School Shootings: Getting Real About the Dark Triad of Personality and the Impact of Media Sensationalism

Posted: May 18, 2018

In the last week, there were two school shootings.  One, you likely never heard about due to the heroic actions of a school resource officer in Dixon, Illinois who confronted and chased down the gunman.  The second, the tragedy in Texas at Santa Fe High School which happened today, we likely will all hear about in graphic detail, with hour upon hour of breaking news updates. The perpetrator's name and face will be on our TVs, cell phones and computers. As these events unfold and more information is known, we will likely see some incredible similarities - young, male, craving attention, and almost certainly suffering from untreated mental illness.  

The media has sent a very clear message with past mass shootings - if you are a successful murderer you get more attention.  Mass shooters commit these crimes not only out of revenge for some perceived injustice, but also due to a narcissistic, ravenous hunger for notoriety and a profound desire to somehow make their meaningless lives more meaningful.  They want us all to know their name - and the media, hungry for ratings and sensationalism, is all too happy to oblige.

Why is this happening and how do we stop it?  According to the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center, who did an extensive study on mass shooters, 64% of attackers suffered from some significant symptoms of mental illness and 82% exhibited behaviors indicative of aggressive narcissism.  My own research into mass casualty attacks focuses on the recognition of this type of violence and the Dark Triad of Personality.  Conceptually established in 2002 by Paulhus and Williams, the dark triad combines the distinct but related personality traits of subclinical narcissism, psychopathology, and Machiavellianism. Narcissists excessively seek affirmation and special attention from others. Since their self-esteem is dependent on others, they often engage in attention-seeking strategies such as social competitiveness. They typically lack empathy and, despite excessive attention seeking, have few intimate relationships.  Research increasingly validates that the millennial generation, those born between 1982 and 2004, is significantly more narcissistic than prior generations.  Stated another way, they crave attention and are willing to manipulate others to get it.  If the narcissistic drive for attention is strong enough, and the person lacks empathy, then the powder keg is ready and waiting to explode.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, psychologists will assert there is no connection between mass shootings and mental illness. The basis of this claim is the accurate but erroneous reality that most mentally ill individuals are not violent and more likely to be a victim of violence than perpetrator.  

Understandably, we see another round of simplistic demands for action. This problem is complex and thus the solution is not simple.  Any real change will need to bring multiple different groups to the table, including law makers, law enforcement, educators, mental health workers, and of course victim advocates. 

As we watch and read about these events in the news over the next week, let us not lose focus on the victims and the sad loss of their lives, and upon the families that are left grief stricken.  And let us focus not on the photos, life story, and internet posting of the murderers, but instead find ways to focus on the need to discuss school security, how to identify those most at risk, and the impact of mental illness on society.  It is only when we see past the sensationalism and the lure of the simple answer, that we can try to find real and meaningful change. 

Vern Pierson is the Elected District Attorney of El Dorado County and

is a graduate of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security

at the Naval Postgraduate School.