What Triggers School Shooters?
Cynical Shyness Common in Shooters, Often Linked With Violence, Researchers Say
WebMD News Archive
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
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
"All eight had the characteristic features of cynical shyness," he
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.