Another School Massacre – Is Ostracism to Blame?

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.’


Filed under General Thoughts

13 responses to “Another School Massacre – Is Ostracism to Blame?

  1. netminnow

    I think it is unfortunate that some people don’t have enough resilience to take life’s inevitable disappointments and instead fatally lash out at anyone that randomly encounters them in their self-absorbed tantrum. Which comes first, the self-absorbtion and inability to connect enough with others because of it or the rejection then the obliviousness of their actions on others? Either way demonstrates piss-poor thinking and goes far to explain why many would choose not to hang out with them. It always comes down to the choices one makes about what to do with one’s pain and there is always a positive choice available. Even if it is to sit and absorb even more of the pain. It’s called the human condition and doesn’t explain or excuse or justify death sentences unilaterally imposed for being uncognizant of someone else’s pain. So sick of hearing whiners trying to let others off the hook for actions that destroy families, rob society, maime innocents. Yes we should be trying to uplift the “least” of these as a society through govt programs like education and health care in addition to individual efforts and charities but no matter how well these function, there will always be unseen contingencies and slaughter is not the answer and can NEVER be excused.

    • brucehood

      That is a familiar and common perspective but do you think that there are never mitigating circumstances? What if they had no control over their actions? It is a very difficult line to draw. What if there is no self? I think you should find my new book, “The Self Illusion” totally infuriating, but hopefully stimulating.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment

    • Paul

      That is a good rationale to avoid social responsibility and blame the original victim.

  2. I read information like this and it occurs to me that for all our intellect we are so……ape-like. Wasn’t there a recent study showing that primates police members of their own group to control individual behavior?

    While I suffered through a difficult statistics group project in grad school, one group contained the 2 brightest students in the program. I wanted to switch, but I could not figure out how to infiltrate their group. I figured it out by – no joke – watching a TV program on Velociraptors. Those darned animals were quite devious and methodical.

  3. michaelbradycpp


    Understanding behavior is not the same thing as excusing it.

    Telling people who have been subjected to deliberate emotional abuse to “cowboy up” is unlikely to have much positive impact either.

    Ostracism or bullying seems to be a common complaint (real or imagined) by the perpetrators of workplace mass murder, yet it can be only one variable in the equation. Many people are bullied or ostracized. Many have psychological issues. Some have psychiatric diagnoses. Some have access to firearms. Yet only the rarest fraction of persons ever come to work or school intending to commit murder. Finding ways to rise above petty in-group out-group bullying and ostracism is an important area of study. Understanding what triggers deadly violence by a very small number of its victims is important to those of us charged with preventing or mitigating violence in the workplace.

  4. Jean Watson

    Here’s a backhanded view, but it’s also likely a confirmation of the power of the reaction to ostracism:
    I’ve never felt a need to belong to a group, not wanting to conform to behaviour or dress, or to “follow” trends or to have a “best friend”. This is at a cost; I don’t make many friends and don’t pick up social cues very well. It also has benefits; I’m able to attend to work and projects with more concentration, without social politics diverting that attention, and without the emotional labour of cultivating a place in society as it appears to do in people with a wider social life.

    The only time I wanted to “belong” enough that I experienced pain from ostracism was when I joined a group at a project where I’d hoped to be working for a few years. The management style there, unfortunately, was to hook a newcomer up with a single mentor for the first week of orientation and it was made very clear that your ability to get along was top of the management list.
    Silly me was so greedy for the appointment that I followed the letter of the management rule and didn’t pick up the clues from my “buddy” that the compliance needed to only be when management was watching.
    The pain when I was told in very clear terms to eff off and stop hanging around the mentor’s social group was the first of the kind I’d felt. It was a blow and it took me a day or so to sort out why it was so intense; I’d been hanging my desire for fitting in at work on the peg of social interaction. Being a novice, I’d naturally mucked it up but even though the emotional investment wasn’t directly with the social group, I did feel angry with the person who was annoyed with me, *unfairly* I thought, since management emphasised sociality, and I don’t doubt that if I’d had nobody to consult about how to get on with the group, I could’ve borne a disproportionate grudge towards that person, or even the group.

