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According to a report by Stanford University, from the turn of this century to August 26, 2015, there have been 138 documented mass shootings in the United States resulting in 555 victim fatalities and a total of 1092 victims. To put that number in perspective, that is more than the total number of documented mass shootings in the entire second half of the 20th century. In this context, a mass shooting is defined by three or more shooting victims (not necessarily fatalities), not including the shooter where the shooting must not be identifiably gang or drug related (Stanford University, 2015). But who or what is to blame for this disturbing trend? The answer is not as simple as most people would like to believe.
Americans are pissed—as we should be. We want justice. To get justice, we need a "bad guy" who's not just responsible for any single shooting, but one who is responsible for the overall trend of mass shootings—even if no such bad guy exists. Enter the phenomenon known as shoehorning. Shoehorning is the process of force-fitting some current affair into one's personal, political, or religious agenda. Atheists have blamed religion, Christians have blamed non-Christians, Feminists have blamed the male-dominated culture, liberals tend to blame guns, and conservatives tend to blame mental health. America may have both a gun problem and a mental health problem, but addressing just one of these problems is unlikely to be the best course of action for solving the problem of mass shootings. People have a tendency to over-simplify and fail to understand that complex issues such as mass shootings have complex causes that extend to several domains beyond just guns and mental health. If we really want to make a difference and reduce the frequency of mass shootings, there are many things we can all do besides just posting fallacy-ridden memes on social media.
First let's address the gun and mental health issues. Sure, you can't have a mass shooting without a gun, and by most definitions, mentally stable people don't perpetrate mass shootings. But even though guns and mental health issues are necessary conditions for mass shootings, neither are sufficient. The vast majority of gun owners and people with mental health issues are not mass murders. In fact, regarding mental health, there is a wide gap between the public's perception of violent behavior among the mentally ill and actual violence—the vast majority of those with mental health issues are no more violent than those without mental health issues (“Facts About Mental Illness and Violence - Mental Health Reporting - UW School of Social Work,” n.d.). The point is, while passing stricter gun laws and addressing the mental health crisis on an institutional level can be a significant step in the right direction, neither solution is likely to be enough. By buying into one of these political narratives as "the solution," you are contributing to the larger problem of the over-simplification of cause and effect, which stands in the way of implementing many potentially effective solutions.
Based on dozens of profiles of the mass shooters this century, we can see several indicators of mass shooting behavior that can be used to help prevent future occurrences. While the numbers are generally too small for any kind of quantitative analyses, a qualitative analyses can be (and has been) used to identify shared characteristics or themes that can be helpful in creating a plan of action to mitigate future shooting rampage behavior. In several cases, mass shooters even gave explicit reasons for their behavior such as "tired of being bullied" (“CNN.com - Transcripts,” n.d.), "still angry at God for the death of a premature infant daughter nine years prior" (University, 2008), and "thanks to you I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people" (Carlson & Ebel, 2012), just to name a few. Absent explicit reasons, we need to dig deeper and make some calculated assumptions based on testimony and shooter history.
I need to reiterate that we are dealing with a statistically small number of shooters, which makes statements such as "mass shooters tend to be well-educated" and "mass shooters tend to be religious extremists" scientifically indefensible. Based on what we know about human behavior, what we can do is identify themes and make calculated assumptions of causal or contributing factors and estimate a relative importance of each. Based on an analysis of the last twelve mass shooters, I have identified four common themes:
Other people expressed concern about the shooter's behavior prior to the shooting
The shooter made threats of mass violence
The shooter was described as socially isolated
The shooter suffered from some form of mental illness
Based on shooter profiles, existing research in the area, and an understanding of human social behavior, I offer the following suggestions as potential contributors to the solution of mass shootings, fully acknowledging that while there are not enough data to make strong causal attributions, we can, and we must act on calculated and reasoned potential solutions to this very serious problem. While we wait for our elected leaders to pass stricter gun laws and address the mental health crisis on an institutional level, there is much that we all can do to address this serious problem.
Expand Your Sphere of Care. Each one of us has what can be a called a "sphere of care" that includes those about whom we care. As we go through stages in life, this sphere tends to expand, but not usually past the point of close family and friends. Talk is cheap. If you really do "love your neighbor" or care about humanity, then demonstrate it through your actions. We cannot be expected to treat everyone the same way we would treat our own child or a best friend, but all of us have more to give to others—more empathy, compassion, and concern for their well-being. We need to move away from the "mind your own business" mentality and realize that we are all connected—your business is my business. From a perspective of pure self-interest, realize that the troubled child you ignore today could be the mass shooter of tomorrow who murders your child. From a moralistic perspective, demonstrating care for others is simply the good and right thing to do.
The following actions are a result of caring, and all contributing solutions to the problem of mass shootings.
Make all troubling behavior of people in your life your concern. Some of the troubling behavior reported by people who knew the mass shooters include the shooter's obsession with weapons, talk of suicide, bitterness about being bullied, very poor academic performance, a history of violence and/or illegal activity, and extreme ideological views. Rather than ignore troubling behavior of people in your life who you don't know very well, do something about it whether it be talking to the person, getting the person help, or just reporting the behavior.
