A quest for meaning gone horribly wrong – how mass shooters pervert a universal desire to make a difference in the world

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(THE CONVERSATION) Agonizing questions are raised by the recent tragic shooting in Buffalo, New York, where 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron allegedly shot dead 10 people and injured three. As with similar acts of horror in recent years at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a Walmart in El Paso and a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, people want to know how such senseless acts of violence can even happen, why they happen so often, and if anything can be done to stem their terrible tide.


An easy answer has been to divert the discourse to mental illness as a cause and thereby marginalize the problem and identify a ready-made, albeit superficial, solution to it: improving mental health. It also absolves the rest of society of the responsibility of combating a pernicious trend of mass shootings which, between 2009 and 2020, claimed 1,363 lives in the United States alone, more than anywhere else in the world.

The idea that committing atrocities and killing innocent victims reflects mental illness has long been dismissed by terrorism researchers like me. The more than 40,000 foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State organization to kill and die were not all mentally disturbed, nor were the mass shooters who, in the first 19 weeks of 2022, managed to carry out nearly than 200 attacks on American soil.

There is of course a mental and psychological dimension to the problem, but it is not a disease or a pathology. It is the universal human quest for meaning and respect – the mother, I believe, of all social motives.

I am a psychologist who studies this pervasive motivation and its profound consequences. My research reveals that this quest is a major force in human affairs. It shapes the course of world history and determines the destiny of nations.

He also plays a major role in the tragic incidents of mass shootings, including, it seems, the Buffalo killings.

Trigger the quest

This quest for meaning and respect must first be awakened before it can lead to behavior.

It can be triggered by the experience of significant loss due to humiliation and failure. When we suffer such a loss, we desperately seek to regain importance and respect. The quest for meaning can also be triggered by an opportunity for substantial gain – to become a hero, a martyr, a superstar.

Both circumstances appear most acutely in adolescence, during the momentous life transition from childhood to adulthood, marked by soaring hormones, turbulent emotions, and gnawing uncertainty about one’s own worth. . Gendron is 18 years old; most school shootings were perpetrated by young people between the ages of 11 and 17, although the average age of mass shooters was 33.2.

Yet neither age nor the quest for meaning alone can explain the occurrence of mass shootings. After all, the vast majority of teens make it through their teenage years without resorting to lethal violence. What, then, tips the scales for those who don’t?

“Shortcuts to Fame and Glory”

Research that my colleagues and I have done suggests that a crucial factor in turning someone into a mass murderer is the promising narrative – essentially, a story – that individuals come to embrace. This story acquires its power of persuasion through the support of the social network of individuals, the group from which approval is sought.

The mainstream narrative that most of us follow promises meaning and social value as a reward for hard work, notable achievement, and social service.

Yet there are alternate tales that offer tempting shortcuts to fame and glory. These identify an alleged villain, scheme or plot that threatens their group – race, nation or religion. The mortal danger summoned calls for brave heroes willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of the cause.

A vivid example of such a narrative is the so-called “white replacement theory” that Gendron is said to have adopted. It is the idea that leftist progressives plan to flood the country with people of color, in an effort to disempower the white population and destroy their values ​​and way of life.

The sense of existential danger that this theory invokes fuels a blind hatred against alleged usurpers and alleged conspirators, a repugnance that exceeds all restraints. It unleashes the rawest and most primordial impulses of which the human reptilian brain is capable. Murderous rage and chaos are often the result.

In 21st century America, such toxic narratives are not only proliferating, but are increasingly gaining legitimacy and popularity in public discourse. Some politicians are quick to recognize the seductive appeal of these ideas, especially in times of widespread uncertainty and threatening significance engendered by rampant economic inequality, the pandemic, inflation and other destabilizing issues.

The wide availability of social media platforms exacerbates the problem by orders of magnitude. In the not so distant past, those with hateful opinions would need to carefully seek out other like-minded people. But these days, no matter how deviant or morally abhorrent their beliefs are, people have no trouble finding soul mates on 4chan, 8chan or Telegram.

First, Understand the Psychology

This technology-based predicament and the primitive appeal of violence as a pathway to meaning make the problem of violence in our public spaces particularly difficult and unlikely to respond to quick fixes.

I’ve studied this call to violence for decades, and I believe that to defeat it, you must first understand the psychology behind it. It asks parents to appreciate the fear of insignificance their children may feel, their quest to prove themselves worthy, and how the combination of human needs, narratives, and networks can produce murder.

It also requires educational and community institutions to provide young people with idealistic alternatives to violence, to quench their thirst for significance.

This requires attention to social justice and economic inequalities that leave millions of people feeling disrespected and left behind. And that requires resolutely confronting hate stories and our demonization of each other.

Undoubtedly, these challenges are daunting and require the effort of an entire society, everyone on deck. But if we’re not up to the task, the killing won’t stop. The horrific shooting in the Buffalo supermarket is just a grim reminder of the harm that can happen. Ignoring it is at our peril.

Portions of this article originally appeared in a previous article published March 11, 2021.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/a-quest-for-significance-gone-horribly-wrong-how-mass-shooters-pervert-a-universal-desire-to-make-a-difference-in-the-world- 183199.

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