James Holmes: Mental Illness or Social Frustration?
James Holmes and the "dark night" of men's social role.
Posted August 3, 2012
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I have been reading a lot about the James Holmes "Dark Knight" massacre lately. Many of my colleagues here on PsychologyToday.com have given their own theories on the matter. I'd like to add my own—which is a little bit different...
Truth be told, I don't believe Holmes is as unique or deviant as it would be comfortable to think. This type of behavior is on the rise. So, I think we need to look beyond the individual for the cause. We need to look past the symbols of Batman and Joker in this particular case. We need to look beyond "pathologizing" the person, to understanding the social and systemic factors that are creating such behavior.
I believe those causes fall within my usual domain of discussion—love, relationships, and gender roles.
What is Wrong with James Holmes?
It is clear that Holmes is angry and violent. Many have suggested that it was due to his failing in school. Perhaps latent narcissism or mental illness. But, beyond labeling him a "loner", few have looked at Holmes' social life.
The fact of the matter is that his love life was miserable. According to reports, he has never had a girlfriend. Right before the shooting, Holmes even tried to find love and sex on an adult casual sex website. He was rejected by all the women he contacted (see here). These were women looking for cheap, quick, anonymous sex to begin with! Talk about feeling rejected...
Now, we could go with the prevailing theory and say that Holmes is deviant and odd. By being deviant, he would be unattractive to the opposite sex. So, his miserable love life is an EFFECT of his problematic behavior.
But, I take the opposite approach. I propose his miserable social life is the CAUSE of his acting out. His subsequent behavior is therefore a result of social isolation and lack of love. It is the consequence of his confusion about being rejected. It is the outcome of having some of his basic needs denied. It is the spark that led to that frustration and rage.
Killing for Love
So, James Holmes was rejected by women... How does that lead to killing? To answer that question, we need to take a step back.
Initially, James Holmes did everything right that society told him to do. He was a "good guy". He was smart, ambitious, motivated. He had a good life ahead of him. In years past, that would have made him very desirable to women. In today's world, however, it didn't get him very far... Today, it made him a loner and a nerd, with no social skills and no dating prospects.
Why then turn from a nerd to a killer? That is, unfortunately, very simple. More women love killers than nerds. Being a killer today is more socially and sexually rewarding than being a "good guy". Countless women write love letters and beg for conjugal visits to death row inmates (see here). Even Holmes himself has already begun collecting adoring female fans on Twitter who think he is "hot", "sexy", and "cute" (see here).
Therefore, Holmes killed because he actually benefited socially from the behavior. He is now being rewarded with love and attention. He will get more adoration (and possibly sex) as a mass murderer than he ever would as a neuroscientist. If he avoids the death penalty, then he might find himself very popular indeed.
How We Reward Men
I'm primarily discussing this topic because I believe it highlights a larger social issue. An issue, if not dealt with, will result in more of this behavior in the future. It is an issue that won't be fixed by saying some specific individuals are sick, sad, or crazy either.
The fact of the matter is that social rewards are backwards. A man will get more attention and fame through infamy than accomplishment. As a whole, people can often identify serial killers better than Nobel Prize winners. Not to mention that current gender roles and culture norms devalue hard working "good guys". Women, in turn, follow that social information, popularity, and status when assessing who to select as a "mate". So, we have a mess.
My point is a simple behavioral one. People perform behaviors where rewards outweigh punishment. Holmes found all punishment and no social reward in doing the right thing. Many other men face that similar situation. Holmes has subsequently found more reward in infamy (no matter how he is punished). How long before other men become disillusioned, disempowered, and follow suit? How long before doing "good" is so unrewarding and punishing for guys that deviant behavior is actually the better option?
Sure, we can rely on the empathy and morality of these men to not go in that direction. But, does that mean they are any less tortured or desperate? Shouldn't we fix the desperation and change the reward structure, rather than just shaming men into enduring punishing "good" behavior that gets them nowhere?
Given that, perhaps it is time to take this discussion beyond the context of one man. Perhaps it is time to have a frank discussion about the "demise of guys". Maybe we should really look at what behavior men are being REWARDED for by respect and sex, rather than simply the behavior they are EXPECTED to perform out of social duty. Perhaps we should look at the types of men we're teaching our daughters to love and respect—not to mention respect for good, hard working, men in general. Perhaps we should stop socially turning women off to the guys that we'd like in our society.
James Holmes' behavior cannot be condoned. But, it can be understood. As long as hard working and "nerdy" men are disrespected and devalued as the punch line of every sitcom—while serial killers are made famous and swooned after—there will be more frustrated men following the social rewards of deviant behavior. It will only stop when we once again make the "right" behavior the socially rewarded behavior for men. Until that time, this deviant trend will no doubt continue to get worse. Holmes is not an enigma, nor an isolated incident.
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© 2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.