Forensic psychologist says mass killing is about culture, not mental illness

The story is familiar to us today: Somebody, usually a young man, walks into a public place, kills a bunch of people seemingly at random, and (usually) ends the murder spree with a suicide-by-cop.

But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking. In fact, Paul Mullen, a forensic psychologist, says we can pin a date and place on the first time it happened. On September 4, 1913, in the German towns of Degerloch and Mühlhausen an der Enz, Ernst August Wagner killed his wife, his children, and at least nine strangers. He shot more than 20 people and set several fires during his killing spree. He ended up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum.

But when we try to pin killings like these on mental illness, Mullen says, we're not quite hitting the right point. The people who go on killing sprees are mad, sure. But that's not the same thing as diagnosable, objective, physical mental illness. Only about 10% of the people ever arrested for crimes like this had actual mental illnesses. In fact, Mullen thinks these killings have more to do with culture than brain chemistry. His argument is interesting. And it might sound a little similar to the old "angry music made him do it!" trope. But what Mullen is talking about is different than that. Science journalist David Dobbs tries to explain the distinction:

I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution. And culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction — just as it does other traits. This is why, say, relatively ‘simple’ schizophrenia — not the paranoid sort — takes very different forms in Western and some Eastern cultures. On an even simpler level, this is why competitive athleticism is more likely to express itself as football (the real kind) in Britain but as basketball in the U.S. Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits.

This is an interesting argument and an interesting thing to think about.

Read the rest of David Dobbs' post about the difference between blaming movies for violence and talking about the consequences of violence in culture.

Watch the video of Paul Mullen discussing cultural violence, mental illness, and spree killings

Read a very good post at the Neuroanthropology blog that expands on Paul Mullen's ideas and provides more interesting links


  1. Wow — I didn’t know the phrase “running amok” originated in Malaysia where it means literally that — a killing spree.

    1. Lots of love for John Brunner who predicted this current phenomenon to a T with his “muckers” from Stand on Zanzibar.

  2. I think he just realized how much of a cancer humans are to the planet, and used that as some twisted justification for going on a killing spree.  Simple as that.

    1. If that were the case, then he’s really screwed up because by killing random people he’s saying everyone is the same. If you thought humans were a cancer and had no qualms about killing people, wouldn’t you seek out the most cancerous people?

  3. I blame the Brits.  They made life so unlivable and intolerable for huge swathes of social and religious rejects that these people had to pick up house and home, come over here to North America, kill and displace all the Indians, rape the land, enslave Africa, consume all the natural resources and start endless wars.  And we are STILL pissed off.  So I blame you, King George, you big asshole. You were the original psychopath and you caused all of this.

  4. Sorry, but what’s an “actual mental illness,” as opposed to one that’s culturally determined? Or one that’s “diagnosable, objective, physical”?  I’m not sure that these are useful, accurate distinctions.

    1. There are actual, physical differences that you can see between the brain of someone suffering from schizophrenia and other brains. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. And these guys don’t have those kind of neural differences. 

      1. So it would seem that Holmes’s mental illness would be more difficult to diagnose than simply looking at his brain, which would be the case with almost all forms of mental illness: mind =/= brain, so looking at the brain chemistry, trauma, etc. would only be a small part of realizing how Holmes’s mind works. 

      2. The criterion of “actual, physical differences that you can see” in the brain doesn’t seem like a good way to carve nature at its joints.

        We can see many more differences now than we could in the recent past, and we will probably be able to see many more differences in the near future. The kinds of differences that we can see right now are probably mostly an artifact of where brain-imaging technology happens to be at this point in time. But this technology continues to improve.

        Since the boundary between what we can see and what we can’t is moving, it probably isn’t the right basis on which to construct fundamental categories like “diagnosable, objective, physical mental illness” versus “culture”.

        1. Agreed. If there is a difference in the mind, then there will be a difference in the brain of some kind, whether we can see it or not.

          To my thinking, the much harder question is “Which mind/brain differences should be labeled ‘illness’?”

