Does Pathological Shyness Make for School Shooters?

SATURDAY Aug. 18, 2007 -- What motivates some teens to gun down fellow students in the hallways or grounds of their schools?

Perhaps a characteristic called "cynical shyness." This is an extreme form of shyness affecting mostly males that can lead to violent behavior such as that seen at Columbine, Colo., or, most recently, Virginia Tech, according to researchers who were to present their findings Saturday evening at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting, in San Francisco.

"Cynically shy people are shy people who are motivated toward moving to others, and then they are rejected," said Bernardo Carducci, lead author of the study and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.

"In addition to feelings of anxiety about social situations, cynically shy people, who are a small subclass of shy people, also have feelings of anger and hostility toward others and that comes from this sense of disconnect," Carducci explained. "Shyness has more in common with extroversion than with introversion. Shy people truly want to be with others, so they make the effort, but when they are rejected or ostracized, they disconnect. Once you disconnect, it's very easy to start being angry and hate other people. It's you against them, and they become what I call a cult of one. Once you start thinking 'it's me versus them,' then it becomes easy to start hurting these people."

Eventually, the new research may help identify the likely perpetrators of such crimes before they happen, the study authors said.

"It would be great if we could better characterize people who might be likely to do something violent," said Dr. Jane Ripperger-Suhler, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and a psychiatrist with Scott & White Mental Health Center in Temple. "Right now, our ability to predict violence is not very good at all, so people overreact to a lot of things because of a fear of something happening. For years, we were under-reacting. It would be nice if psychologists could help us characterize who would be more likely to be a school shooter."

But it's important not to stigmatize shy kids, other experts emphasized.

"Shyness is not inherently a good or bad thing," said Heather Henderson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. "But one thing we know about shyness in boys, particularly in North America, they seem to be particularly at risk for maladaptive outcomes. We expect boys to be more outgoing and assertive. Boys are particularly sensitive and are exposed to cues from other people that shyness is not a good thing."

According to the study authors, there are a number of subtypes of shyness, cynical shyness being just one.

For the study, Carducci and a co-author examined news accounts and background information on seven high school shooting cases involving eight teen shooters between 1995 and 2004. Those individuals were:

  • Jeffrey Weise -- 16, killed seven people at Red Lake High School in Minnesota as well as his grandfather and grandfather's girlfriend in 2005;
  • Jamie Rouse -- 17, killed one student and one teacher at Richland High School in Tennessee in 1995;
  • Luke Woodham -- 17, killed two people at Pearl High School in Mississippi in 1997;
  • Barry Loukaitis -- 14, killed three at Frontier Junior High in Washington state in 1996;
  • Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- 18 and 17 years old, they killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999;
  • Michael Carneal -- 14, killed three girls at Heath High School in Kentucky in 1997;
  • Kip Kinkel -- 15, killed his parents and two classmates at Thurston High School in Oregon in 1998.

Weise, the two Columbine killers and Kinkel had a "cynically shy score" of 10 (on a scale of 10). Rouse, Woodham and Loukaitis had scores of 8, and Carneal had a score of 6, the researchers said.

Cynically shy people tend to be male and want to relate to other people but just don't know how. As a result, they get rejected, and feelings of hurt gradually turn into intense rage, the study authors said.

This seems to be an extreme version of the frustrations other shy people often face.

"We often misinterpret why people are shy," Henderson said. "If you walk by somebody and avoid eye contact, you interpret that as they don't want to interact, but I think often it's completely the opposite. They really do want to interact and don't know how.

"It's important for parents and teachers to start at a young age, before the person is walking down the high school corridor ready to shoot, not to interpret their behavior as not wanting to interact," Henderson continued. "If we flip our interpretations, people may respond differently. As a field, we need to understand prospectively what's happening, so we can start identifying kids at a very young age, what would drive a shy kid into this pattern. We don't want the message to be 'shyness will lead to shooting.' "

More information

To learn more, visit the Center for the Prevention of School Violence.

Posted: August 2007


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