, killing 13 and leaving another 30 wounded. His case has been called "complicated", and his motives labeled "unclear". There have been some recent reports linking him to extremist elements within the Muslim community.

There is too little information at this junction to offer a complete account of what went wrong, what prompted Major Hasan to commit such a heinous act. Personally, I would look further into two of the varieties of hopelessness that result in rage, feeling forsaken and feeling captive. Again, both involve the attachment motive. The first (forsaken-hopelessness) is a product of a primary breakdown in attachment and secondarily a disruption of the survival motive. The second type (captive-hopelessness) occurs when there is a primary threat to survival and a secondary problem with attachment.

I strongly suspect that Major Hasan was suffering from both forms of hopelessness. There are reports that Major Hasan may have felt profoundly alienated. He was a second generation Pakistani involved in a military operation that centered on the Middle East. He was not married and had no children but desperately wanted to find a wife. A Muslim, Hasan was reportedly harassed after the 9/11 attacks and had repeated arguments about the legitimacy of the war on terror. Major Hasan was also facing deployment to Iraq, supposedly his "worst nightmare". He was frantic and seeking every possible means of avoiding this tour of duty. However, nothing was working for him, all routes seemed blocked. We know that feeling trapped is the most terrible of the psychological precursors that can lead to hopelessness.

Final Thoughts: The "Terrorist" Label: Linchpin or Red Herring?

There are reports that Major Hasan viewed certain Muslim attacks against the U.S. as "heroic" or "justified". He may even have communicated with one or more radical Muslim leaders, one of whom allegedly had contact with several members of the 9/11 group. If these reports are true, does this make Hasan a "terrorist"? More importantly, if these reports are true, do we re-classify him and this entire event, putting it in the category of a "terrorist" act, and dispense with any and all psychological explanations related to hopelessness, etc. ? I would unequivocally say no to this last question. We must take into account his psychology.  We must develop an understanding of how his personality, that is, his hope profile, was further compromised by his local environment as well as larger, global events. This is a more complex task, and may not be well-suited to sound bites, and riding the quickly shifting political winds. But ultimately, this may be where the truth really lies.