Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Mass murder motivation

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Mass murder motivation:
What motivates individuals who commit mass murder?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Fig 1. Tributes at the Linwood Avenue memorial for the 2016 Christchurch mosque shootings.

Murder arouses fear, confusion and disgust for most, and morbid fascination for many. Recently, there has been a growing incidence and interest in the phenomenon of mass murder, particularly where it pertains to situations with which all people can relate, such as schools, workplaces, and public events. Despite growing interest, this phenomenon puzzles investigators, psychologists, sociologists, politicians, and the general public alike (Auxemery, 2015).

Though the public and media are quick to circulate information and speculation following these events, questions regarding the true antecedents and motivations of these crimes often go unanswered, leaving the public asking “how?” and “why?”.

This chapter analyses the personal factors and situational determinants that to mass murder, and the most prevalent criminological motivations and typologies of this crime.  Several case studies will be utilised throughout in order to link broader psychological perspectives on the causes of mass murder, and potential avenues for possible interventions.

Focus questions:

  • What motivates individuals to commit mass murder?
  • Which psychological theories can explain instance of mass murder?
  • What interventions are possible to prevent mass murder?

Definition[edit | edit source]

Mass murders are categorised as a form of ‘multiple murder’, defined as the killing of at least four victims by one or a few offenders.  Mass murder is differentiated from other types of multiple murder (serial or spree killing) based on the time period and locations within which these crimes are committed with mass murderers acting at a single time period and location. 

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains that a mass murder must result in four or more deaths, there is a growing push to include offenders with fewer victims that attempted to cause more grievous results, codifying all those with ‘mass murder intention’ as mass murderers, regardless of the number of fatalities.

There is also differing opinion on whether the minutia of time periods and location changes bears any real relevance on the conceptualisation of these crimes. Indeed many researchers routinely group mass murder and spree killing together as so many commonalities exist between them (Peterson et al. 2021).

Mass murderers are almost always male, and most often use firearms for maximum lethality and efficiency. The majority of mass murderers are Caucasian, with some history of violence or military involvement, and most have at least some experience with mental illness. Roughly half of all perpetrators will die following their crimes, either by suicide, or fatal shooting by police (Peterson et al. 2021).

Motivation[edit | edit source]

Due to the high degree of overlap in the typologies of mass murderers, and indeed similarities between mass murder, and serial murder, Fox & Levin (1998) outlined a unified typology of multiple murder based on motive, which they argue boil down to: power, revenge, profit, loyalty, and terror.

Power[edit | edit source]

A motive of power or control is prevalent in many cases of mass murder. This may include killers whose crimes are an attempt to elicit furtherance of a cause, or an attempt to rid the world of evil. Individuals may hold a more basic drive toward gaining power: after a life of powerlessness, some seek the thrill of holding the fate of others in their hands. Langman (2017) extends this notion by offering 'fame seeking' as a motivator, where, often inspired by the crimes of others, mass murderers commit their acts in order to gain power and infamy.

Revenge[edit | edit source]

As the most prevalent motive for mass murder, revenge can be sought against specific individuals, categories of people, or society in general. Revenge against specific persons is typically preceded by an interpersonal conflict, where the killer will target people they know in a highly personal attack. Anger may also be directed at a category of people the killer believes has wronged them, or whom they believe to behave contradictory to their beliefs. Revenge then may be directed toward a certain race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. This was the case for Brenton Tarrant, who killed 54 and injured 40 in his 2016 attack on a Christchurch mosque (Figure 1). Finally, mass murders may be an attempt to elicit revenge against society in general. Killings here are indiscriminate, and are generally aimed at drawing attention to a social cause which the perpetrator believes is being ignored by society.

Loyalty[edit | edit source]

Fig 2. Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple and perpetrator of the Jonestown massacre

A small amount of mass murders can be attributed to a twisted desire to protect those around them form an anticipated loss or hardship. Such was the case for John List, who killed his mother, wife and three children whom he felt were straying from their Christian faith in order to 'save their souls'. Furthermore, mass murders may be inspired by devotion to a leader, with murder acting as evidence of loyalty to 'the cause'. One could consider instances of cult killings, such as the Jonestown massacre (Figure 2), or the Waco siege as examples of loyalty in action.

