Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


hope-columbine

The HOPE Columbine Memorial Library that replaced the library where most of the massacre took place. (PHOTO: BIGMAC/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Inside the Mind of a Mass Killer

• July 29, 2013 • 4:00 AM

The HOPE Columbine Memorial Library that replaced the library where most of the massacre took place. (PHOTO: BIGMAC/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A new analysis of the writings of mass shooters finds a common strain of paranoia.

In trying to understand the actions of a mass murderer, our instinct is to grasp blindly for answers, settling on one that feels right. Setting aside the debate over access to guns, this often comes down to a lay diagnosis that the shooter was probably a psychopath—cold, unfeeling, heartless.

A new analysis of the writings of three mass killers and one would-be mass killer, comes to a very different conclusion. A trio of University of British Columbia psychologists led by Donald Dutton report the gunmen appear to have suffered from an intense form of paranoia.

Far from being cool or detached, these young men were enraged, their delusions of persecution becoming ever more intense and intolerable.

“The paranoid individual is obsessed with revenge and justifies the revenge as payback for a perceived injustice. (Such people are) thin-skinned or hypersensitive to perceived slights.”

“They become and remain fixated and obsessed with rejection by what they see as an elite in-group, whom they see as having unfairly achieved success,” Dutton and his colleagues write in a compelling paper just published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. “Instead of transcending the rejection, they formulate plans to annihilate the transgressors, which they justify as vengeance for the transgressions made against them.”

The researchers analyzed the writings of Eric Harris, who (along with friend Dylan Klebold) killed 13 of his fellow students at Columbine High School in 1999; Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007; Kimveer Gill, who shot 20 people, killing one, at Dawson College in Montreal in 2006; and Anders Breivik, who killed 82 people at a youth camp in Norway in 2011 (plus another seven in a bomb blast outside the Prime Minister’s office).

They looked at the perpetrators’ diaries or blog entries in the weeks leading up to the shooting, as well as a manifesto Breivik circulated in a mass email in an attempt to explain himself. Aside from Breivik, whose paranoia found expression in socio-political terms, they expressed a surprisingly similar worldview.

“A central theme that runs through these diaries is one of feeling rejected, dismissed, disrespected and devalued by an in-group invariably depicted as “jocks and preppies,” and of wanting vengeance for this maltreatment,” Dutton and his colleagues write. “The in-group is despised for being superficial and for getting unwanted status.”

There is no shortage of examples of this kind of thinking. This is from Harris’ diary:

Everyone is making fun of me because of how I look, how fucking weak I am, and shit, well I will get you all back, ultimate fucking revenge here. You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for more knowledge or guidance more, treated me more like a senior, and maybe I wouldn’t have been so ready to tear your fucking heads off. … Same thing with all those rich snotty toadies at my school. Fuckers think they are higher than me and everyone else with all their $ just because they were born into it?

Here is an online posting by Gill, translated from the French:

If people were making your life a living hell, wouldn’t you be hurt emotionally? How come no one ever talks about those mother fucking jocks and preps whose fault it is. Oh no. Heaven forbid. We can’t possibly say that. Why does society applaud jocks? I do not understand. They are the worst kind of people on earth. And the preps are no better. They think they’re better than others, but they’re not.

Finally, here’s Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho, apparently addressing the sort of privileged student he despises:

Your Mercedes wasn’t enough? Your golden necklaces weren’t enough? Your trust fund wasn’t enough? Your vodka and cognac weren’t enough? All your debaucheries weren’t enough?

“The paranoid individual is obsessed with revenge and justifies the revenge as payback for a perceived injustice,” the researchers write. “(Such people are) thin-skinned or hypersensitive to perceived slights (and they) have closed information-processing systems that preclude corrective information which is inconsistent with their world view from being received.”

Breivik, the oldest of this group (he was 32 at the time of the killings; Harris was 18, Cho 23, and Hill 25), perceived a different enemy: Muslims. His paranoia “appeared to have worsened when he was past college age,” the researchers write. “Otherwise, his school peers, rather than a politically derived target, may have been selected.”

“He believed that slaughtering a group of teenagers would make him Grand Master Knight Commander, deputized by a secret society to lead the forces of Christendom in a battle for the future of mankind,” they add. “He had military uniforms made to reflect his future status.”

Overall, this analysis suggests many of the media’s cliches regarding mass killers appear to be wrong. They were bullied? “This group greatly exaggerates the negativity of their treatment, as reported by third-party school peers,” the researchers note, adding that their writings contain few references to specific experiences of being a bullying victim.

Perhaps the problem is too few mental health services? Well, three of the four men examined here had been assessed by psychiatrists, none of whom picked up on the deep nature of their disturbances.

That said, one popular conception about these men is clearly correct.

“There were differing levels of social isolation for Cho, Gill, Breivik and Harris,” the researchers write. “Cho had extreme social anxiety, isolated himself and showed social incompetence. Gill and Harris had some friends, but clearly pictured themselves as marginalized. “All were described as loners.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.