Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Pittsburgh Shooter

You probably heard the story last week about George Sodini, the man in Pittsburgh who killed 3 women, injured 9 more, and then turned the gun on himself at an LA Fitness gym. You've probably also heard it mentioned that his choice of location wasn't aribtrary: he was bitter and resentful against women in general, and picked a place where he could target his supposed tormentors.

I'll start with some quotes that won't surprise anyone, just to reinforce an important point:

Sodini was not a bad-looking man; he was intelligent and had a good job, so his failure to attract women must have had something to do with his behavior, Meloy [a psychologist] said. But Sodini couldn't see that.

"He had difficult and unhappy and unsuccessful relationships with everybody," Fox said. "What he was never able to do was to see that perhaps the problem was him. Maybe there's a reason why everybody rejects him, no one wants to be close to him. Maybe it's something about his own personality.

"But mass murderers don't look at things that way. If they saw themselves as being the culprit, perhaps they would just commit suicide. But no. Everyone else is to blame."
Anyone who's reached a reasonable level of maturity (post high school, maybe?) would have realized that it's not sensible to blame others for not liking them. Not just that it doesn't work -- even our shooter may have realized that -- but that it doesn't make sense. Now probably most of us have wished at one time or another that this or that person would feel differently toward us. But the mindset that they are to blame for it is probably quite foreign, and perhaps it's worth attempting to don that viewpoint if only to see just how different perspectives can be.

Anyway, on to more novel things. First, I'll shamelessly steal another quote from the article:

"There's this myth that mass killers just snap and go berserk and suddenly, without warning, shoot indiscriminately," Fox said. "Well, he had been thinking about this for some time. He had originally planned to commit the mass murder in January [but] 'chickened out,' as he said. But this shows a lot of methodical planning, thinking."
This brings us to an interesting fallacy about emotions and their regulation. We like tidy analogies and generalizations, and I'd like to poke a hole in a cherished one: the assumption that we must either bottle up or vent our emotions.

George produced a home video that's now available on YouTube, and at the end he pans past his punching bag and mentions it in passing.

Now, YouTube isn't renowned for its brilliant comments, but one or two people seemed to suggest that he wasn't utilizing that obvious source of anger release. Well, guess what? It's been studied, and venting doesn't work. In fact, the use of punching bags has specifically been tested, and it leads to more anger and aggression. Moreover, it doesn't work for sadness, either: having "a good cry" generally leads to more sadness in the future.

It probably comes as no surprise to you that ruminating isn't any good, either. Unlike with catharsis, which has been thoroughly debunked by psychological science, studies uphold the common wisdom that stewing in resentment only serves to magnify it.

If you can't think of a third option to overcome negative emotions, you're probably not trying hard enough: even distraction is generally a better choice. But even that probably isn't the best we can do. Actively practicing positive skills like gratitude and forgiveness are known to help quell undesirable emotions -- but first, we have to really accept that such feelings as bitterness really are undesirable.

That may seem like an obvious suggestion, but I suspect it's one that people like George never really absorb.


  1. Agreed that venting is useless. Always seemed like such an odd proposition to me but it's widely accepted as helpful. I was stuck in the mindset that bottling is the other option though, or at least one hard to avoid. I think I'm doing better now on realizing the third option.

  2. i'd like to see some links on the 'catharsis is thoroughly debunked' statement because to me it seems counter-intuitive. at least in the 'good cry' sense. the 'punching a bag and imagining beating the guts out of the person who pissed you off leading to more aggression' is probably spot on though.

  3. Will: my primary reference for the sadness example is from the "Handbook of self-regulation" by Baumeister and Vohs, a sample of which can be found here:

    They mention the "good cry" example in particular, and more generally conclude that "venting" in the sense of expressing emotion, either positive or negative, serves to amplify it.

    My knowledge of the emotion regulation literature is very limited, but from my experience, there are still many subtleties to explore. For example, distraction is considered to be a good strategy in that it temporarily precludes rumination, making it a pretty blunt tool.

    Perhaps you're right in that crying can be done "cleverly," in a way that avoids amplification of sadness.