James Holmes: Shame Causes Violence

August 1, 2012

After the shooting incident in the Aurora movie theater everyone asks: “Why? How could someone do that? What would make someone go that crazy and hurt and kill so many people?”

The pundits jabber and I heard many say essentially, “We can’t ever know what made James Holmes do it.”

While it is impossible to parse out all the causes, I can point to one very clear cause:  James Holmes felt shamed, rejected and criticized. In my book “Pack Leader Psychology” I explain how the fear of exclusion is so powerful in driving human behavior. We really don’t like to feel as if we are getting kicked out of the “pack.” Evolution has primed us to want to get along, fit in and belong. The need to seek acceptance is a major motivator of human behavior — I contend THE major motivator. (Sorry, Freud, it isn’t sex!)

Note these facts: Quite soon after the shooting it was reported that Holmes had recently quit his doctoral program.  I knew that was key.  I guessed he’d experienced some failure or setback in the program. Sure enough — today I read that he’d purchased an assault weapon hours after failing a key oral exam. Holmes felt rejected, shamed and criticized by his failure on that exam. He had no ability to accept personal accountability for his actions, so he lashed out at others.  An example of an extreme  “Dominator” as I label them in “Pack Leader Psychology.” Because of their low self-worth, these people have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions. Rather than self-blame, their response tends to be to blame others or react with a “fight” response.

I contend that what distinguishes most of these “going postal” incidents is the person experiencing a sense of rejection. The primal urge to get along kept us safe in our caveman days, but today it can be overblown and cause unhealthy emotional responses — even to the point of senseless violence. Of course it makes sense to the perpetrator. The violent reaction felt like the best way to defend against what felt like very hurtful, shameful, embarrassing information — by lashing out at others.  Because Holmes clearly didn’t feel he had the emotional tools to handle the criticism.

I’ll bet a look at other aspects of his life will turn up many incidents where he lacked accountability for his actions.