Profit[edit | edit source]

Profit is most often the motivator for mass killings which are intended to cover up some other crime, for example, to eliminate witnesses. In some instances individuals will also commit mass murder as means of extortion or to claim an insurance payout.

Terror[edit | edit source]

Some mass murders are simply perpetrated to inspire fear in others. Not to be confused with traditional terrorist attacks, which hold many co-morbid and complex motivations, these acts are intended to send a specific message which cannot be ignored, such as a gang leader who kills subordinates to keep other followers in line.

A note on mental illness

Despite popular public rhetoric, mass murder is rarely an expression of mental illness (Auxmery, 2014). It is far more likely for incidents of mass murder to be motivated by a ‘triggering event’ rather than as the direct result of psychosis (Taylor, 2018). In a 2021 study examining the mental health histories of 172 perpetrators, Peterson et al. (2021) found that in the majority of cases (69.8%) psychotic symptoms played no role in the attacks. While some cases featured psychosis as a minor or moderate factor, in only 10.5% was psychosis a major factor, experienced by the murderer prior to and during the crime with no other discernible motive.

A 'perfect storm'[edit | edit source]

All people experience a variety of emotionally draining and stressful experiences over their lifetime. What then, separates an individual that reacts with mass violence? Fox & Levin (1998) identify three factors that must be present before an individual will engage in such drastic action:

Predisposers Factors that predispose offenders to act violently, including:
  • A long history of frustration/failure
  • Mental illness
  • External locus of blame
  • History of abuse/domestic violence     
Precipitants Acute experiences which ‘trigger’ violent rage. These events are significant to the individual and threaten their ability to cope. Common precipitants preceding acts of mass murder include:
  • Sudden loss (or threat of loss)
  • Employment problems
  • Relationship failures
  • interpersonal conflicts
  • Financial distress
  • Other publicised acts of mass murder (which inspire the offender)
Facilitators Situational elements that increase the likelihood and extent of violence, including:
  • Social isolation
  • Weapon availability
  • Location accessibility

Typologies[edit | edit source]

Numerous attempts have been made to classify mass murderers based on their differing motivations, circumstances, victimology and methods. Below are outlined the most common typologies of mass murder.

Family annihilators[edit | edit source]

A family member, usually the senior male of the household, targets their family, typically before committing suicide. Often preceded by a relationship breakdown, the family annihilator's motivation for murder is internal – feeling alone, helpless, and dissatisfied, the killer attacks those closest to them in order to change their situation (Holmes & Holmes, 1992). Family annihilators may also act out of shame after periods of financial hardship or relationship disintegration, viewing the act of murder as a kindness designed to protect the family from suffering (Fox & Levin, 1996).

Pseudo-commandos[edit | edit source]

These killers are typically obsessed over guns and firearms, they often stockpile weaponry and commit well planned military style attacks. Victims are most often unknown to the killer and are simply in ‘the wrong place at the wrong time’.  These killers may also force the police to kill them rather than face capture. Pseudo-commandos are often reacting to a perceived slight or attempting to draw attention to a valued cause. The act of mass murder is intended to establish the perpetrator and their cause in infamy (Holmes & Holmes, 1992).

Set-and-run killers[edit | edit source]

Unlike most mass murderers, set-and-run killers design their crimes to allow for the possibility of escape. Common methods include bombings, arson, and food or product tampering. The most common motives for this type of killer are revenge (toward people or institutions), profit (via extortion or insurance fraud) and ideological beliefs (Holmes & Holmes, 1992).  Victims may be specific targets of the act, such as co-workers in a workplace bombing, or be unknown to the killer, in the case of arson to attain an insurance claim.  Victims may also be ‘once-removed’ from the cause, for instance, by tampering with food or medicine, the killer attempts to elicit harm to the parent company, and any consumers of these products are seen as collateral damage (Holmes & Holmes, 1992).