    2. I’m the author of the piece Maggie excerpts above. And Timothy, you’ve hit a good point here, one of several areas  where I wasn’t as precise as I would have liked in the original post. 

      In the original piece I didn’t actually refer to people with “actual mental illness” or diagnosable conditions:I deliberately referred to “certain unhinged or deeply a-moral people,” by which I meant, roughly, people whose mental or moral condition has alienated them from either society and/or reality. That’s still sloppy, and if I’ve time, I’ll refine it in a future update. I left it vague partly because of the point you’re making: mental health diagnoses are to a great part social constructs, and their framing and application can not only identify characteristics that most observers in the culture would agree on, but serve to categorize the subject in a way that can push that person further out of society and culture. (Indeed, mental-health diagnoses are all about identifying what is different or abnormal about the person — what sets them aside, and to some extent outside, the rest of society.) The resulting sense of alienation can exacerbate the person’s problems.

      In the case of schizophrenia, it can push them into a place where they feel distinctly alienated. For a powerful description of such a case in a situation that seems very much like Holmes,’ see maeror meror (in mourning) « Ruminations on Madness There a graduate student’s diagnosis of schizophrenia led in very direct fashion to her being cast out from the community that meant most to her; she responded, by her own description, by fantasizing about inflicting horrid damage on herself and/or her academic mentor. Her greatest pain came from a sense of isolation and of being cast out. 

      “I fixated on a single vision, me, sometimes hanging, sometimes with gun in hand and a pool of blood on the floor, outside ‘her’ [i.e., her former advisor’s] office…. Suicide, yes, obviously, but also something more: revenge.”

      Her obsessions and fantasies did not run to mass murder. But others who had committed mass murder in similar circumstances, such as Jared Laughner, were much on her mind. Her confusion and disorientation and anxiety — her schizophrenia — rose from complex sources. But her anger rose in large part from an alienation that came, hand-in-glove, with our society’s definition of what she experienced, to the mere application of the word schizophrenia. And her ideas about expressing that anger rose from models of action brought to her from the media. 

      It’s hard to imagine a clearer picture of how “culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction.” Indeed, our culture first profoundly shaped the very experience of that ‘dysfunction,’ or state of mind, by giving it a label that cast aside the sufferer. Then our larger culture profoundly shaped the expression of the resulting anguish. This is what I so clumsily tried to get at in my post about Holmes, his SWAT-gear mass-shooting fantasy-turned-reality, and culture. The post by Daniel Lende — the best, most truly provocative Aurora response I’ve read — & by the anonymous author of maeror meror helped me better see what I was getting at. I hope to relate this all more cleanly in another post soon. But with luck, this comment here will help some understand better what I was getting at. 

      Thank you, BoingBoing commenters, for a considered and self-challenging consideration of these ideas. Inspiring to see after some of the comments I received below the original post.

  5. Even if he is crazy, culture has an enormous influence in how people play out their mental illness. You can’t have paranoid schizophrenia about living in The Matrix if you don’t have the film first (or at least the concept of computer simulations).

    1. Descartes managed to have the idea. So did Plato in a way. Once you have the idea of imagery, you’re close enough for most practical purposes.

  6. I always liked this quote,  

    “Every society has the criminals it deserves.” 

    Emma Goldman

  7. But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking.

    Because as you go back in time guns were primitive enough to give potential victims a fighting chance? What if Holmes had to use a musket?

      1. I would like my chances if a guy went after a crowd with a bayonet vs. a jillion round assault rifle.

        Also, I tend to agree that many of these males are not actually capital C crazy…

        1. Not like tribes on the African continent are using axes and machetes on each other, killing off whole communities. 

          1. Those are mobs of people, tribe vs. tribe, and it’s not at all hard to see how the table was set for those events, but that’s another story.

            This is about lone wolves going on murderous rampages, not mobs or armies committing war crimes.  It really has nothing to do with something like that.

        2.  I was being facetious, since the high rate of fire of modern small arms has made bayonets functionally obsolete, but they were a necessity for muskets when faced with a situation like a crowd.

