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What Triggers School Shooters?

Cynical Shyness Common in Shooters, Often Linked With Violence, Researchers Say

Other Shyness Experts Weigh In

The new concept of cynical shyness and violence makes sense, says Philip Zimbardo, PhD, a long-time shyness researcher and author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. "Cynical shyness makes sense in that a constant feeling of being rejected can lead to fantasies of retaliation," he says.

"The key in all of this," he says, "is that school shooters are relatively rare, given the high proportion of kids who are shy. Our research shows that 40% or more, almost 50% [of the population] is shy.

"Shy people spend a lot of time in their own head," Zimbardo tells WebMD. "In some cases, where there is real rejection, the shy person begins to develop fantasies of retaliation." In the case of the school shooters, he says, "it's not simply revenge against the bully, it's revenge that gets generalized to all people who in any way have slighted you."

But additional factors besides the shooter's personality come into play, Zimbardo tells WebMD. "Beyond the personality of the shooters are the local class situation and the school and national system that enable such violence." The increased availability of weapons also plays a role, he says.

Another expert says even if shy teens get a bit angry over getting rejected, it may not be something to be alarmed over. "The vast majority of these shy kids ... don't lash out in violence in a very extreme way," says Alex Mason, PhD, a research associate professor in the Social Development Research Group, School of Social Work, University of Washington in Seattle.

Mason calls the study interesting but has a caveat: Online news reports may not be comprehensive enough to gather information on a shooter's personality, he says.

What Parents, Teachers Can Do

Carducci suggests parents and teachers reach out to shy students. "What we are proposing is that what we need to do is find ways for these people to connect," Carducci says. "Counselors, teachers, and parents should help."

He tells parents of shy teens to let them get a job if they are old enough to work. "It's a semi-structured social situation," says Carducci. At a fast-food outlet, for instance, the worker has a script to follow when dealing with customers. "These co-workers can turn into friends."

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