Special Psychological Feature to JohnFMurray.com – October 6, 2017 – Palm Beach, Florida – I am neither a criminologist nor an FBI profiler with expertise on rare and horrific crimes. However, I am a clinical and sports psychologist who, at age 55, has many years of experience delving into the deepest thoughts and feelings of thousands of clients in evaluations, psychotherapy, sports psychology work, and case studies. While I might not be the optimal professional opinion on what possibly went wrong in the head of this individual, I probably have a more informed perspective than most. I have studied what makes people tick, and what could possibly lead them to tick like a time bomb in such a maladaptive way. I admittedly step slightly out of my area of expertise in this article, but proceed nevertheless because I believe I have something to contribute to the analysis.
Let’s get one thing straight. There is no excuse for what Stephen Paddock did in Las Vegas this week. It was an act of pure evil. If he had not committed the ultimate act of cowardice through suicide, I would fully expect him to face the harshest punishment society can offer. The only exception, in my mind, would be if he were totally unresponsible for his actions and unaware of what he was doing due to extreme psychosis. This does not seem to be the case. He planned his dastardly actions for months as a meticulous and capable thinker. He built a fortune with his mind. He knew darn well what he was doing and he wanted to maim as many people as possible. With the lack of a better phrase, I will term this “pure evil.”
One thing that repeatedly emerges in the scientific analysis of evil, and this is consistent with my perceptions, is a strong lack of empathy. These psychopaths usually have an almost complete inability to see the world from another’s perspective and are unable to feel or appreciate another person’s pain. It is almost as if they are mentally disabled in an area of the brain that allows them to see the world in another person’s shoes. I believe that to be safe as a society, we will eventually need to screen for this extreme lack of empathy and take proactive steps to prevent these selfish psychopaths from hurting others. I envision a day in the distant future where people going for their driver’s license exams or trying to achieve employment or college admission will have to pass a complex but reliable empathy test too. Fail this test and you get watched more closely. Even though the last thing I want is for government to intrude more into our lives, this is a serious potential risk factor that needs to be more closely monitored and more closely controlled. We are nowhere near this level of sophistication and scrutiny in screening for this in society, but we need to be because a person with an intent to harm and no empathy is far more dangerous than a gun. I will steer clear of the whole gun control debate, however, and just stick to the analysis of evil in this paper.
Evil is typically a more mundane “I don’t give a s*** about anyone else” rather than a more blatant and overt personality development in which the individual assumes the role of an identified killing machine or societal predator. That is also why I believe people often miss the clues. How many times have we heard, “oh, he was such a nice and quiet guy” in trying to make sense of the most recent mass murder?
Lack of empathy is the linchpin to understanding this! In fact, if a person realized what he or she was really doing and how much it would actually hurt others, the evil act would probably never be committed. In my view, it’s the absence of emotion and the banality of evil that is the crucial element that poses the biggest risk to society. Boring and methodical intellectuals who are unhappy and totally unconcerned with others are more dangerous to society than the easily identified and obnoxious bullies.
The Germans during WW2 coldly gassed millions of innocent people in concentration camps not because German people have some inherent blood lust or collective brain damage. It was much more the result of the German political leaders intellectualizing their problems and using reductionist and inaccurate scapegoating of targeted populations. The horrible end, in their twisted analysis, justified the means. It was also a blind following of these leaders due to extreme fear combined with a strong emphasis on obedience. This all added up to acts and ways of thinking based more on simplistic and false intellectualization instead of more complex and accurate reasoning. Rather than digging into the true causes and consequences of their actions, they fixated on an ideology of racism and genocide that was idiotic and lacked human empathy at its core.
WW2 Germany was not the only example of this. Far from it. Armies throughout history, including the USA army, dehumanize the enemy so that they can kill more effectively. You’ve heard of Japs and Krauts? However, war presents a much different and hopefully more justifiable challenge. Even if the process of simplistic thinking is inherently insensitive and lacking in empathy, the need to rid the world of Nazis in WW2 was obviously a noble quest. The last thing allied soldiers needed to be doing at the Battle of the Bulge was processing the emotions of their enemies before firing their weapons. War is extreme hell and most life situations do not call for such extremes.
