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Monday, October 29, 2018

Four Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Mass Violence—A Social Psychologist’s Perspective

If we continue to fall prey to these four responses it is unlikely that we will be able to effectively respond to mass violence.

In the wake of tragedies like Saturday’s slaughter in Pittsburgh, social media and news channels alike immediately begin to seek the “real” culprit, be it gun laws, political ideology, violent media, or something else. This makes sense. We, as a society, have been hurt by these horrific actions and senseless deaths. It is our deepest, most basic instinct to lash out at the thing that has hurt us. It is human nature to find simple, singular causes which can produce an “easy fix,” even if that fix is inappropriate to the complexity of the situation.

In the wake of tragic mass violence, four common responses tend to emerge: emotional decision-making, oversimplification, hindsight bias, and the availability heuristic. Each of these responses can already be seen in the response to the tragedy at Tree of Life Congregation. However, each response is psychologically flawed and, thus, unlikely to produce positive change.

Emotional Decision-Making

Emotion is a natural response to tragedy. I cried angry, grief-laden tears upon learning of the murder of so many fellow Jews on Saturday. However, emotion does not produce good decision-making.

Noted social psychologist Roy Baumeister once went so far as to write,

The deleterious effects of emotion on decision making as so damaging that, if the main function of current emotions was to influence decision-making, evolution would have phased out the role of emotion.

Strong emotions make us less likely to engage intellectually with an issue, less likely to consider alternatives or see flaws in our own plans, less likely to attend to new evidence, and, in group contexts, are likely to produce a risky shift—the tendency to make more dangerous and potentially disastrous decisions. However, our cultural discussion of mass violence consists of nothing but emotion and leads to the call for “someone to do something”—again, a decision born out of a desire to make us feel better, rather than effect any positive change.


There is almost never a true single cause behind human behaviors. Behavior is the confluence of numerous forces, including personal history, beliefs, emotions, and even genetics. Add to this the fact that our social spheres are comprised of dozens, even hundreds, of equally-complex individuals, and it becomes clear that there is no “simple” human action. However, we often oversimplify human behavior to the level of mere stimulus and response.

Because of oversimplification, many prefer these simple solutions that make them feel better.

This is why popular explanations for mass shootings fail to bear weight; they attempt to identify simple causes for actions which are the result of a complex and largely invisible psychological system. After the Columbine shootings, the “clear” culprit was violent media, and many, from social scientists to politicians, waxed eloquent about violent media’s causal relationship to the tragedy. However, scientific evidence is, at best, mixed and, at worst, shows that increased consumption of violent media may actually be linked with decreasing violence rates, indicating that this “clear” culprit may not be as culpable as was claimed.

Now, the popular culprit has become “assault weapons,” a nebulous term based not on actual facts, but simply on the “scariness” of the weapons involved. However, many recent instances of both realized and attempted mass violence have been carried out with home-made explosives, semi-automatic pistols, and even shotguns. None of these would be affected by the proposed legislative “fixes” for mass violence. Yet, because of oversimplification, many prefer these simple solutions that make them feel better, even though the causes of mass violence are far too complex for these solutions to be effective.

Hindsight Bias

Another response to mass violence is hindsight bias: the tendency after an event to act as if we “knew it all along.” There is always the claim that “clear” danger signs were present in the perpetrators of mass violence, be it their political ideology, background, or even fashion sense, and thus there could have been effective intervention before the tragedy. Public policy has been guided by the hindsight bias before, and it produced no positive change. Many supposed commonalities have been drawn between such perpetrators, to the point that the public mind has created a profile of what these individuals look like. However, psychologists state that there is no one unique profile that mass-killers conform to. The idea that we can clearly identify at-risk individuals is simply the result of hindsight bias leading us to cherry-pick facts that produce a supposedly-easy “solution.”

Public policy has been guided by the hindsight bias before, and it produced no positive change. After 9/11, a “clear” picture of terrorists, based on hindsight bias, led to the creation of the TSA, a notoriously ineffective organization whose invasive and unconstitutional practices have failed to catch a single terrorist. It is likely, if not guaranteed, that any similar hindsight-bias-based policy designed to prevent mass violence will be similarly ineffective.

Availability Heuristic

Related to hindsight bias is the availability heuristic, where the perceived frequency/commonness of an event is judged on how easily it can be brought to mind—even when the truth is the precise opposite. For instance, shark attacks are atypical events; the statistical probability of a shark attack is negligible. We are more aware of violence than ever before and, thus, fallaciously believe it to be more common than it is. However, shark attacks make the news, and because they are easily remembered (itself a function of the atypicality of these events), they are viewed as more of a threat than they actually are. The common response to a shark attack is a cull—killing the local “dangerous” sharks to lower the risk of future attacks. Despite these culls—like the TSA—being almost totally ineffective, they make people feel better.

Like shark attacks, mass violence is statistically rare. According to the FBI, violent crime rates are declining. However, due to social media and a 24-hour news cycle, we are more aware of violence than ever before and, thus, fallaciously believe it to be more common than it is. Mass violence is discussed as if it were an everyday occurrence, and politicians and pundits fearmonger to the point of inciting public hysteria—and, therefore, a call for immediate action. If based on the availability heuristic, such action will be just like a shark cull: ineffective in all but making us feel better.

Responsible Reactions to Tragedy

The human desire to impose order on chaos means it is unlikely for us to truly avoid the temptation of an easy fix in the face of tragedy. However, we can resist this tendency. We must recognize that, despite their motivational strength, simple solutions, especially those taking the form of legislation, will be neither beneficial nor effective.

Mass violence is not a singular problem. It is a series of tragedies which may or may not share common causes and, thus, cannot be fixed by simple solutions. We must acknowledge the flaws in our thinking—be they oversimplification, hindsight bias, the availability heuristic, or our own emotions—and refuse to indulge in them. If we continue to fall prey to these four responses, as we already seem to be doing, it is unlikely that we will be able to effectively respond to mass violence, be it via marches, social media causes, or increased government legislation.

  • Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies culture, the legal system, and the psychology of religion.