Narcissism and the news media
In response to the plea by Flannery and colleagues1 to examine other factors that contribute to mass shootings, particularly cultural and social ones, it is impossible to avoid the issues of narcissism and media responsibility. Narcissism is the classic American pathology, but there is concern that it may be proliferating “virally” and gaining momentum. In their excellent work The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge and Campbell11 note that while crime has dropped overall since the 1990s as a result of a variety of factors, crimes due to narcissism or a wounded ego are directly relevant to mass shootings.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker12 laid out an impressive overview of how the “civilizing process” has reduced violence among homo sapiens over the centuries. Indeed, this was also seen by Freud,13 who noted that civilization itself required a strenuous renunciation of biological impulses. Pinker now wonders if we might have reached a point of limited returns—we no longer hack and impale each other at the drop of a hat, instead we seek further and comparatively smaller gains that are more difficult to appreciate and achieve. Those harder to achieve gains may arguably lie in the realm of facing and somehow attenuating the problem of narcissism.
Narcissism and social rejection are risk factors that work in tandem to cause aggressive behavior, and these have certainly been described in the histories of mass shooters. Twenge and Campbell11 note that “given the upswing in the narcissistic values of American culture since the 90s, it may be no coincidence that mass shootings became a national plague around the same time.” Extensive media attention in the 1990s may have provided a script and unwitting adulation of those who would seek an impatient route to their entitled respect. This hints at a deeper societal pathology—a culture that has “grown more focused on self-admiration and more enamored with celebrity and fame.” One might argue that we hold celebrity as the single greatest achievement of life—one that should be attained by any means.
It becomes difficult to deny that the media coverage given to mass shooting perpetrators has sent the message that committing a spectacular act of murder or killing is a great way to get attention. A study confirms that perpetrators who were captured alive were influenced by previous, heavily publicized cases of mass shooting.14 The news media has always been in the business of searching for “the right sort of madness” to capture the public’s imagination.15 This may involve exploiting violent and tragic acts and/or overemphasizing the alleged role of mental illness. A universal media reporting code has been recommended that would cover the tragedy yet reduce the impact of the copycat effect.16 Most recommendations involve ensuring that the perpetrator is neither glorified nor demonized and generally avoiding much emphasis on the perpetrator.
There are countries in which mass shootings are quite rare. Brazil has had only one major school shooting. The Scandinavian countries and Thailand are other examples of cultures with both a large social safety net and social structures that “buffer against narcissism.”17 And so the question is inevitable—can we see past the distracters, such as mental illness, violent video games, and armed teachers, and grasp the roots of the problem? Freud18 once observed that “those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.” Can we, as a society, pawn part of ours?