MASS SHOOTERSA Quest for Significance Gone Horribly Wrong – How Mass Shooters Pervert a Universal Desire to Make a Difference in the World
There is a mental and psychological dimension to the problem of mass shooting, to be sure, but it is not illness or pathology. It is the universal human quest for significance and respect – the mother, I believe, of all social motives.
Agonizing questions are being raised by the recent tragic shooting incident in Buffalo, New York, where 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron is alleged to have shot 10 people dead and wounded three. As in the recent years’ similar acts of horror 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 whether anything can be done to stem their dreadful tide.
An easy answer has been to shunt the discourse over to mental illness as the cause and in this way marginalize the problem and identify a ready, if superficial, solution to it: improving mental health. It also absolves the rest of society of responsibility to address a pernicious trend of mass shootings that between 2009 and 2020 claimed 1,363 lives in the U.S. alone, more than anywhere else in the world.
The idea that committing atrocities and killing innocent victims reflects mental illness has been long discarded by terrorism researchers like me. The over 40,000 foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State organization to kill and die weren’t all mentally disturbed, nor were the mass shooters who in the first 19 weeks of 2022 managed to carry out nearly 200 attacks on U.S. soil.
There is a mental and psychological dimension to the problem, to be sure, but it is not illness or pathology. It is the universal human quest for significance and respect – the mother, I believe, of all social motives.
I am a psychologist who studies this ubiquitous motivation and its far-reaching 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.
It also plays a major role in the tragic incidents of mass shootings, including, it seems, the Buffalo killings.
Triggering the Quest
This quest for significance and respect must first be awakened before it can drive behavior.
It can be triggered by the experience of significant loss through humiliation and failure. When we suffer such a loss, we desperately seek to regain significance and respect. The quest for significance can also be triggered by an opportunity for substantial gain – becoming a hero, a martyr, a superstar.