The recent tragic shootings at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California and a local yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida beg the question: what type of person would commit such a horrific crime? In an attempt to make sense of the unfathomable horror, some have pointed to mental illness, while others believe it is a combination of social and cultural factors at work. Yet throughout the years, some psychologists have been pointing to a different reason altogether for mass shootings: malignant narcissism.
In her article for Psychology Today, psychiatrist Jean Kim (2015) notes that while some mass shooters may have suffered from psychosis, others may have “more of an issue with malignant narcissism.” We know that many mass shooters have a history of domestic violence or assault, so the idea that they may be malignant narcissists is not very far-fetched since this personality type tends to be linked to abusive, exploitative behavior. Psychiatrist Winston Chung (2014) has written about the connection between narcissistic rage and mass shootings. Narcissistic rage occurs when a narcissist’s sense of entitlement, false self and sense of superiority is threatened. As Chung asserts, “While the motives behind the mass shootings in the U.S. over the past 15 years may vary, there is one common theme linking the shooters at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Santa Barbara and possibly Seattle: narcissistic rage from narcissistic wounds.”
Although garden-variety narcissism can be toxic in its own way, malignant narcissism is a whole other level on the spectrum in that it has antisocial traits. Malignant narcissists aren’t “just” self-centered and unempathic, they are conscienceless – and they can be dangerous when they rage. Not all malignant narcissists are violent, but some can escalate into violence and many do inflict psychological and emotional abuse on their victims. Dr. George Simon, author of In Sheep’s Clothing, defines malignant narcissism as the following:
Narcissism becomes particularly “malignant” (i.e. malevolent, dangerous, harmful, incurable) when it goes beyond mere vanity and excessive self-focus. Malignant narcissists not only see themselves as superior to others but believe in their superiority to the degree that they view others as relatively worthless, expendable, and justifiably exploitable. This type of narcissism is a defining characteristic of psychopathy/sociopathy and is rooted in an individual’s deficient capacity for empathy. It’s almost impossible for a person with such shallow feelings and such haughtiness to really care about others or to form a conscience with any of the qualities we typically associate with a humane attitude, which is why most researchers and thinkers on the topic of psychopathy think of psychopaths as individuals without a conscience altogether.
Unlike other mental health conditions, this form of narcissism does not mean that the person is unaware of right or wrong or that they are in a state of psychosis. Nor are they any less culpable for their crimes. On the contrary, they are very sane and are aware of what is considered by society to be right or wrong – they simply do not have the conscience to care. As Dr. Robert Hare writes in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, “Most clinicians and researchers don’t use the term in this way; they know that psychopathy cannot be understood in terms of traditional views of mental illness. Psychopaths are not disoriented or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders. Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised.”
What Do Misogyny, Domestic Violence, and Online Vitriol Have to Do With Narcissistic Mass Shooters?
Many mass shooters also have histories of domestic violence, assault, spreading online vitriol and misogyny, all factors which have been studied by clinical psychologists, experts and researchers to be associated with malignant narcissism (Buckels, 2014; Keiller, 2010; Freeman, 2017; Durvasula, 2018; Sest, 2017). Online trolls have been studied by research to be high in sadism and psychopathy; male narcissists have been discovered by studies to demonstrate a deep hatred of women; mass shooters usually have a track record of domestic violence and assault, which experts say is often connected with narcissistic and antisocial personalities.
These connections are illustrated in many of the cases involving mass shooters. For example, the Tallahassee yoga studio shooter spewed abuse towards minorities and women online and had a history of harassing and sexually assaulting women (Zavari, 2018). Omar Mateen, responsible for the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, abused his ex-wife (Freeman, 2017). Shooter Elliot Rodger wrote an entire manifesto and uploaded disturbing videos highlighting his misogyny and narcissism prior to murdering the people he perceived to have rejected him (Broogard, 2014).
All of these behaviors have to do with upholding a sense of superiority and a deranged sense of entitlement to control others. If combined with the lack of empathy and remorse associated with malignant narcissism, it’s a deadly combination.
This sense of superiority inherent in malignant narcissism can sometimes manifest in aggressive and violent behavior, especially when the perpetrator feels “slighted” in some way. According to researcher and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, Brad J. Bushman (2017), “After doing research on aggression and violence for over 30 years I have come to the conclusion that the most harmful belief people can have is the belief that they are superior to others. It is a myth that aggressive and violent people suffer from low self-esteem. They are much more likely to have narcissistic tendencies…Narcissists think they are special people who deserve special treatment. When they don’t get the respect they think they deserve, they lash out at others in an aggressive manner.”
While not all mass shooters are malignant narcissists, many mass shooters do show the following narcissistic tendencies:
A grandiose sense of self, along with fantasies of unlimited fame and power.
