Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Inaction prior to mass shootings

This article started with an awareness of the fact that authority figures had been warned about Nikolas Cruz, a now infamous name, and his worrying behaviour. However, further investigation led to a startling number of accounts depicting his explicitly aggressive or threatening behaviour. Why was no action was taken by authority figures such as teachers or the police that could have prevented the devastating mass shooting that killed 17 people in just 7 minutes of terror at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? The same could be said for the 200 other school shootings in American since 2013, or any other mass shooting.

Of course, an inherent and integral part of this investigation is linked to (*the need to reform*) US gun laws such as repealing the Second Amendment (1971) of the US Constitution which gives citizens the right to keep and bear arms as well as state constitutions giving the same right. As seen below, 50-59% of the US public believe President Trump and Congree aren’t doing enough about gun crime, respectively.

This post is not in any way putting blame on authority figures- there were some attempts to investigate his behaviour, such as an investigation by the Florida Department of Children and Families, and his expulsion.

Diffusion of responsibility
However, in terms of psychological phenomena that could explain why it was able to happen, the first possibility is the concept of diffusion of responsibility (Darley & Latané, 1968). This refers to a proportional relationship between number of people present increasing the likelihood of inaction.
The classic experiment demonstrating this effect comes from participants talking over the phone then being placed in different emergency situations, such as one having an epileptic fit or smoke being pumped into the room. The bigger the group, the less likely an individual was to take action. In the case of mass shootings, it could be that police thought the school would take more action, or vice versa- they had reduced their perceived need to take action based on consideration of other groups involved.

Likewise, if the school and police knew they had both received complaints, they could have had a shift in responsibility to another authority figure who they may have thought was more suitable (in some ways they had an agentic shift). This is therefore linked to Milgram’s theory of obedience (Milgram, 1974). An example of the agentic shift in action according to Milgram (Milgram, 1963), comes from Nazi soldiers defending their partaking in the atrocities of WWII because they were following orders.  There certainly seems to be a shift in blame for authority figures involved in the massacre- with the FBI admitting protocols were not followed in the failure to forward the information given by a tipper which expressed “Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” Whether this is reflecting an agentic shift to a more ‘suitable’ or ‘powerful’ authority figure is questionable, but it had led to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a review of FBI procedures. The Broward County Office has also been criticized for ignoring 20 calls conveying concern for Cruz’s behaviour, although they have blamed Cruz himself for the events that took place. President Trump is accusing mental illness (despite the fact that if he was suffering from a mental illness, many people with the same pathology have not exhibited this behaviour), and some have blamed the laws themselves (essentially Congress). It is clear to see authority figures are holding each other accountable and there is some kind of effect being shown, whether this be an agentic shift diffusion of responsibility will require further investigation.

Law of Effect
A possible, albeit unlikely, source of argument is Thorndike’s Law of Effect, whereby satisfying responses are likely to be repeated, and vice versa for discomforting responses. It could be that authority figures had taken action on students they had been warned about with negative effects. For example, the student had been found innocent after, never repeated the behaviour again and so undermined the reasoning for their punishment, or attracted negative feedback from parents or other students. So this could exemplify positive punishment, the authority figures were inhibited in future behaviours of taking action due to gaining bad responses in the past when that action was taken.

Availability heuristic
Another possible explanation could be the low availability of Cruz’s identity or actions. The availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) posits the increased ease of retrieval of an event indicates relative frequency in the environment, and so its importance. This can be implicated into mass shooters behaviour in two possible ways. The first concurs with the heuristic, by suggesting the behaviours Cruz and similar mass shooters undertook (such as displaying guns on social media, abuse against his mother) are no doubt worrying, and therefore rarer, but authority figures may not prioritise them. A more logical answer would perhaps that on a daily basis schools receive many complaints of students, and therefore contradicts the heuristic by saying complaints against Cruz could have blended into a system that fails to acknowledge individual students and groups bad behaviour with marginally similar punishments, which allowed Cruz to “fly under the radar.”

Ingroup bias
Most mass shooters are white middle class males (Mafis, 2014). If authority figures subconsciously related Cruz to their ingroup, they may not have wanted to call out someone who is meant to share their beliefs. This is due to their ingroup bias of favouring their own group. This is because questioning the actions of someone in one’s group would compromise their social identity (Tajfel, 1981). In other words, it would be questioning their self-concept of the group an individual belongs to. Studies have found this ingroup bias in non-arbitrary groups such as gender and race, supporting the idea that figures could have denied the problem Cruz presented by associating him with the aspects that assimilated him to themselves (Hogg & Turner, 1987; Dickter & Bartholow, 2007).

Active shooter response
Although this developing psychological concept is not regarding action prior to the shootings, it is interesting to note as the shootings become more common. The active shooter response refers to a desire be known. Identification is therefore a reward to them, regardless of the manner in which they are portrayed. According to agenda setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1993), whereby news outlets influence how an event is perceived in terms of it’s importance by how much the event is reported. The media tends to focus on (violent) crimes, therefore it is pretty much guaranteed fame from the shooters perspective (Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016).
The reporting is imperative to honour victims and their families, but suggestions can be made to stop making the murderer such an identifiable figure, a notion popularized by the “Don’t Name Them” campaign.

                                                Victims of the Florida mass shooting

The active shooter response could be a factor underlying the Werther effect. This derives from “The Sorrows of Young Wether”, a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The plot includes the protagonist commiting suicide. Interestly, it was found that suicide rates increased across Europe as an effect of the novel (identified by wearing similar clothing to the protagonist and using similar pistols when committing suicide), and even led to it being banned in Leipzig, Italy and Denmark. The copycat suicide effect still persists contemporarily, ever increasing due to the increased accessibility of news. The effect is comparable to homicide, thus linked to the increased risk of a mass shootings after one has taken place (Towers et al., 2015).

This issue is far too complex to fully explore in a single blog post, but it is clear there is not one unitary factor in explaining why there is limited action prior to shootings, or more importantly why somebody is motivated to carry out a mass shooting anyway. I feel there needs to be an examination of the inter and intrapersonal factors enabling risk factors to be identified, which would hopefully enable legislative changes to be made permitting further action to be taken by authority figures past being expelled or having a backpack taken away from a student.


Darley, J. M. &LatanĂ©, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377–383.

Dickter, C. L., & Bartholow, B. D. (2007). Racial ingroup and outgroup attention biases revealed by event-related brain potentials. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 189-198.

Hogg, M. A., & Turner, J. C. (1987). Intergroup behaviour, self‐stereotyping and the salience of social categories. British Journal of Psychology, 26, 325-340.

Madfis, E. (2014). Triple entitlement and homicidal anger: An exploration of the intersectional identities of American mass murderers. Men and Masculinities, 17, 67-86.

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). The Evolution of Agenda‐Setting Research: Twenty‐Five Years in the Marketplace of Ideas. Journal of Communication, 43, 58-67.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. London: Tavistock Publications.

Schildkraut, J. & Elsass, H. J. (2016). Mass Shootings: Media, Myths, and Realities. Santa
Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Tajfel, H. (1981). Human Groups and Social Categories. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Towers, S., Gomez-Lievano, A., Khan, M., Mubayi, A., Castillo-Chavez, C. (2015). Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings. PLoS ONE, 10, 1-12.


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