Address all threats of violence and take them seriously. The school shooter Charles Andrew Williams spoke on two occasions of his plan to "pull a Columbine" at Santana High School. Robert Stewart, Flores Jr., the Gulf War veteran who killed two of his professors told one of the professors he killed that "he was going to give her a lesson in spirituality" and asked the other "if she was ready to meet her maker." Virgina Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho wrote in a school assignment about wanting to "repeat Columbine." In fact, many mass shooters made unambiguous threats of violence either publicly or privately. Of course, not all threats are made with serious intent, but the cost of assuming that they're frivolous is just too great.
Do something about those who appear to be socially isolated. Befriend those who have no friends. If you are a parent, encourage your children to be the kids who invite "the lonely kid" to join in activities and be part of the group. Positive social interaction, especially at a young age, can have a dramatic positive effect on the outcome of someone's life.
Know the five signs. Nearly one in every five people, or 42.5 million American adults, has a diagnosable mental health condition. Often our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members are suffering emotionally and don’t recognize the symptoms or won’t ask for help. The Campaign to Change Direction is a collection of concerned citizens, nonprofit leaders, and leaders from the private sector who have come together to create a new story in America about mental health, mental illness, and wellness, by teaching people how to recognize the five major signs of mental illness so they can do something about it. Learn these five signs in this 20-minute course at https://www.KnowTheFiveSigns.org.
Look for "leaking" and report it immediately. Perpetrators of mass shootings, especially school shooters, almost always announce their plan through a process referred to as leaking. According to Pfeifer and Ganzevoort (2015), "leaking can be indirect, for example in the form of school essays, wearing particular clothes, or presenting themselves with weapons on video clips. It can also be direct, for example, in threats on social media, suicide letters, videos, or manifestos. The internet and especially YouTube plays an important role in leaking."
Help people work through existential concerns. Pfeifer and Ganzevoort (2015) evaluated six autobiographical documents left behind by school shooters and identified five existential concerns including death, isolation, identity, freedom, and meaning. These concerns all appear to be major contributors to the mass shootings evaluated. There are both religious and secular philosophies that have their own approaches for dealing with these issues. It's best to be knowledgeable in both general approaches to helping others through these issues within a worldview they will understand. While I am a major proponent of secular philosophies and worldviews, I can appreciate religious worldviews as a way to address these existential concerns in a simple way, based on the cultural upbringing of the individual. My concern is that worldviews built on supernatural beliefs are only as stable as the faith in the supernatural beliefs themselves. As people move away from the faiths in which they were raised to a secular worldview, the existential concerns return with little or no understanding of secular or naturalistic solutions.
Encourage our children to be emotionally strong. There is another disturbing trend that seems to be taking place now, and that is the coddling of students by "protecting" them against ideas. These ideas are often referred to as "hate speech," "bullying," "mockery," "triggers," and other pejorative terms that turn students into victims. We can't guarantee that every other child or student will be kind, polite, and diplomatic when interacting with our children, but we can help them to deal with uncomfortable information, even if that information is delivered in a hateful, mean, and tactless way. We don't need trigger warnings; what we need is students who aren't triggered. Exposure to uncomfortable information is the way to accomplish that, not protecting them from uncomfortable information (Haidt, 2015).
Parents are generally too close to their children to acknowledge these signs, or could even be in denial to maintain the "perfect child" delusion. They have the care but lack the objectivity. It often takes an objective third-party to spot these signs, but these are generally people who lack the care. While expecting parents to be objective arbiters when it comes to their own children is unreasonable, encouraging people to be more caring about the children in their community is not. More generally, we can all expand our sphere of care to people of all ages, and in both our geographical and virtual communities. While this might not end mass shootings in the United States, it will certainly mitigate the problem while creating a society that doesn't just talk about compassion, but demonstrates it.
Carlson, J. D., & Ebel, J. H. (2012). From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America. University of California Press.
CNN.com - Transcripts. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2015, from http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0208/16/lt.03.html
Facts About Mental Illness and Violence - Mental Health Reporting - UW School of Social Work. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2015, from http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php
FastStats. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm
Haidt, G. L. and J. (2015, September). The Coddling of the American Mind. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
Pfeifer, B., & Ganzevoort, R. R. (2015). The Implicit Religion of School Shootings Existential Concerns of Perpetrators Prior to Their Crime. Journal of Religion and Violence, 2(3). http://doi.org/10.5840/jrv20153172
Stanford University. (2015). Stanford Mass Shootings in America, courtesy of the Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries. Retrieved from https://stanfordgeo.cartodb.com/u/msadb/viz/dc181e3e-16bb-11e5-b766-0e018d66dc29/embed_map
University, C. (2008, October 26). Making Paradise: Suicide Note from Charles Carl Roberts IV’s. Retrieved from http://makingparadise.blogspot.com/2008/10/suicide-note-from-charles-carl-roberts.html