    I think we all see all kinds of more attenuated reactions to ostracism every day – trolling blogs and forums online is a great example – but homicide? How strongly do people need to belong in those cases I wonder? What wiring may be awry when the need to belong seems to be getting deformed into the need for some kind of justice? Loneliness appears to be the worst thing we can condemn a person to — and at society’s peril at the same time. If that’s not one of those paradoxes our brains are so good at producing, I don’t know a better example.

    At the risk of writing an essay, I’d stretch your hospitality for bit more, and observe that Wm Shakespeare had this kind of reaction to ostracism well described with the anger spat by Shylock – who was indeed ready to kill in revenge for being ostracised:
    “Thou call’d’st me dog before thou hads’t a cause.
    But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs” – Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 3.
    It’s most often men who do this disproportionate killing.
    According to Robt Sapolsky in recent lectures, angry and violent men also rate significantly lower in physical pain tolerance. So an ostracised loner could have numbers of rejections right through their development *through nothing worse or different from us all than being less tolerant of pain*. There’s got to be a way to help lonely men, and netminnow’s perspective will likely in later years seem as cockeyed as shoving depressed women into asylums to go *really* insane in the 19th century seems now to us.

    I found this blog after watching your entertaining Xmas RI lectures (kids make better volunteers for TV – being more open, but the lectures shouldn’t be tagged only for kids), and these followed taking Prof Sapolsky’s Stanford Human Behavioural Biology lecture series.
    Your “The Self Illusion” now beckons.

    thanks for the space to rattle on.

  5. RE: Terrorism alert: KGB total mind control technique

    University and state officials continue to ignore/hide the real causes and still provide grounds for potential terrorists who can commit similar crimes as the recent massacre in Oakland or this 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. This is because some part of Russian KGB (not Moscow or Putin) uses a mind control technique that requires only a few hours and leads to total mind control. After GULAG KGB mind control application, nearly all people can kill themselves, their children, parents, best friends, and many others. The technique was developed and tested in largest world’s mind control labs: KGB GULAG labor camps where over 10 million perished.

    I repeat this total mind control technique requires only a few hours of intimacy. This can be easily achieved due to, for example, prevalent promiscuity and lack of public awareness about this method and KGB people who use such mind control.

    While Stanley Milgram study (replicated many times later) showed that it takes about 2 hours to make an average person to kill innocent others, over 100 KGB GULAG labs found a shortcut or faster and more lasting solution that does not require presence of authority.

    Note that such crimes are nearly impossible to prove, since the brainwashed people either kill themselves or, if they survive, will say only those things that were ordered them to say, although there are physiological changes (like only about 2 hours of natural sleep) that can be used to identify zombies.

    Artour Rakhimov, PhD

    • michaelbradycpp

      One of the most alluring aspects of conspiracy theories is the way they relieve the average person of responsibilty for the world we live in.

  6. roxks

    A more commonsense explanation for the frequency with which this occurs in the USA is the ready availability of guns there, and what needs explaining is why they don’t admit they have a problem and do something about it.

    • Yes, I don’t think there is any argument against this in terms of frequency in societies that have guns but the question still remains as to why. Simply having guns around means that people are more prone to resort to them in when enraged.

      • roxks

        It’s very much like men who insist they are really women, and vice versa. If you live, as we used to , in a society where sex-change operations are not available, there is simply no argument about it. You can’t have one.

        [ I do tend to think in leaps like this, perhaps you could diagnose me as having some condition, but I think there is something in my parallel here nonetheless, although it won’t be to everyone’s taste ].

  7. jbms

    Jesus…. I’m writing a college paper on Ostracism and found this article to be extremely helpful! surprisingly, I am also going to use some of the responses to this article as well. so many perspectives and rebuttals, I had to stop myself from reading all of them because it was distracting me from getting back to researching! LOL

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