It is commonly believed acts of aggression and violence stem from low self-esteem. But a significant number of mass shooters may be suffering from inflated egos and narcissistic tendencies, says an expert in the field.
For over thirty years, psychologist Brad J. Bushman has been studying the causes, consequences and solutions to the problems of human aggression and violence. Now, Bushman is applying his research to the issue of gun violence.
In a recent review article, Bushman posits it is narcissism – and not low self-esteem – that leads to most acts of extreme violence.
"It is a myth that aggressive and violent people suffer from self-esteem. They are much more likely to have narcissistic tendencies," explained Bushman, who is a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.
In his review, Bushman argues the most harmful belief people can have is the belief they are superior to everyone else. And when this feeling of superiority takes hold, people behave very badly towards others.
"Narcissists think they are special people who deserve special treatment. When they don't get the respect they think they deserve, they lash out at others in an aggressive manner," Bushman told PsyPost.
And according to Bushman, mass shooters are particularly susceptible to narcissistic personality disorder. In fact, mass shootings are often followed by a "humiliating loss of face" for the perpetrator, like being fired from work or being rejected romantically.
The history of mass shootings is riddled with examples of overly-inflated egos. Before the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, one of the perpetrators remarked, "I would love to be the ultimate judge and say if a person lives or dies – be godlike."
Three years ago, in a viral and disturbing video, the gunman who killed six people at the University of California Santa Barbara described himself as a "supreme gentleman," the "superior one," and the "true alpha male."
These statements are so grandiose, they are downright terrifying. But understanding the psychology of these gun men is crucial for the creation of future prevention strategies. Especially when a lot of other gun violence research in the US has been stifled.
"Although most violent criminals try to hide their crime from others, mass shooters often do the opposite — they want everyone to know about them," said Bushman.
"Mass shooters crave attention from others, as do narcissists. Of course, hardly any narcissists become mass shooters. But a mass shooter is more likely to have narcissistic tendencies than low self-esteem."
If the theory proves correct, it could have important implications for media coverage.
Recent analysis has revealed mass shootings have risen alongside media coverage of them. Bushman explains because most shooters desire fame and glory, they often emulate past shooters that have already achieved celebrity status.
The copycat cat incidents suggest we may have a media contagion effect on our hands. As a result, Bushman says journalists need to be extra careful about how they present mass shooters in the news.
"One should avoid mentioning the names of mass shooters or showing their photos," said Bushman.
The article was published in American Behavioral Scientist.