The psychology of a mass murderer

Last week, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania man walked into a Pittsburgh area gym and began firing a handgun, killing three women and wounding nine others before turning the gun on himself.

The gunman, identified as George Sodini, was later found to have a deep seeded hatred for woman, saying in a note found by police that he had never had a significant intimate relationship with a woman and only had limited sexual experiences with women. Sodini also had a blog in which he blamed women for everything that was wrong in his life.

In this SIW Q&A, renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, founder of workplace misconduct prevention firm Threat Assessment Group, explains the mindset of a mass murderer and what businesses can do to spot a potential threat in their midst.

SIW: What is the psychological profile of someone who’s willing to carry out a mass shooting?

Dietz: The real issues with mass murderers is that all of them are both sad and depressed enough to be willing to die and also angry or paranoid enough that they are blaming other people for their suffering and misfortune. Those are two of the critical ingredients, there has never been a mass murderer, acting alone, who didn’t have both of those (characteristics) in mass murders against strangers where mass murder is defined as three or more people dead in one incident for psychological reasons.

Are there any warning signs that a person maybe getting ready to commit an atrocity such as this?

There are always countless warning signs observed by nearly everyone who has had contact with the person and often for years. Unfortunately, those warning signs are not very specific and so they apply to many people who will never be violent toward anyone but themselves and they apply to many people for short term reasons that will go away. In order to be able to catch in your net, everyone who will do a mass murder, you need to err on the side of catching hundreds or thousands of people with similar behaviors who will never commit a mass murder no matter what you do. When prediction suffers form that problem, it is necessary to be very thoughtful about what you do to the false positives who you identify as having some of the warning signs. This is easy to prevent among employees or students on a campus or patients in hospital, and very difficult to prevent in society at large under our system of law.

From a corporate security perspective, what types of steps can a business take to prevent or minimize loss of life during an active shooter scenario?

The focus up through the 1970s and the very early 80s was what will we do if we have an incident? How do we minimize the loss of life? A number of the Fortune 1000 by that time had crisis management plans that had considered a shooting incident as one of the possibilities that they would have to cope with. None of them, not a single one had any policy or plan in place for how to prevent it from happening. In 1987 when we created this field of workplace violence prevention as a separate specialty, the corporate world had an initial reluctance to begin to try and prevent this based upon the concern that it was too rare to bother or it won’t happen here or it can’t happen here. That concern faded away with a barrage of newspaper articles about various shootings in the workplace and that gained enough awareness that there could be enough traction for prevention programs.

With a lot of concerns in those early days about mass shootings in particular, what we discovered along the way is that all of the cases that reached the stage at which security was learning about potential violence had been mismanaged by people other than security for months or years before it became a potential violence problem. We began looking at ways to involve human resources and the law department and other managers/supervisors in responding to workplace misconduct so that not only would we catch all of the cases early before there was violence risk, but we would also simultaneously be improving supervision, improving management, improving the participation of security or loss prevention in managing the business and the day-to-day operations. The consequence of that, when properly applied, turns out to be not just violence prevention, but also reducing costs from workers comp claims, from various types of fraud, accidents on the job, excess sick time, absenteeism, and a host of other problems employers face. Preventing violence turns out to be one of the nice side effects of good behavioral management. Unfortunately, many smaller employers and a few misguided larger employers continue to do it the old fashioned way of wait till we’ve got somebody waving a gun or making threats to come in with a gun to ‘let’s call security and fire them today.’ There has never been a case of employee violence of a serious nature that couldn’t have been prevented without proper training of everyone in the organization.

How serious do employers take workplace violence prevention programs now and what are the hallmarks of a good program?

It depends on what size industry we are talking about. Employers of over 100,000 employees all think they have a program in place and they vary in their quality, largely because they vary in how they train and update that training. Employers of 10,000 to 100,000 employees have much bigger variation in the quality of what they’re doing and some of them have no program in place or only the ineffective aspects of a program such as a policy. Smaller employers of less than 10,000 employees by in large do this very poorly and have not gotten up to speed with what’s been available the last 20 years or so. The critical ingredients for a successful program that not only prevents violence, but also reduces costs are a thoroughly trained leadership group, particularly security or loss prevention (LP), HR and legal; mandatory training for every manager and supervisor that teaches them when to turn to EAP (employee assistance programs) and when to turn to HR, security or LP; brief training for every employee about why they need to be the eyes and ears for inappropriate behavior and why they should report it; and repetition of that training every one to two years. If a company does those things, it cannot only prevent violence, but prevent a host of other problems.

What are some keys to stopping these types of shooting incidents before they occur, whether it be workplace or otherwise?

The biggest issue to overcome is the reluctance that so many people have to make judgments about the behavior of other people. We have been teaching our young people for decades now and hence we have a generation of adults who have the mistaken notion that you shouldn’t judge other people. In their effort to accept people as they are, they often overlook behaviors that amount to bullying, harassment, discrimination, intimidation, or psychotic behaviors. Any of which when not dealt with properly can lead to violence, but all of which when handled properly can be managed. This idea of not judging and tolerating are one of several factors that lead people to ignore inappropriate behaviors in the workplace.

How do you account for a disgruntled employee or customer who wants to comeback to a location to commit an act of violence?

When it is an employee, what has been allowed to happen is the person has accumulated a long list of perceived injustices that they have been griping about and complaining about often for years and instead of anyone resolving the conflict or finding the person a better place to be than in the workplace, they have either looked the other way or in the worst cases, encouraged that sense of injustice and that emboldens a person who is going to become a shooter and reinforces their belief system. As they become more ominous or more withdrawn from other people, everyone tends to pull away from them and ignore it and just keep their distance. No one is correcting the perception because the individual isn’t saying to a buddy at lunch ‘I think I should kill the manager who screwed me and ruined my life,’ because they have no buddies. So the person sits and ruminates alone thinking about how everyone has screwed them over.

The case at LA Fitness is reminiscent of a case from years ago. Marc Lepine in 1989 committed a mass murder of women at a university in Montreal screaming ‘I hate feminists.’ That’s the only case I can recall where the principle issue was the killer blaming women in general for his miserable life. The problem anyone has in preventing that kind of incident is that one can’t identify in advance who or where the target will be because it is so diffused. Even if, someone were to read (Sodini’s) blog, one still wouldn’t know when and where he would strike against women.