When Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on his comrades at Ft Reed, he gave no indication of his motives, other than a generic shout of “God is great!” Generally we think of terrorist acts as involving a conspiracy rather than the actions of an individual, but the difference is unlikely to matter to the dead. Understanding Hasan’s motives may, however, help prevent future murders. If this was a terrorist conspiracy, hopefully the government will display more competence than has been apparent. But if his actions were more closely related to those of a disgruntled teenage loner with a gun, psychologists may have more to say than law enforcement.
Of course, no lack of facts will stop armchair psychologists from painting the murders with the brush or their own pet theories. Since the Huffington Post has never been shy about printing pseudoscientific conjecture, that’s were we find the latest dung heap of pseudo-psychology.
In Shooting Spree: A Response to Constant Humiliation?, Thomas Scheff argues that a feedback loop of humiliation may have been behind Nidal’s murder spree. That, and anti-depressants. He cites no evidence for his wild speculations but does give this interesting and unverified pseudo-fact:
Medications may be involved to cut down on self control. It appears that many of the rampages shooters in the last twenty years have been on antidepressants, especially the SSRIs. I will take this issue up later.
Really? If this is so, might it be that these disturbed people actually sought help for their problems, but that the help was insufficient? Could there be any simpler explanations than, “the prozac made me do it?”
So I went over to PubMed to see what kind of credibility this guy’s speculations might have. He is published, but most of his contain observations and speculations rather than data. The observations are interesting, if unsophisticated, but are not enough to form conclusions about human thought and behavior. An example of his methods:
During 5 months in 1965 I observed nearly all intake interviews of male patients in a mental hospital near London. Most of them were over age 60, and all but one were diagnosed as depressed. However, there was usually a temporary lifting of depression in those interviews in which the psychiatrists asked the patients about their activities during World War II. At the time I didn’t understand the significance of these episodes. I now offer an interpretation in the light of current studies of shame and the social bond: Recounting memories of belonging to a community temporarily resolved shame and depression.
Scheff has some mildly interesting ideas, but I don’t see how his baseless speculations will be of any use in understanding or preventing future mass murders.