The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Psychologists Rush In Where Sane People Are Too Sensible To Tread

The shootings in Aurora, Colorado in the past week were a senseless loss of life, and my sympathies go out to those who were injured and the families of those injured and killed. As a person, that is all I want to say – and as a psychologist, that is all I can really say as well… because I have been pretty disheartened by the number of ‘experts’ who have appeared on TV, in print, on blogs, all proclaiming to have ‘answers’ about why James Holmes allegedly did what he did.

Now I’m not denegrating the credentials of these people, I’m sure that they have many years of experience and ample qualifications to make them experts on the topic of spree-killing, mental health, etc. My issue is with the sometimes wild and spurious comments made with so little evidence to back them up. It is as if the very ambiguous nature of this act has allowed clinicians and scientists to mix a bit of evidentiary support with their own pet theories to create something which they hope will resonate with the public and therefore take a place in people’s psyche – evidence without experimentation.

Let us take a look at just a couple of examples from today: first of all, a seemingly bizarre attempt to link the shootings to cybercrime (along with the solution, funnily enough provided by them). This little gem even gives a checklist of common traits found in rampage killer cases; such as ‘[O]ver 50% of rampage killers have a history of mental illness. News reports have suggested Mr. Holmes had recently been expelled from graduate school, majoring in neuroscience, or he left school of his own volition.’ [1]. That’s right folks, we’ve got no information on any mental illness – but he was either expelled (or just left, not exactly sure which) so that obviously tells us something doesn’t it? Why else would he leave/be expelled? That is the message given by tying these two things together – but we don’t know… we’ve got no idea. Most of us who have been through grad school/higher degrees probably consider it the other way around! How about this one? ‘In roughly 25% of rampage killer cases, a relationship issue such as a divorce or breakup is the precipitating event. Approximately 45% of rampage killers are triggered by unexpected employment losses. There has been so far no information suggesting employment or relationship events triggered his rage.'[1]. So, Holmes will fit into either the 25% category, the 40% category, or the 35% ‘other’ category – fancy that! Who can compete with such stats? How about ‘Adult rampage killers often have military backgrounds and possess weapons they have obtained legally. At the time of this release, there has not been confirmation that Mr. Holmes was in the military or purchased his cadre of weapons legally.'[1]. Now, I’m not deliberately picking faults here with this particular piece, just using it as an example, but doesn’t all of this add up to simply say… ‘we know almost nothing at the moment, we can’t tell you why it happened’.

This piece by Curtis Brainard at The Observatory[2] covers the media speculation well, and their rush to gain ‘insights from psychologists (inlcuding the wonderful cover-all of ‘Psychologists said shooters who go on rampages, targeting random people with no apparent motive, may or may not have a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia.’)

Whilst watching the news I found myself shouting at the screen ‘say you don’t know’ as another interviewer asked someone to speculate on the perpetrator’s mental health state – but quite a few went on to give their opinion on it. Why? I think it may be that the very notion of saying ‘I don’t know‘ is seen as a weakness by some experts; it is as if they worry that someone is going to say ‘You don’t know? What sort of an expert are you?’. But when you don’t have the data then speculation is dangerous, particularly in cases like this. Because we are talking about issues which could have a profound effect on a lot of people’s lives; it goes beyond the event itself into areas of mental health stigma, gun control, and many other areas, and wild speculation on those issues is never good.

However, the media are part of the problem as well – they want nicely-packaged answers. I’ve given interviews where I’ve heard the irritation in the voice of the interviewer after I’ve said ‘it’s not as simple as that’ for the umpteenth time; I’ve seen some of my interviews replaced by other people who are happy to say that it is as simple as that! Unfortunately, we will never change the media, they are doing the job they do and if we are foolish enough to play their game then we get what we deserve if we forget our core principles.

It is highly likely that I could take any of you reading this and portray you as a serial-killer or a saint… slice up a life into small enough chunks, get enough quotes from people, discard the bits that don’t fit my theory and it is job done. And that is what will probably happen after this case – the irony is that just about everyone who has appeared in the media regarding this story will be able to carve up the intricacies of Holmes’ life to fit the majority of what they have said. And that is dangerous for psychology in particular, it can’t (or shouldn’t) work like that. It weakens what we strive to be. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to do more media stuff, I’m sure it would be good for my research and my department. I think all academics/scientists should, it is our duty to get information out to the public. But it has to be accurate information based on fact. Leave the commentary to the commentators… and remember that sometimes the most powerful thing that you can say is ‘I don’t know.

 

[1] http://www.prweb.com/releases/ipredator/masskiller/prweb9722127.htm Accessed 22nd July 2012

[2] http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/abc_news_armchair_psychologist.php Accessed 22nd July 2012

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