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Human Behavior Needs Credible Explanation: Minds Don't Snap


Experts of all disciplines seem at a loss to understand the recent murders of United States college and university students, usually by individuals who were students themselves shooting at other students whom they did not know personally nor have any grievance against. The events at Northern Illinois University are presently of pressing concern to educators, psychologists, and psychiatrists who have been mystified by the apparent surge of blatantly angry attacks by young males who, often, are characterized by those who knew them as unlikely to commit such terrible acts of violence. I believe that our problem lies, in the twenty-first century, in the enormous ignorance we have about human development and behavior, relative to our advances of knowledge in all other areas of scientific inquiry.

At this time, the epidemiology of violent behavior is not sufficiently documented to ascertain whether there is a serious and sad global phenomenon at work. There are indications that similar acts of violence are appearing in other countries besides the U.S., including Japan. Still, even if the threshold for acts of extreme aggression varies with worldly conditions, we have yet to clearly understand the individuals who are most driven to do harm to others.

When someone behaves in a way that violates our expectations, we are confused, because we tend to believe that all people are either mentally normal or abnormal. We can't tolerate a world in which an individual's behavior seems entirely appropriate, and certainly not violent, and then a sudden shift occurs. So we create a quick theory of human behavior to account for the dissonance. We're inclined to say "His mind must have snapped."

That's a soothing conclusion to come to, because none of us wants to be wrong in our rational assessment of the likelihood that someone we may know well, or presume we do, could do anything so crazy or shocking.

The newspaper descriptions of the 27-year-old graduate student of Northern Illinois University, just after he killed five other students, wounded 16 others, and then killed himself, included the following: "successful student," "revered," "not an outcast," "won a dean's award," "campaigned for a leadership post," "personable," "easy to talk to," "an exemplary student and nice guy ? something must have happened to him."

Early reports suggested strongly that the killer was a timid person whose behavior on this occasion was totally out of character and entirely unpredictable. We then learned that he had purchased multiple guns in the previous six months, some from the same dealer. We know now that he had been in the care of a psychiatrist, had been prescribed psychotropic drugs, may have stopped taking the medications, and removed himself from treatment. We learned that he had been noted as a person who isolated himself and whose girl friend was able to recall incidents in which his behavior was of great concern.

While most multiple-murder situations involve male aggressors, females who assault are not unheard of. These situations seem more likely to involve familial connections of the murderer with the victims. Yet, there is often a lack of expectation of such behavior. Enormous shock and surprise occurred a few years ago when a mother drowned her five children. Acquaintances, teachers and neighbors insisted she was an "essentially normal" person who must have "gone out of her mind." How else, they asked, could a mother be so cruel? The intensity of the violence was incomprehensible to her friends.

But minds don't snap, and nerves don't just break down. It is important, in order to comprehend that when tragic, unbelievable behaviors emerge suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, they are invariably preceded by a process that was underway for years which we are able to comprehend retroactively although the killer's actions were not anticipated. The study of life histories by child and adolescent development scholars lends credibility to this position.

Many natural phenomena, outside of the realm of human development and behavior science, are like this. After several decades, a Dutch dike may suddenly burst open, letting an enormous flood occur. Progressive erosion, sometimes in increments too small to detect easily, accounts for many catastrophic occurrences. They cannot be regarded as incidents without antecedents.

Humans have histories. If we could but learn how those experiences work to erode an individual's stability, we could become more sensitive to impending psychological disasters. Some individuals, of course, are more vulnerable than others, and those individual differences also need to be studied. We ought to be able, in an ideal world, to increase our ability to detect the vulnerabilities, and to provide constructive and humane intervention. This approach works in physics (in the construction and improvement of aircraft), chemistry (in the manufacture and testing of pharmaceuticals), and engineering (in the assessment and repair of hazardous bridge structures).

If we go on believing that "crazy behaviors" are happenstances, and cannot be understood because they are essentially unpredictable, we will never get to their roots, and will not be able to stop the carnage. Scientists today are confident that behavioral events, like all natural phenomena, can be subjected to analysis in cause-effect terms. Because so many of the problems of humans in the world today involve "behavioral misadventures," we will need to have a much more highly developed science of human behavior to accomplish the humane goals we seek.

It is sad that the opportunity was missed to thwart the behavior of the Northern Illinois killer. Many other such incidents might be prevented with more intensive study of the life conditions and psychological characteristics which impel some individuals to engage in horrendous acts of violence. It should be possible to better predict and control the behavior of dangerous individuals without compromising the quality of life of others. This may require a leap of faith for some, but it is no longer such a wild dream for many neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, and child development professionals.

--Lewis P. Lipsitt is Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Medical Science, and Human Development at Brown University, Providence, RI 02912 (, and was the founding editor of the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter. In 2006, at the Kyoto meetings of the International Society for Infant Studies, he was delighted to receive a citation from the Japan Baby Society for his career-long studies of infant behavior and development.

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