Disciples[edit | edit source]

The disciple is differentiated from other mass murderers as they act at the behest of a charismatic leader. While the leader is not directly involved in the murders, they select victims of the attacks, and are typically motivated to draw attention to a cause or ideology.  For the perpetrators themselves, motivation lies in their total loyalty and dependence on the leader – believing they will gain acceptance, praise and security by carrying out these orders. Disciples will likely aim to avoid death or capture as long as their leader has continuing use for their service (Holmes & Holmes, 1992).

Disgruntled employees[edit | edit source]

Disgruntled employees are overwhelmingly those who have been dismissed or placed on forceable leave from their place of work. The killer believes this to be unjustified and out of their control.  To regain power, the perpetrator retaliates by going to their (former) place of work and attacking those who have wronged them.  While victims are typically carefully selected prior to the crime, these killers will often begin to attack indiscriminately upon arrival; they are often afflicted with significant psychological problems and/or paranoia, and their motivation is to right a perceived personal wrong, rather than call attention to a social issue (Holmes & Holmes, 2001).

Classroom avengers[edit | edit source]

Classroom avengers are adolescent killers who target schools and whose primary motivation is revenge. Often classroom avengers experience rejection, bullying, humiliation or discipline from other students or teachers. As such, victims are usually pre-planned, and may include other students, faculty, administration, or parents – especially those the perpetrator feels has wronged them in the past (McGee & DeBernado 2003).

Quiz: Mass murder typologies

1 What is the most common motive for the 'Disciple' typology?


2 Which mass murder typology is least likely to commit suicide following their crime?

Family annihilator
Set-and-run killer

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

Moving away from the 'how', psychological theories offer some explanation as to 'why' some individuals are predisposed to commit acts of mass violence. Pointing to early life experiences, personal relationships and the ability to deal with stressors, psychological theory can offer insight into the minds and histories of mass murderers.

Cumulative strain theory[edit | edit source]

Drawing on multiple criminological and sociological theories (i.e., Strain Theory, Theory of Social Control, Routine Activities Theory) Levin & Madfis (2009) propose a model of cumulative strain to explain the aetiology of mass murder, suggesting these crimes are the result of five distinct stages causing increasing psychological distress.

  1. Chronic strain, refers to structural and individual level barriers which prevent the individual from achieving certain life aspirations. These strains may take a variety of forms, such as low socio-economic status, physical ailments or long-lasting family or relationship conflicts (Levin & Madfis, 2009). As strains persist, they become chronic, and can lead to depression and anger, which may consequently result in norm violation, including anti-social behaviour and crime (Silver et al. 2019).
  2. Uncontrolled strain, stems from a lack of meaningful social relationships for the offender.  While all individuals go through periods of chronic strain, many of their negative effects are mitigated through social support systems. The social isolation prevalent in many mass murderers means there is a lack of external control and protection against going ‘over the edge’. Chronic strain without positive relationships may also cause the individual to develop hostility, dislike, and mistrust of others (Levin & Madfis, 2009).
  3. Acute strain, occurs after a significant triggering stressful event which threatens the perpetrator’s ability to cope with their feelings of anger and despair (Silver et al. 2019). Given their already heightened level of stress, this acute strain is the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ and becomes the catalyst for violent acts (Levin & Madfis, 2009).
  4. Planning stage, the combined effects of chronic and acute strains, paired with a lack of social support lead the individual to feel unable to cope and that they have nothing to lose.  To prove they cannot be ignored and are able to accomplish something significant, the perpetrator chooses to assert power through a public and shocking attack, planning their crime so as to achieve maximum damage and success (Levin & Madfis, 2009).
  5. The event itself. This necessitates access to an appropriate site (e.g., school, workplace, public event), availability of suitable targets and weapons, and a lack of guardians who many prevent the plan from being carried out (Levin & Madfis, 2009).

Though originally developed to specifically explain classroom avengers, cumulative strain theory has been increasingly applied to other typologies of mass murderer, such as the disgruntled employee or family annihilator, both of whom typically experience chronic and acute strains, and unstable social bonds prior to their crimes (Silver et al. 2019).

