The Psychology Behind Mass Murderers

The Psychology Behind Mass Murderers
Photo Credit:Alan Cleaver CC BY 2.0
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By Lin I-hsin

“The healthy man does not torture others. Generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers." – Carl Jung

The homicide cases that are most shocking and most difficult to understand are the ones where a group of people are randomly killed, regardless of whether a lot of people are murdered all at once or one at a time.

On the evening of July 20 this year, two incidents injured people of the greater Taipei area and among the suspects was a 15-year-old. What has happened to the Taiwanese society? What makes people act like this?

Jie Zheng, the man who went on a stabbing spree in the Taiwan Metro (MRT) completely shocked the Taiwanese society. His actions are the example of a classic mass murder case. The offender locked himself in a public place and randomly killed the people he came in contact with.

The term “mass murderer” implies killing over three people in one location without time interval.

According to research, mass murderers are mostly people who are frustrated, angry or feel helpless in life. They believe there’s nothing in this world that can make their lives better. Their lives don’t reach the standards they hold for themselves, and they may suddenly feel defeated or suffer a tragedy or serious loss, like losing a very meaningful job.

Take the 1991 Luby’s shooting in Killeen, Texas for example. A man named George Hennard had lost his beloved sailing job. He drove his car straight into the Luby Café, and shot 22 people in the process.

Mass murderers have a target. They usually have a symbolic object of dissatisfaction or they blame a specific person for their misfortune, even though they murder people randomly. For example, Hennard had always hated women. He knew that the café was mainly filled with women around lunchtime, and he mostly chose female targets, killing 14 women that day.

Mass murderers usually have a lot of interest in fire weapons, especially semi-automatic rifles that can kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. Because these guns are easy to obtain, they are closely connected to the rapid increase of the amount of mass murders. In addition, these murderers plan to die during their crime, either by committing suicide or by being killed by law enforcement officers.

Take the Virginia Tech shooting for example; the killer committed suicide after the attack. Most of these murderers live in social isolation and withdraw themselves from people. They lack adequate social networking or interpersonal support. The reason for this isolation could be the person in question doesn’t like crowds or lacks appropriate interpersonal and social skills.

Mass murderers often want to take revenge, dominate or control others, or try to gain approval. Kato Tomohiro and the Akihabara killings in 2008 are typical examples.

It has been seven years since the Akihabara killings, a tragedy that has influenced manga and Japanese TV dramas.

On May 27, 2008, Kato Tomohiro posted on his cell phone saying his company might fire him in mid-June. A few days later, he continued to leave messages complaining he couldn’t make new friends or get a girlfriend, but he was ridiculed by netizens, which sparked a heated brawl online.

On June 5, Kato discovered his uniform was missing and thought it meant he was fired. Out of resentment, he stopped going to work and decided to vent his anger by going on a killing spree.

On June 8, 2008, He drove a leased truck straight into the Akihabara district. After getting out of the truck, he took a knife and started stabbing people on the streets. He killed seven that day and injured ten. Kato claimed that he was, “…depressed with life and tired of the world. I went to Akihabara to kill. It didn’t matter who."

Psychological factors of violent crimes

Regarding acts of violence, psychologists raise three main concepts:

1. Self-control

Regulate your own mechanism. Through learning, people gradually develop and alter their cognition mechanism and ideas.

2. Emotional triggers

Many studies have found that violent criminals (including adolescents and adults) have a lot of irrational beliefs. They possess a fundamental attribution error and often have uncontrollable anger. Another example is the Juvenile A, in the 1997 renowned “Kobe Child Murders." In his diary and a letter to the police, he clearly used angry wording and irrational thoughts.

In the beginning of the letter he wrote, “This is the start of the game." He also wrote, “Only when I kill or cause bodily harm, I can finally feel free from constant hatred, I am able to find peace. The only way to alleviate pain is to increase the suffering of others. I put my life at stake for this game. If I get arrested, they will hang me, and the police would hunt be down. “The letter also reprimanded the Japanese education system, He wrote, “compulsory education brought about my transparent existence."

At the beginning of this social turmoil, the Japanese media mistakenly called the murderer “ghost rose."

This mistake infuriated the killer. At the end of his letter he wrote, “From now on, if you mispronounce my name again, or do anything that makes me angry, I will ruin three crops. If you think I’m only capable of killing children, you’re wrong. (Juvenile A referred to others as “crops.")

3. Personal behavior: introverts or extroverts

A scenario where violence is more likely to occur is where participants show highly excited emotions, especially anger. People in such a state seem to lower their standard for intrinsic behavior and they are less self-aware of their actions. Moreover, being in a highly inflamed emotional state also seems to lowers people’s sense of behavioral responsibility.

Perpetrators often say, “I don’t know what got over me" or “I had no self-control." In short, stirred up emotions give play to brainless behavior, making people more susceptible to external stimuli. Copycats are inspired by these events and therefore get motivated to follow in the criminal’s footsteps.

Six psychological internal factors

We always see journalists interviewing neighbors or fellow students of an offender being brought to justice. They usually say they had no idea the criminal would commit such acts.

In fact, people are generally able to put their complex cognitive system to use in order to decriminalize their behavior. To minimize the guilt to the lowest level, rationalize acts, and the initial interpretation of wrong behavior.
We have a great capability to change inherent moral and standards. Psychologist Bandura (1983) listed six psychological tactics people often use to justify their actions.

Going through these tactics is in fact very insightful.

1. They generally do not engage in anti-social behavior until they find a way to defend their own actions

For example, a well-behaved young boy believes killing is wrong, but he would kill to protect his country.

2. Breaking away from regulations

Convincing yourself that everything you do is minimal compared to what others do on the battlefield. You also tell yourself that the atrocities committed by the enemy are much worse than your own.

3. Language and rhetorical skills

Using words to justify your behavior and neutralizing criticized behavior through tactful language. Like an explosion is called “service target objective" and a bomb is known as “using a vertical plan to clear away personnel. “These words are used instead of harsh words like assassination or murder.

4. Sharing responsibility

This includes saying things like, “I’m only following orders" or, “I just follow the masses" and “This act is based on decisions made by the Executive Committee."

5. Not considering consequences

Convincing yourself that results are not important. They will separate tragic consequences from themselves and their violent behavior. Take the person who detonates a bomb or someone who presses the button that releases toxic chemicals as an example. They don’t only follow orders, but they will also ignore thinking about the tragedy that may be inflicted by their actions.

6. Dehumanizing the victim

“He is just a residue of the society," or calling the enemy a ghost or malicious creature. Dehumanization means depriving someone of human nature and dignity.

Bandura (1983) says, “In modern life there are many situations fueling dehumanization. Bureaucratization, automation, urbanization, and high social mobility lead people to relate to each other as anonymous, impersonal ways.” These impersonal, dehumanized lives have a tendency to fuel violent behavior and makes people tolerate its existence.

Translated by Sarah Grasdijk
Edited by Olivia Yang