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What Triggers School Shooters?

Cynical Shyness Common in Shooters, Often Linked With Violence, Researchers Say
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 20, 2007 -- Teens who have gone on shooting rampages at high schools in the past decade share a common personality characteristic, according to a new study.

These school shooters suffer from "cynical shyness," says Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, a researcher in the study and a professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.

While shyness and violence don't seem to go together, they can when someone is cynically shy, Carducci says.

"Cynical shyness is a new term," he says. "This is a variation of shyness. Probably less than 2% of shy people are this way."

Like other shy people, these cynically shy people reach out to others, wanting friendship, but lack social skills, Carducci tells WebMD. They often get rejected by their peers, feel hurt, and eventually become cynical and want to retaliate against those who reject them.

Carducci presented the study at the American Psychological Association's 115th annual convention in San Francisco.

The Shyness-Violence Link

Carducci began to think about the concept of "cynical shyness" more than a decade ago, when he did a survey asking people about their shyness.

"One of the letters we got sort of jumped out," he tells WebMD. "It was from a person who said his shyness not only held him back but talked about how other people thought they were better than he was, about how smart he really was, and how stupid they really were. There was a vitriolic tone, and I thought, 'This guy is really cynical.'"

The process, Carducci tells WebMD, goes like this: "Shy people truly want to be social, but they can't. When they do try to reach out, they often feel rejected. If people start to reject you, you begin to move away from these people. You disengage and then you start to get angry."

Sometimes those feelings against others go further, he says. "Once you start moving away, that is when you start to berate them. In a sense you become a cult of one."

Study Details

Carducci and his university co-researcher, Kristin Terry Nethery, evaluated the personality of the eight school shooters who were involved in seven shootings, including Columbine High School in 1999. They looked for indicators of cynical shyness, such as lack of empathy, low tolerance for frustration, angry outbursts, social rejection from peers, bad family relations, and access to weapons.

Using information from magazine, newspaper, and online reports of the shootings that included descriptions and information about the shooters, as well as information from an FBI report, Carducci and Nethery evaluated 30 characteristics that pointed to a person being cynically shy. The shooters were all male and ranged in age from 14 to 18. Seven were white and one was Native American.

"All eight had the characteristic features of cynical shyness," he says.

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