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,
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
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."