Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

School Shootings As Social Meme?

In response to the horrific school shooting in Virginia Tech, a commenter in this post left a link to a fascinating story from the latter part of 2006. Its a Boing Boing article, which quotes Loren Coleman, entitled School shootings: malignant, contagious social meme? and its really worth a read in light of today’s scary events. It explores the incidence of school shootings ‘in a row’ or how the Columbine shooting is “a dark cloud” hanging over such incidences and inspiriing copy-cat crimes.

Most contemporary school shootings tend to occur primarily during two periods of the school year – at the beginning (late Aug through October) and near the the end of the academic year (March-April).

* Copycats follow a regular temporal pattern that repeats – these could be after a primary media event in a day, a week, two weeks, a month, a year, ten years – vulnerable humans have internal media clocks.

* Copycats imitate the previous violent attacks, oftentimes down to specific details as that mirror the previous specifics of the shooter, the victims, and the methods.

* “Celebrity” events have a far-reaching impact and modeling effect — so, of course, Columbine serves as a dark cloud over many school shootings.

While I certainly hope that this will NOT prove the case in todays events, the evidence is certainly stacked against. Even the date of the Columbine shooting (April 20th) seems to have significance now, perhaps evidenced by this shooting occuring just four days before. Coincidence?

Are school shootings a social meme which propagate themselves? Its a sick idea, but one that, if confronted, may help to prevent future shootings and deaths from occuring.

(Hat tip femalesci)

UPDATE: Loren Coleman (quoted in the Boing Boing article) contacted me and wished to direct us to his blog post on the very subject. Check it out here.


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    April 16, 2007

    Well, looking at this horror from outside (Canada) and comparing the US to the other “western industrialized nations”, I find it impossible to believe other than that the US deep-seated attitude toward guns is just totally “outside the norm.” Yes, it’s true that Canada and GB (to mention two) have horrible examples of their own, but there’s something uniquely “American” about this sort of happening, I think. I have no idea what the answer might be, if indeed there is an answer, but I have to believe that “the problem” is deep-seated and firmly entrenched.

  2. #2 Shelley
    April 16, 2007

    Well, I think I understand your point of view, but I believe its unfair to call the problem and “American” one. Sure, school shootings are more prevalent IN America, but writing it off as an American problem is just to pat and shallow. I believe that the *cause* goes much, much deeper than that and certainly no society is immune. The point seems to be finding out what it is in American culture, etc which allows this violence to be acted out more frequently.

  3. #3 drrobert
    April 16, 2007

    It is not only an American problem, but it is a profoundly male problem. All of the shooters are men (a fact that often gets ignored in the face of comments like “kids killing kids” and referring to the murderer as a “shooter” not a man). If even one of these school shootings were committed by a woman, it would be what everyone was talking about.

    We need to start talking about how notions of masculinity in our culture perpetuate this sort of atrocious violence. Men are overwhelming the ones who commit violence, and while there is a horrendous problem of violence against women, the victims of male violence are most often other men.

    School shootings are only a highly sensationalized, tragic tip of the iceberg. For a non-violent culture, we must raise and support non-violent men.

  4. #4 femalesci
    April 16, 2007

    hi shelley, thanks very much for reposting, i think this information is really important not least because it means it could happen again soon.

    more details have appeared at VTech’s local news:

    seems to support previous rumors of a domestic violence situation with a man hunting his ex-girlfriend.

  5. #5 Colugo
    April 16, 2007

    “Yes, it’s true that Canada and GB (to mention two) have horrible examples of their own, but there’s something uniquely “American” about this sort of happening”

    Three mass school shootings in Montreal alone, including one of the worst and most notorious school mass shootings ever in 1989, a decade before Columbine. Yet it’s uniquely “American.” This reminds me of the Australian person who after I brought up the 2005 Cronulla riots (in which mobs of white Australians beat Arabs) said that this was due to the influence of American culture.

    1989: École Polytechnique massacre, Montreal – 14 murdered, all women

    1992: Concordia University massacre – 4 murdered

    2006: Dawson school shooting, Montreal – 1 murdered, many others wounded

    Canada: rape per capita is higher than in the United States

    Canada: assaults per capita barely lower than the US

    Canada: more burglaries per capita than the US

    Canada is a fine country. And yes, America does have problems – but many Europeans, Canadians, and Australians do a lot of projection of their own anxieties and failings onto the US.

  6. #6 femalesci
    April 16, 2007

    Colugo: have you lived in a first world country other than the US for longer than a year? You seem pretty sure that everything in the US is just like other places, and it’s not.

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    April 16, 2007

    ..but writing it off as an American problem is just to pat and shallow.

    Yes, it would have been … if I’d done that. I did not. I suggested that there was something uniquely “American” about the frequency … nothing more.

  8. #8 Shelley
    April 16, 2007

    Sorry for over-stating, in that case, we are in agreement.

  9. #9 Scott Belyea
    April 16, 2007

    Well, it’s a hell of a sad thing to agree on, but yes, we are …

  10. #10 Tanya
    April 16, 2007

    I have an idea about one of the many factors behind the April timing for school shootings. It is a very stressful time in academics, when your classes become more difficult and you realize you might be failing.

  11. #11 Shelley
    April 16, 2007

    Well, it’s a hell of a sad thing to agree on…

    Indeed. :/

  12. #12 Scott Belyea
    April 16, 2007

    This incident has caused me to think about a broader point.

    I’m Canadian, and I have my own collection of general attitudes and specific actions for which I criticize the US. Why should I? Because (for all its faults) the world needs the example and leadership of the US, and I’m part of that.

    I can think of the positive things that the US has stood for during my lifetime – the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, the Marshall plan, the military supprt of Europe during the early Cold War, the support during various natural disasters, and on and on. Yes, there are criticisms (serious ones) that should be made, but the positive points are undeniable.

