Comments on the Virginia Tech Tragedy

Aggression Research Program
The University of Michigan
April 26, 2007

As Aggression Researchers we thought we should offer a few comments on the tragedy at Virginia Tech and try to relate it to some of the things we know about aggression. Of course, much is speculation until we learn more facts about the perpetrator’s background, but several conclusions seem probable.

The first obvious fact is that no matter what the underlying causes of the perpetrator’s aggression, the consequences would have been less dire if we had better enforceable gun control laws in this country. He might have killed a few people with a knife, but not 31. True, it appears that he obtained the gun illegally. Even in Virginia people who have been “confined” for mental health reasons recently cannot legally buy guns. But in Virginia the only check on this is the word of the person buying the gun when he or she buys it. That is an absurd attempt at control, of course.

Second, we think it is highly probably that this person was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. In other words, he was seriously psychotic. Most aggressive acts are not committed by people having psychotic episodes, but in this case a lot of the evidence points in that direction. Writing a long manifesto of alleged grievances is typical of people in such states. It does not matter much what the manifesto says. Typically the person believes that he or she is being controlled or forced to do what he or she is doing by God or the Devil or some other people, and has no choice about what he or she must do. Furthermore the person is doing it for imaginary others (e.g., “his children”) like Christ did. Psychoses like paranoid schizophrenia are serious mental illnesses that we don’t yet understand very well. Our anger at people like this who commit such horrendous acts must be tempered by compassion for the very sick.

Third, one can see fairly clearly how he has developed a set of social cognitions that promote aggression in line with what we have argued in our research. He seems to have acquired a schema about the world that it is a hostile and mean place with people out to get him. He seems to have acquired normative beliefs that his aggression is justified and OK. He seems to have acquired very specific scripts for how to act and to have acquired a feeling of self-efficacy for aggression based on the power of weapons he possesses. In his distorted thinking he has positive outcome expectancies (e.g., perceptions that he would achieve his retaliatory goals and fame and make his unspecified abusers regret what they had done). And he has managed to identify in his own mind with prior victim-aggressors (e.g., the marginalized youth from Columbine who struck out against perceived injustices). Undoubtedly these social cognitions were acquired over time from his misinterpretations of his own personal experiences but also from his “readings” of other events in the larger world.

Fourth, this appears to be a good example of Berkowitz’s tenet that “when we feel bad, we act bad.”  Obviously the perpetrator was emotionally overwhelmed with a mixture of rage and depression. His act is a consequence of that emotional state. It is certainly hostile reactive emotional aggression, not instrumental aggression.

Fifth, there are elements in his background that would increase the risk of anyone behaving aggressively. We don’t know about his family background, but he appears to have been an unpopular social isolate. He appears to have had grandiose narcissistic feelings and to have deliberately avoided forming bonds with others. He appears to have suffered threats to his ego from women.

Finally, we might ask why he chose the specific script he chose to follow to aggress against the convenient targets he found around him. Here, we suspect that the mass media comes into play. We heard today that many of the poses he struck in the pictures he took of himself are almost identical to scenes from a Korean movie called “Old Boy.”  Time will tell whether this is true, but it would certainly be a plausible explanation for the details of the exact form that his aggression took. This is not to say that this would be a case where in any real sense the movie “caused” his aggression. Rather like the other “copy cat” crimes we studied, the movie shaped the direction that violent behavior took by providing a script that seemed appealing.

Of course, other facts may emerge that might lead us to believe that violence in the mass media played a bigger role than we know. Did he grow up playing violent video games? Did he grow up enjoying a lot of violent movies and television shows?  We don’t know about that at this point.

Overall, in hindsight, it appears clear that he was an individual who was high-risk for serious aggression. What we must remember, however, is that there are many other people who look similar on the surface and never commit such acts. Predicting “dangerousness” is a very very difficult task. Even those of us who know a lot about aggression cannot claim much success.