        3. I think perhaps a better example than ferd’s might be Timothy McVeigh, who managed to kill over 160 people without firing a shot, using technology far older than the firearms Holmes had. Also, the Beta-C mag he had is notoriously unreliable and tends to jam unless you’ve spent several hours working graphite into every moving part.

        4. I’ve been bayoneted. As it turns out, stepping rapidly backward is a remarkably effective defense.

          1. You’ve been threatened with a bayonet, or actually stabbed by one? I would guess that turning tail and running away would also be quite effective.

      2. I would argue (sans any personal experience!) that killing dozens of random strangers at a distance without touching them lives in a completely different realm of feelings than coming up to them, one at a time, and sticking a bayonet inside them.  The latter is more personal, requires … *interaction*.

    1. Reminds me of how profoundly long range artillery (compared to line of sight cannons) and the machine gun changed warfare that had stayed largely the same since the introduction of the musket (and that kind may well have been patterned on the earlier use of archers merged with pike formations). Suddenly two men could put more lead down range than whole formations of drilled to perfection soldiers. And artillery could stay well outside the reach of cavalry but still shell said formations. Now a single soldier likely spends more rounds in a single encounter than his musket carrying equivalent may spend on a whole campaign.

      1.  Yeah, I was reading about that subject a bit lately.  It’s interesting to see how those things transformed warfare. An archer apparently needed a lot of skill and serious practice, but any peasant could be mustered up,  given a gun, and pointed in the direction to shoot it.

        1. Yep, tho that part was already realized (to some degree) regarding the crossbow. But the Pope banned its use by Christians against Christians. didn’t stop their use during the crusades tho.

  8. There’s a disclaimer that says that he’s talking about culture’s effects on people with mental illness. So it is about mental illness. He’s arguing that the expression of mental illness is perhaps modified by the external culture and that there is the possiblity of provoking an already ill person to act.

    1. But if you think about this in terms of mental health, rather than mental “illness”, it should become apparent that his theories have a much broader application–to everyone, really, because show me a person who would not benefit from some form of therapy–than to merely the small, medically designated subset of the population.

  9. I agree with Dr. Mullen.

    As I worried earlier, here on BoingBoing, that the Dark Knight films may not be the wondrous successes that many seemed to think they were, because they seemed very much like a “psychopaths unite!” moment in our culture.

    I am saddened to see that it seems that was apparently the case.

  10. This is interesting.  But to me it speaks of some slightly more obvious points.

    There’s Navin_Johnson’s excellent point about guns getting advanced enough to facilitate a killing spree.   Of course, you could run Amok with a knife.  But killing at range, without touching the victim at all, is a different thing altogether.

    And then there’s this.  If, as Mullen says, these spree killers don’t have a “proper” diagnosable mental illness — does that not just suggest that our ability to define mental illness is not very good?

    After all, there is a perfectly good pragmatic measure we can apply here: anyone that thinks that walking into a shopping centre / high school / childrens camp / cinema and blowing away people at random is going to end up with any sort of good outcome, for them or anyone else, is clearly not capable of rational thought.

    If psychiatry has not come up with a measure to beat that — the equivalent of “if it rained yesterday, it will probably rain today” in weather forecasting — then what does that say about the state of psychiatry as a science?

    (Which is not to say that Mullen’s observations are invalid, as such.)

    Edit: :g/tomorrow/s//today/

  11. It was Captain Cook who first described the “running amok” phenomenon when he explored the Malay archipelago back in the 18th century.     Cases of amok have been described in the medical literature ever since although it’s debatable whether it’s equivalent to modern spree killers.     You can also make the same argument about Norse berserkers (although that seems to have been  chemically induced).  

    To read more about amok:

    As for Norse berserkers:

    The first true spree killing in the US was at a Utah military base in 1945.

    The first civilian massacre in the US happened four years later.    That one involved an ex-military man.

    1. Reading the berserker description reminds me of a guy i heard about working at the local shipyard. He appears to have quite impressive strength, but a very short fuse. Rile him up and he may well be tossing large bundles of pipes and such around like they were cardboard boxes.

