In what seems an all too familiar tragedy, we learned last week, that a lone gunman walked on to the campus of Oikos University in east Oakland, California, and opened fire indiscriminately killing seven. It is not clear what motivated the suspect, 43-year-old One Goh, but already, we want to know what triggers these bloody rampages – Dunblane, Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Oikos University. Why?
Occasionally there are neurological conditions that precipitate the actions such as the case of Charles Whitman that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. However, as noted by Professor Ian Robertson, the commentator on that blog, it seems implausible that every rampage killer has a brain tumor. So why do individuals go on murder sprees? Kip Williams, a psychologist at Purdue University thinks it may have something to do with ostracism – when we are ignored and excluded from groups. In his research he demonstrated that social rejection is one of the most painful events that as a social animal, we can endure. He experienced this first hand after an episode in a local park when he was taking a walk and a Frisbee hit him in the back of his head. He picked it up and threw it back to the two players, who then engaged Williams by throwing the Frisbee back to him. All was fine until the two players returned their attention to each other and ignored Williams. He remembers feeling very hurt and then went off to study why we feel so upset by rejection.
It turns out that we are trip-wired to detect when the group to which we want to belong, rejects us. This shows up in measures of mood as well as brain imaging studies that reveal that the pain of social rejection also activates brain centers associated with physical pain. It is a particularly aversive experience, which is why most of us will automatically change our behaviour in an attempt to re-establish ourselves as members of the group, to the extent that we can become obsequious. If these efforts fail, then the ostracized individual will seek to force the group to recognize their existence. Williams has shown that ostracized individuals will seek revenge and are more aggressive to innocent bystanders. In its extreme form, this may be the motivation behind the lone gunman who goes on a rampage. In 13 out of 15 cases of school shootings in the United States, shooters had been targets of ostracism. For humans, group acceptance and reputation is paramount. For some, to be ostracized from the group is the worst fate imaginable. It can be considered a ‘psychological death.’