Attachment theory[edit | edit source]

Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973) posits that the ways individuals perceive the world, relate to others, and behave are the result of early childhood experiences, particularly the quality of their attachment with a primary caregiver (Grady et al. 2017), arguing individuals form psychological representations of the parental figure, from which they draw from as models for future relationships and behaviour (Adshead, 2002). Through these relationships, the child learns to anticipate similar responses in the future, meaning early attachment styles may be transferred to future adult relationships with romantic partners and children (Debowska et al. 2015).

Disrupted childhood relationships (plagued by parental loss, separation, abuse or neglect) may result in an anxious, avoidant, or disorganised attachment style, which is thought to make the individual vulnerable to intense feelings of abandonment, anxiety and rage (Johnson & Sachmann, 2014). These insecure attachment styles are commonly cited as a risk factor for violent and anti-social behaviour (Boduszek et al. 2012).

Attachment theory application: The family annihilator

Attachment theory can be applied to the pattern of behaviour often seen in perpetrators of family annihilation, which is commonly instigated following a relationship breakdown. Johnson & Sachmann (2014) argue that due to an insecure attachment style, the loss of a partner causes the perpetrator to feel fragmented, resulting in psychological and emotional regression. Overwhelmed by negative emotions stemming from this rejection (depression, anxiety and rage), and the inability to cope with relationship loss, the family annihilator attempts to regain control through the ‘lethal solution’, completely eradicating the family unit by killing children, their prior partner, and often, themselves.

Social Identity Theory[edit | edit source]

Fig 3. Mugshots of Atkins, Watson & Krenwinkel following their arrest in October 1969

Social Identity theory (SIT) (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) explains that an individual’s self-concept is based on membership with a variety of social groups. These connections act as a resource which can provide personal strength and resilience and inform values, attitudes and behaviour (Sonderlund et al. 2017).  SIT posits that individuals strive to maximise identification with their group, incorporating collective attributes into their own personal identities (Hoffmann et al. 2020). Though most people strive to align themselves with acceptable, ‘pro-social’ groups, this is not always possible (e.g., due to peer rejection, or disillusionment with general society).  In these cases, and through association with strongly anti-social groups, individuals may develop a criminal social identity (Boduszek et al. 2021).  This is particularly likely for those that have been incarcerated, as individuals are forced to interact only with other criminals, facilitating norm identification with increasingly deviant attitudes (Boduszek et al. 2021). In this way, SIT has been posited as an explanation for criminal behaviour.

Social Identity Theory application: Manson Family Murders

The infamous Tate-LaBianca murders exemplify how SIT can be applied to acts of mass murder involving 'disciples'. The perpetrators of these crimes, Charles 'Tex' Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian (Fig 3) were intelligent, had no criminal history, and came from relatively stable homes. Despite this, each had become dissatisfied with a monotonous life, and eventually came under the care and control of a charismatic leader, Charles Manson, later becoming known as the Manson Family. Living together on a deserted property, the family became reliant on Manson, who instilled in them a sense of camaraderie and belonging, along with his own beliefs and agenda (Atchison & Andrew, 2011). Eventually, this led to the four carrying out Manson’s orders without hesitation, working together to achieve the group’s shared goals – raising terror and enacting ‘Helter Skelter’. On August 9, 1969, the four family members entered the home of film director Roman Polanski, killing his wife Sharon Tate and her unborn child, and three other guests (Atchison & Andrew, 2011).

Addressing mass murder[edit | edit source]

Psychological and criminological theory can aid in the understanding of mass murder, but all too often these perspectives are applied after a crime has been committed. What then can be done to address mass murder before it has begun?

Warning signs

Theoretical typologies help to explain the typical motivations and victimology of mass murderers, however this does not necessarily transfer to easy identification of those individuals who may commit such crimes in the future.

Figure 4. Commemorative plaque to the 35 people who lost their lives in the Port Arthur Massacre.