  12. To jump into the fray here, I’d like to amplify the earlier quote by Maggie K above, showing the diagnostic differences among brains. Culture and cultural norms can be hard to define. But they are easily revealed by the concept of social cognition and the pre-frontal cortex brain structure called mirror-neurons. 

    Social cognition is a concept that explains the aphorism ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. It looks at positive, neutral and negative role models and shows how these affect individual and collective behaviours. What’s good for this discussion is the fact that social cognition opens the door to understanding that media cultures and the role models shown in entertainment cultivate lifestyles and identities in a very real way.       

    Mirror-neurons complement social cognition and the idea that we can link culture and behaviour, in so far as this part of our brain is said to be responsible for physiological and emotional learning. It’s quite an intriguing story about how this brain structure was discovered (a monkey watching researcher eating an ice-cream), but I digress…

    This debate about mass killing in real life and mass killing in media culture is troubling, to say the least. 

  13. I’m surprised you don’t mention The Exiled‘s Mark Ames who already wrote on the subject in his book “Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond” years ago : “Ames takes a systematic look at the scores of rage killings in our public schools and workplaces that have taken place over the past 25 years. He claims that instead of being the work of psychopaths, they were carried out by ordinary people who had suffered repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions that find their origins in the “Reagan Revolution.” Looking through a carefully researched historical lens, Ames recasts these rage killings as failed slave rebellions.”

    1. Except that the Columbine killers weren’t bullied and were psychopaths. The funny thing about psychopaths is that they’re really great liars and highly skilled at shifting blame for their actions to everybody else.

      1. It’s been alledged both that Harris and Klebold were bullied or conversely that they were themselves bullies. Either way they were part of a culture in which bullying (preying on the weak) is commonplace and accepted, which is the point. Additionally, there’s a reason all the “psychopaths” that end up going postal are working and middle class: they’ve been put in the pressure cooker of increased competition for scarse resources with less and less opportunity for social mobility. Upper class sociopaths end up bank managers, middle class ones end up on the news. That’s all culture.

  14. Yes yes yes right up to the bit where he advocates spying on us all to find potential killers and dismisses the tremendous injustice of this as trivial.

  15. I think its really interesting that people are quick to agree that media has an incredibly powerful ability to shape people’s emotion and minds (power of television and public perception, the emotional roller coaster good movies put you through, etc.) but as soon as the subject turns to a conversation about how those emotional impressions may impact behavior people start shutting down and say you can’t blame media the person was already crazy.

    If you were to line up the top 100 film makers and ask why they got into it I would bet many would answer because of the impact their stories make on their audience.  They know the power of their medium.

    Its it 100% media’s fault?  Absolutely not.  But mass media does affect culture.  Culture affects how we are raised and our values.  I would love to see a compelling argument that this isnt the case.

  16. Some of the best people I’ve known in my life enjoyed gore films, etc. and never hurt a fly.  But, I’ve known many violent assholes who love easy listening music on pop radio stations.  I also think it’s safe to say that no sane person goes on killings sprees.  Or, they are at the very least temporarily insane while they commit this kind of mass murder that we just saw in Colorado.

    All this overanalyzing and focus on semantics is drifting further and further ashore from common sense.

    The reason people are trying to desperately find answers as to why the murders happened is because this sort of thing scares the shit out of them.  The terrifying truth is there are no answers and they can’t cope with that reality.

    Maybe it was the bark on trees that caused this man to repeatedly shoot a six year old little girl who was excited because she just learned to swim this summer?

    1. Getting far ashore from common sense is not a bad thing.  Common sense is regularly utterly wrong, and common sense about what we are and how our minds work is definitely wrong.

      1. Great, so now let’s devolve into a semantic argument over the definition of “common sense”… sigh, this is where I get off this crazy train. Later.

        1. Waking up to “common sense” is my point. For me “common sense” menas acknowledging that nothing is simple. Nothing is black and white. Extremist beliefs on a subject is just lazy and means a person just doesn’t want to be bothered thinking.

