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Mental Health Center

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What Triggers School Shooters?

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

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.

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.

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