By focusing instead on the common triggers, precipitating factors and psychological and behavioural traits common to mass murders, family members, friends, employers, teachers, mental health professionals and law enforcement may be better positioned to identify the ‘danger-signs’ that often go unnoticed or unreported until it is too late (Holmes & Holmes, 1992)

Gun control

Given the propensity for mass murderers to use firearms, one avenue for diminishing these cases is gun control. This has been shown to deter mass killings in Australia, where stringent gun control under the National Firearms Agreement was implemented following the Port Arthur Massacre of 1996 (Fig. 4).  These reforms led to a substantial decrease gun related deaths, and has largely put a stop to mass shootings in the country since (Hirsch, 2013). Nevertheless, it is naive to expect gun control will deter all instances of mass murder, as removing the means to commit the crime does nothing to assuage the motivations of such killers (Holmes & Holmes, 1992), only the deadliness of their attacks.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Mass murders typically occur within a 'perfect storm' of situational and personal factors that conspire to make an individual act out in violent rage. Most often, perpetrators are motivated by a quest for revenge or power and strive to exert dominance over the individuals or societies they believe have wronged them.

Criminological theories offer various typologies and classifications for these killers to better understand and prevent these crimes, while psychological theories strive to explain how individuals arrive at decision to commit mass murder.

Cumulative strain theory points an array of chronic and acute strains that build up in those that have no pro-social relationships or external control to assuage feelings of anger, while attachment theory highlights the importance of early and lasting interpersonal relationships that effect the ways we view and behave toward others. Finally, Social Identity theory highlights how important our associations with others are in predisposing us to certain beliefs and actions.

The link between all these theories is the importance of positive, pro-social relationships with others. As such the takeaway message in preventing mass murder may be to notice and support those around us. Not only to prevent their forming an intention to harm others, but to notice the warning signs before they do.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Atchison, A. J., & Heide, K. M. (2011). Charles Manson and the Family: The application of sociological theories to multiple murder. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55(5), 771–798.

Auxemery, Y. (2014). The mass murderer history: Modern classifications, sociodemographic and psychopathological characteristics, suicidal dimensions, and media contagion of mass murders. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 56, 149–154.

Boduszek, D., Debowska, A., Sharratt, K., McDermott, D., Sherretts, N., Willmott, D., Popiolek, K., & Hyland, P. (2021). Pathways between types of crime and criminal social identity: A network approach. Journal of Criminal Justice, 72, 101750–.

Dietz, P. E. (1986). Mass, serial and sensational homicides. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine (1925), 62(5), 477–491.

Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (1998). Multiple Homicide: Patterns of Serial and Mass Murder. Crime and Justice (Chicago, Ill.), 23, 407–455.

Fox, J. A., Sanders, N. E., Fridel, E. E., Duwe, G., & Rocque, M. (2021). The Contagion of Mass Shootings: The Interdependence of Large-Scale Massacres and Mass Media Coverage. Statistics and Public Policy, 8(1), 53–66.

Gurian, E. A. (2018). Offending, Adjudication, and Outcome Patterns of Solo Male, Solo Female, and Partnered Mass Murderers. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(7), 1906–1924.

Hirsh, L. (2013). Brothers in arms control: Introducing Australian-style gun control in the United States. Macquarie Law Journal, 12(2013), 81–108.

Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (1992). Understanding mass murder: a starting point. Federal Probation, 56(1), 53–.

Johnson, C., & Sachmann, M. (2014). Familicide-suicide: from myth to hypothesis and toward understanding: familicide-suicide. Family Court Review, 52(1), 100–113.

Levin, J., & Madfis, E. (2009). Mass Murder at School and Cumulative Strain: A Sequential Model. The American Behavioral Scientist, 52(9), 1227–1245.

Peterson, J. K., Densley, J. A., Knapp, K., Higgins, S., & Jensen, A. (2021). Psychosis and mass shootings: A systematic examination using publicly available data. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

Katsavdakis, K. A., Meloy, J. R., & White, S. G. (2011). A Female Mass Murder. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 56(3), 813–818.

Silver, J., Horgan, J., & Gill, P. (2019). Shared struggles? cumulative strain theory and public mass murderers from 1990 to 2014. Homicide Studies, 23(1), 64–84.

Taylor, M. A. (2018). A Comprehensive Study of Mass Murder Precipitants and Motivations of Offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(2), 427–449.

External links[edit | edit source]