          As soon as the conversation about influence (not cause, but influence) turns to violent video games and other media, it feels to me like people turn into hyper-sensitive extremists and won’t event entertain the subject that there may be some affect. I wonder why people wont even consider the idea?And in my opinion, the affect of mass media is just one ingredient of eventual causation and we need to address them all.IMHO its like the NRA’s stance on gun control. Even the smallest concession that there may be some correlation means the whole argument is at risk. So rather than have a thoughtful discussion that could move us forward to improve the situation, we are stuck in a philosophical stand-off and things only get worse.

          1. Random acts of mass murder by insane madmen like this are like a force of nature and aren’t going to be stopped by trying to tag agenda “x” to it.

            If anything, tagging agenda “x” to horrific tragedies like this only serves to further divide society and perhaps has the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish.

            I think a single payer system for health care would be one of the best things to happen to the USA since the civil rights movement.  But, I certainly don’t think tying that agenda to this tragedy will help move that forward at all.

            If your agenda is strong enough, it should stand on its own without trying to rest it on the shoulders of dead little girls.

            Discuss gun control all you want.  But, I can assure you that trying to tie any agenda to this tragedy (progressive or conservative) will only result in emotional divisions and failure.

  17. The author Jack Vance described a culture plagued by killing sprees in his novel, “Servants of the Wankh,” (1969, Ace Books) the second book in “The Planet of Adventure” series.

    In the novel, killing sprees were carried out by persons who wished to no longer wished to live and would commit suicide, but wanted to do so with fanfare. If captured, they were executed in a fantastic manner. It’s been a number of years since I’ve read the book, so forgive me if the details are foggy there.

    If you take a peek at Wikipedia, their page of rampage killing incidents lists events as far back as the late 19th century, so this is not a new phenomena so much, I believe, as it is better reporting. 200 years ago, a rampage murder in Asia would certainly be remarked upon residents of the region and perhaps in the capital, but it would hardly be noticed outside its region, and would certainly not be written about and discussed worldwide.

    For example, the Bath School bombing of 1927 probably filled newspapers in the US for a week, perhaps garnered a short article in European and English-language papers in Asia, but the events was not a topic of discussion throughout the world, despite the heinous nature of the killings. Unlike Columbine, which was in the news the world over for weeks and is still talked about anytime a whack-job kid is arrested for having guns and pipe-bombs.

    Hell, I made pipe bombs when I was in junior high school. But that was even before the SDS bombings. We blew up old trees and shattered boulders. No one ever considered blowing up a building with people inside. Or at least no one mentioned it. The world’s a fucking weird place now, and it’s getting weirder by the minute. But we weren’t treated like special snowflakes whose delicate psyches were pampered and coddled lest we become scared. We did shit that would qualify us as special guests of the state and had fun doing it. We didn’t manage to kill anyone by accident (though we did do some serious property damage for a few years. Sorry about that.)

    I’m sure as hell glad I won’t have to be around to see it all fall to pieces when the oil runs out.

    1. Hell, I made pipe bombs when I was in junior high school.

      Yup. One of my friends did that for a middle school science project. I kept a hatchet in my locker, although I can’t quite remember why.

      1. Face it, we grew up in a world of dangerous experiments. Kids today are growing up in padded cells.

    2. Well, the Malay people even coined a term for going on a rampage killing: “running amok.” Thing is, you can only run amok with a sword or machete for so long before you’re simply tuckered out. It takes modern technology to make the body count go up (and the notability of a rampage rise). Even as late as the 1860’s, many handguns in the US were single shot muzzle loaded derringers, like the one John Wilkes Booth used to murder president Lincoln. Can’t rampage with those too easily. 

      1. Then I take it you are unaware of the tens of thousands of cap and ball revolvers used during the Civil War? And of the multiple barrel pistols?

        Body counts are determined by ingenuity, not weaponry. A person armed with a brick could kill dozens of people if he were to choose carefully.