A lack of empathy and remorse.
Interpersonally exploitative behavior.
An excessive sense of entitlement.
An inflated sense of superiority, aggression, and contempt.
When Elliot Rodger spoke of how he was entitled to women’s bodies, he declared how “magnificent” and “superior” he was, depicting himself as a gift to women who did not appreciate him. These grandiose perspectives, lack of empathy, and an excessive sense of entitlement made for a dangerous combination, fuelling him to harm innocent men and women with little to no remorse.
The Shooting At Thousand Oaks, California
This kind of misogynistic entitlement was also present for the Thousand Oaks Shooter, who was not only accused of assaulting his gym teacher in high school, but was also viewed as being very angry and aggressive by some of his peers. This was all prior to him entering the military, casting doubt on the theory that the shooter “only” suffered from PTSD.
Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine, told USA Today that she did not believe PTSD was the cause of the Thousand Oaks shooter’s horrific crimes. “It’s not PTSD,” she said. “This is whatever else, what other pathology would cause someone to do this.”
Given the evidence, it is very possible that this shooter had hardwired behavioral patterns related to narcissistic entitlement and aggression before any trauma he may have experienced in the army. According to the gym coach he assaulted, “There are hundreds of thousands of people with PTSD…they don’t go around shooting people. This kid was mentally disturbed in high school. There were signs and the administration knew it.”
The Thousand Oaks shooter had also written in an Instagram post around the time of the shooting, “It’s too bad I won’t get to see all the illogical and pathetic reasons people will put in my mouth as to why I did it…fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought… f***it, life is boring so why not?” According to Hare, psychopaths suffer from perpetual boredom and require constant stimulation. This particular social media post is revealing, in that it reveals the pathological “boredom” which drove this shooter’s behavior and unmasks the contemptuous attitude with which the shooter viewed others. He was already anticipating that people would rationalize his heinous behavior and hoped people would label him “insane.”
This exposes the absolute lack of remorse and the disturbing level of awareness he had in taking the lives of innocent victims. It challenges the depictions of him as a frenzied or unhinged shooter in the midst of psychosis. Rather, the Thousand Oaks shooter presents himself as cold, calculating and callous – making light of the media coverage he knew would attempt to make sense of his conscienceless behavior. It’s quite possible that this shooter’s “mental disturbance” may very well have consisted of malignant narcissism, among other things.
The Big Picture
We may never know what is really behind every mass shooter’s horrific acts of cruelty and violence. Yet acknowledging that some individuals are truly conscienceless, unempathic, and driven by a need to control, overpower and harm others is the first step to creating a society which holds these perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Buckels, E., Trapnell, P., & Paulhus, D. (2014). Trolls Just Want to Have Fun. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e520722015-006
Bushman, B. J. (2017). Narcissism, Fame Seeking, and Mass Shootings. American Behavioral Scientist,62(2), 229-241. doi:10.1177/0002764217739660
Brogaard, B. (2014, June 04). Elliot Rodger’s Narcissism. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201406/elliot-rodger-s-narcissism
CBS Local News (2018, November 08). Thousand Oaks Gunman’s High School Coach Speaks About Sexual Assault. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2018/11/08/thousand-oaks-gunman-high-school-coach-assault/
Chung, W. (2014, June 11). Killers in mass shootings linked by narcissistic rage. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Killers-in-mass-shootings-linked-by-narcissistic-5543262.php
Freeman, H. (2017, March 28). What do many lone attackers have in common? Domestic violence. The Guardian Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/28/lone-attackers-domestic-violence-khalid-masood-westminster-attacks-terrorism
Hare, P. D. (2011). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. Place of publication not identified: Tantor Media.
Keiller, S.W. (2010). Male narcissism and attitudes toward heterosexual women and men, lesbian women and gay men: hostility toward heterosexual women most of all. Sex Roles. DOI 10.1007/s11199-010-9837-8
Kim, J. (2015, October 15). American Narcissism and Mass Shooters. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-shrink/201510/american-narcissism-and-mass-shooters
Sest, N., & March, E. (2017). Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 69-72. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.038
Simon, G. (2013, December 29). Malignant Narcissism. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.drgeorgesimon.com/malignant-narcissism/
Slack, D. (2018, November 09). Don’t blame PTSD for Thousand Oaks shooting, experts say. Retrieved November 12, 2018, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/11/08/thousand-oaks-shooter-experts-caution-against-blaming-ptsd-military-mass-shooting/1934942002/
Zaveri, M., & Jacobs, J. (2018, November 03). Gunman in Yoga Studio Shooting Recorded Racist, Misogynistic Videos in 2014. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/03/us/yoga-studio-shooting-florida.html
Licensed image via Shutterstock.
The Connection Between Mass Shooters and Malignant Narcissism, According to Psychologists