From Behavioral Science
“A sick, demented man.” That was Donald Trump’s assessment of Stephen Paddock, who shot nearly 600 people, leaving 58 dead, during a concert in Las Vegas on Sunday. Echoing Trump’s rhetoric, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “one of the things we’ve learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness.” Most Americans agree that there is a strong link between mental illness and mass shooting, and shifting the national conversation to mental health reform carries the advantage of avoiding the more politically divisive gun-control debate. But what if Stephen Paddock had no diagnosable mental illness? And what if his mental state was the rule, not the exception?
In the aftermath of a mass shooting, we naturally seek to understand the killer’s motives. Our first instinct is to assume that the killer must be mentally deranged somehow. He must be a sadist who takes pleasure in the suffering of innocents, or a psychopath who feels no empathy for his victims, or a schizophrenic haunted by paranoid delusions. How else could someone commit such an awful atrocity? Yet, there is no evidence that Stephen Paddock was any of those things. He had no history of mental illness. He had no criminal record. He was a successful businessman. Relatives and people who know him are in disbelief. Paddock’s father was a notorious bank robber, but the two men never met, and if Paddock inherited violent tendencies from his father genetically, they never manifested until now.
We may never know what motivated Paddock or whether he had a mental illness. However, if we expand out from this specific incident and consider gun violence as a whole, research over the last 30 years has consistently shown that Mr. Ryan’s information is incorrect and that diagnosable mental illness does not underlie most gun violence.
Read the full post at Behavioral Science
Tage Rai is a Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management