Stephen Paddock appears to have been caught up in his own twisted way of thinking and it did not allow room for others. While I have no idea what his motive was to inflict such pain on random people at a concert, you can be sure that empathy had no place in his mind. He must have reasoned that this was necessary. Like Charles Manson or Ted Kazinski, he probably convinced himself that he was answering to some higher calling and needed to exact revenge on the country music fans below him. There was probably some strange duty, agenda or justification going on in his head. He was too smart to have not contemplated this many times over and over yet this in no way indicates that his thinking was rational. Far from it. A twisted higher mission is still twisted. It is analogous to the Nazi final solution. It is sick and it is evil and it lacks empathy.
Here is my formula for this evil: (1) Lack of empathy + (2) twisted logic + (3) dehumanization of the victim = potential mass murder. In my view, that is the code for danger in a nutshell.
While the killer is solely responsible for his evil act, I also believe that the media in our society has a duty to steer much less clear of politics and return to ethical journalism in our day yet that will probably never happen. Fox says one thing while CNN says the opposite. It becomes polarized. All the while killing gets more advertising time. There are many benefits of capitalism, but many risks too. Where money is king, truth and corruption often reign and with more money you get more of that still. Capitalism has many benefits so don’t think I support communism at all. But there are flaws in any system and we just need to be aware and promote more fair journalism that is less polarized if that is ever possible. While I do not blame the media directly for what happens with these mass killings, we are in some ways paying the price for capitalism gone mad. It is an escalation of news coverage of the horrible which leads to more eyes on the show, greater money from endorsements and advertisers, and that social learning principle of imitation clicks in. The Stephen Paddocks of the world see it and get ideas. I don’t remember it this bad growing up in the 60s and 70s when these media empires were not as large.
Stephen Paddock’s father was apparently a nightmare who was criminal, gun toting, violent, brilliant and abusive. His brother also apparently beat him up, according to early reports. As a result, Paddock probably built a life based on revenge and solitary genius. In other words, he despised most people and instead just focused on himself. He learned that empathy was meaningless. A guy that doesn’t care about most people is dangerous. He despised people and learned to succeed financially without them. His enormous pent up rage was finally released on what he perceived to be the biggest problem in the world – people. In killing, he might have felt like he was in some way gaining back some of what he lost in life for all the pain he went through in life. Misery loves company. Those whom he considered to be abusive to him (perhaps his father) in some strange way inspired this need for revenge. It’s the ultimate payback.
You might ask why he was so insensitive in killing innocents whom he did not even know. It was his nature. He built his fortune on being a cold, insensitive, calculating numbers genius, not by caring for others. Killing innocents did not bother him because his playful innocent self as a child was probably killed off by his father and/or brother or someone else. He probably also had no belief structure or religion that might have helped him see the wrong of what he was doing. By doing this evil act he gained a level of twisted psychological equilibrium. The thinking might go like this, “hey … I was innocent and they screwed me over … so why should I care?”
This entire discussion fits into my theory that people who are most psychologically damaged are most dangerous to society. In the future we need to sniff out the unhappy people and monitor them closely for homicidal tendencies. What we don’t know about people can indeed hurt us. It also fits in nicely with the New York cognitive-behavioral schools of psychology. Essentially, these theories posit that psychological illness is related to distorted thinking. In other words, irrational cognition, or self-talk, is the root of distress. Often in my work, the trick to helping someone is to adopt a cognitive behavioral perspective and work at changing a person’s fixed beliefs or underlying irrational or maladaptive thoughts. I guarantee you that Stephen Paddock had a plethora of irrational and dangerous beliefs in his head. And since he did not live in a social world (his world was abstract mathematics and beating the odds) he never encountered or allowed healthy challenges to his underlying assumptions. His arrogance as a self-made millionaire only bolstered that thinking further. Paddock didn’t need people for his success and even saw people as the cause of his deep hell. There might have also been a trigger event in months leading up to the killings, like a huge financial or love loss, but that is still uncertain. He actually needed solid psychotherapy more than ever in his life, but felt he was above it all and would not turn to people or therapy.
In sum, we have learned many times that the insecure can be very dangerous to society. It is close to a solid maxim in my mind. The key to more health and happiness and less mass killings is to sniff out this insecurity, help people feel more secure, challenge faulty and dangerous assumptions in thinking, and listen well. Many need to access psychotherapy or talk to anyone rather than acting out on crazy inner impulses that can be so dangerous. I’ve always liked to hang out with successful and happy people because they tend to be most secure and the least invested in creating havoc. They enjoy life and value life.
We certainly need to do something different than we are doing. Thanks for listening. I hope you have enjoyed this expose from the world of psychology.