        1. This sounds silly.  Yes, an ingenious person with a brick can kill dozens.  How ingenious do you have to be to kill dozens with an automatic rifle?  How about a mutant smallpox virus that is resistant to known treatments?  That last one you actually have to be somewhat clever to *avoid* killing thousands or possibly millions of people.

          Technology makes a difference, and probably makes more of a difference than the ingenuity of an individual.

          1. You are mistaken in your belief that James Eagan Holmes was armed with a machine gun. He had a semi-automatic AR-15 and several magazines.

            That got him one bullet per trigger pull. That is why the body count is so low.

            You have no comprehension of how many people would have died if he had been carrying an automatic weapon. I’ve seen such attacks happen. It is not something that you ever want to see where you live.

  18. wait.. this interview started off good, but did this guy just suggest we monitor everyones Internet traffic to look for “high risk” persons who “might” go on a killing spree?

  19.  ” I also think it’s safe to say that no sane person goes on killings sprees.”

    Nice tautology you got there. 

    My rough impression is that it’s true that classically mentally ill people are predisposed to violence at a higher level than average.  The internet suggests tenfold, but ten times a very small number is still small.  But there are a lot of things that predispose people to similar if not higher levels of violence.  So I see mental illness as a co-factor.  Cultural and situational factors though likely have a much larger effect than mental illness itself.  Joining a drug gang or the military certainly predisposes one to higher levels of violence). Combine the cultural and situational factors arising from mental illness, and mental illnesses effects start looking very murky.

    1. Nice tautology you got there.

      There’s no reason that we can’t define killing sprees as a symptom of mental illness. That’s not a tautology.

  20. This set of questions has been on my mind more intently than usual since Dave Mabus (that’s a pseudonym many may recognize) went from being a threatening potentially danger very annoying troll to a poor sap with a mental illness whereby we’re sure once he’s treated for it he’ll be fine (and back, apparently, recently)

    I am reading a bit of a false dichotomy here between “innate” or “chemical” and behavioral.  Actually, the mind body thing is kind of a red herring.  There may be observable brain features of a certain kind of schizophrenia but that does not mean that behavioral episodes that don’t link to a persist ant MRI signature (or whatever) between episodes did not also have a distinctive thing going on in the brain at the time.

    (And by the way, I’m pretty sure that most forms of schizophrenia including the paranoid kind are culturally determined in detail.  Og the caveman would have been concerned about an entirely different kind of chip planted in his brain than Martin the Hipster.  There is a whole study of “culture bound psychiatric conditions” that goes into that.)

    I do not accept the 1913 origin of rampage killings generally for humans or for Western society.  There are a number of prior examples.  

  21. So … less “angry music made him do it,” and more “society in any form is a kind of cognitive kill-switch that tricks you into forgetting there’s a way to do things other than the popular ones.”

  22. In rural cultures, going out and committing some violence is just less unusual and spree killing is likely to be less exceptional.

    Urban civilization is less violent civilization, myths of the violence of cities to the contrary. As European countries urbanized in the 19th century violent crime decreased and property crimes increased. That the difference is cultural rather than structural is borne out by the pattern of crime rates in cities experiencing an influx of rural population, until the population stabilizes the rate of violent crime rises to rural levels.

    None of these pieces indicate any particular awareness of the patterns in overall violent crime in the past few centuries, so I find the conclusion that spree killing is a genuinely “new” phenomenon to be a little suspect. Murder is not as common as it once was, individual crimes will tend to stand out because of that.

  23. Clearly he does not know what he is talking about. We all know that mass killings come from playing violent video games and listening to death metal, and the availability of assault weapons has nothing to do with the death toll. At least that is what the US news media would have us belive…

    BTW I would think that ordering whole body body armor and a ballistic helmet along with assault weapons and XL magazines would be a pretty good indicator that maybe you should watch this guy. Isn’t that what we have all this spying on our every communication for?

  24. I am wondering how much of these crazed killings are due to metals in our air, water, and diet?  I believe that there is more than just a correlation.

  25. Over at Wired, I expanded on my earlier short post — and my comments above in my reply to Timothy Krausner — with some actual examples of how culture shapes what we call madness. You can find it at

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