    I don’t want to fall into the “we’re doomed” pit of despair. However, when I look at (to pick a few) the ongoing issue of gun violence (which undeniably slops over into Canada), the (let’s be kind) less than sterling performance in Iraq and elsewhere in that region, the inconsistent and odd attitudes toward North Korea and other “rogue states,” and the ongoing distractions of fundamentalist influence and government corruption, it’s tough not to ask – how on the hell did the US get to where it is?

    The world needs better than this, and one can only hope that things improve. It’s tough to grapple with the idea that they’ll get much worse …

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2007

    I don’t want to derail the thread, but I think the recent events involving the U.S. have to be understood in geopolitical context. I think you can look at the U.S. in much the same way you could have looked at Britain in the early-mid 20th. century: once the preeminent world hegemon but whose political and economic sphere of influence is rapidly decaying.

    We’re nowhere near as powerful as we were between the end of WWII and the end of the Cold War anyway. So if the world is looking to us for leadership, they may have to look elsewhere within the next half-century or so.

  14. #14 Kagehi
    April 17, 2007

    But to who Tyler. Europe is scared to death of wars. They are willing to ignore huge differences in philosophy and goals, to the extent that common sense dictates that they are doing the equivalent of pouring snakes into bed with you, then complaining that some of them turn out to be poisonous and bite. China? Not unless you want a mixture of the same US style, “We can’t do anything wrong and progress is more important than anything else!”, BS that got the US where it is, but with the added BS of, “Oh, and of course we sort of hate all those non-communists, so don’t be surprised if we somehow completely overlook the local lunatic picking up a few nukes.” The ME? Yeah, we really want that…

    As screwed up as the US is, without some sort of direction and leadership, and yes, even the gung ho stupidity that keeps us from kissing the asses of every nut in the world while doing what the UN usually does, which is give them a damn seat at the table and then veto any attempts to do anything about them after. The problem is that there “isn’t” any leadership. No one wants to do what is best for the world, instead of their own fracking backs. How do you make progress when the people with the power ignore everyone, and everyone else just vetoes any suggestions made at the table because of it, while insisting that the best solution to the problem is to completely ignore suspected weapons programs, ignore genocides, ignore corruptions, etc, or constantly redefine what those things mean, like with Dafar, where they argued that the UN shouldn’t do anything because, “It doesn’t count as genocide unless they kill **everyone**.” Huh? So, if you get blown up, overthrown, massacred entirely, so that there are not “people” left to save, etc. If you completely and totally lose, so that there is no way to *ever* recover what was lost, *then* the UN has justification for acting? WTF? That is even crazier than Bush and Co. But its exactly the BS that the UN babbles every time thousands of people get shot up by some nut with an army and “diplomatic” priviledges by being the defacto leader of the millions of people that don’t have any damn choice but be target practice for them.

    I think that is absurd. And I haven’t seen *anyone* on this planet willing to stop kissing the asses of their own people or thumbing their noses at other countries because they “don’t like them”, and do something concrete. Bush actually probably thinks he *is* doing that. If he wasn’t an incompetent twit who can’t do anything without consulting the local religious right representative and mass of personally chosen yes men, I might even agree, in principle. But his “vision” isn’t about a diverse world, its about turning the world in the some weird as version of the US and his *faith* that has never existed, can’t exist, since its unrealistic, and on many levels complete bullshit, and which never can exist.

    Well, it could exist, but only by instituting the same sort of idiot Stalinist/Inquisition type government that we have seen in the past. The ones that spend 90% of their time crushing dissenting opinion by people smart enough the figure out that there are *huge* problems with their vision, and the other 10% wondering why progress just ground to a near complete halt for nearly 1,000 years.

    No, I don’t see “leadership” coming from any place else, and unless we stop trying to fracking out Jesus each other and catering to the most lunatic fools possible on both sides the rest of the time for political gain, the US isn’t going to be providing it either.

  15. #15 lesserbeingofleisure
    April 17, 2007

    drrobert is spot on:

    “School shootings are only a highly sensationalized, tragic tip of the iceberg. For a non-violent culture, we must raise and support non-violent men.”

  16. #16 Chris
    April 17, 2007


    You and your african grey seem so sincere, so genuine, so passionate, I’m going to ask you to look at what is really happening. With a lot more than just this school shootings.

    it will seem whacked at times, but realize, we really don’t know everything about the mind, and a lot more. look at the rest of the site (link at bottom) and decide whether a Ph.D can handle it at all. Or is it too much?

    “She lies awake at night pondering how science intersects with politics, culture, policy, money, medicine, and religion in an attempt to be more than just a niche scientist sitting in the oh-so-lovely ivory tower. Follow me and my parrot on the quest to get funded, get a PhD, and stay sane. ”

    Well, …….. ponder this.

  17. #17 Kristjan Wager
    April 17, 2007

    Wow – creepy woo by that Chris guy. No need to click on it, people.

  18. #18 Shelley
    April 17, 2007

    Or is it too much?

    Yeah, waaaaay too much.

  19. #19 DrMaybe
    April 18, 2007

    One minor note, in response to DrRoberts – *almost* all school massacre perpetrators are male. I recall the Boomtown Rats hit “I don’t like Mondays” which was the response of a female spree shooter (Brenda Ann Spencer) to being asked why she did it.

    So while clearly the vast majority of spree shooters are males, mental illness is not purely a male issue.

  20. #20 Chris
    September 3, 2009


    Time for an update.

    Some hidden history behind the reasons modern psychology knows so little of the unconscious mind. The intro is by a public access producer that aired it and on the web. It was produced with local viewers in mind so the intro helps others somewhat. One hour.

    Be well!


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