Study suggests mass shootings can inadvertently promote the idea of using guns to empower oneself

People who feel disempowered tend to feel more willing to shoot someone when mass shootings loom large in their mind, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The findings provide some initial evidence that mass shootings can produce contagion-like effects.

“I am interested in the psychology of seemingly random or senseless acts of aggression and violence. I do not think such actions are as random or senseless as they appear,” said study author Pontus Leander, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Groningen and director of the Center for Psychological Gun Research.

“This particular study, on mass shootings, pertains to the spreading of violent ideas. We tested whether specific individuals – namely, those who are searching for their own means of personal empowerment, were the most likely to express more violent ideas in response to mass shootings.”

In four separate studies of 2,442 U.S. gun owners, the researchers found evidence that a sense of disempowerment was positively associated with willingness to shoot a home intruder and engage in vigilantism.

Disempowered participants agreed with statements such as “Not a lot is done for people like me in America” and “If I compare myself against other Americans, my group is worse off.” In one study, the researchers experimentally manipulated a sense of disempowerment by giving some participants a cognitive test that was impossible to solve correctly.

The research was conducted between June 2016 and November 2017, in the wake of the 2016 Orlando nightclub mass shooting, the 2017 Las Vegas strip mass shooting, and the 2017 Texas church mass shooting.

The link between disempowerment and assertive gun use was particularly strong among participants who felt mass shootings were an imminent threat. The findings suggest that mass shootings can inadvertently promote the idea of using guns to empower oneself.

In this case, assertive gun use was aimed at protecting oneself or others. But a similar psychological phenomenon could be at play among those with less lawful tendencies.

“Merely thinking about a threatening figure may suffice for us to be influenced by them. Although this sounds disturbing in the context of mass shootings, it is normal for human beings to internalize and imitate what we see in the world. If a troubling psychological phenomenon is rooted in an otherwise-normal mental process, it gives us a starting point for figuring out how to prevent it,” Leander told PsyPost.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“As we note in the paper, these results should not be overstated. We only took the first step of testing for increases in violent ideas, but many additional factors will be involved for violent ideas to translate into behavior,” Leander explained.

“Our findings should be considered preliminary. I would like to establish clearer causality going forward – but that will require more resources than we have available.”

Why someone decides to commit a mass shooting is influenced by a host of factors, and researchers have only begun to scratch the surface.

“If we want to end the spread of violence, we must develop theories that can explain the psychological appeal of such behavior. With regards to the influence of mass shootings, we are in unknown territory and we have more questions than we can answer with our current resources. More research is needed. A lot more,” Leander said.

The study, “Mass Shootings and the Salience of Guns as Means of Compensation for Thwarted Goals“, was authored by N. Pontus Leander, Wolfgang Stroebe, Jannis Kreienkamp, Maximilian Agostini, Ernestine Gordijn, and Arie W. Kruglanski.