Can Science Help Predict Violent Behavior? The week began with 32 people killed at Virginia Tech, and also marks the anniversaries of the shootings at Columbine and the bombing in Oklahoma City. Two psychologists discuss whether knowing more about the people who commit these acts can help prevent future violence.
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Can Science Help Predict Violent Behavior?

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Can Science Help Predict Violent Behavior?

Can Science Help Predict Violent Behavior?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, inside the mind of a killer. When the news broke of the shootings at Virginia Tech, most of us were naturally wondering who could do such a thing. Was it someone who just snapped, or the work of a calculated, methodical killer?

Well, by now you probably have seen the videos of Seung-Hui Cho and the man -who's the man responsible. He was angry, he was paranoid, he was ruthless. What does he have, though, in common with other mass murderers: the shooting rampage of Charles Whitman in Texas in 1966 or Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine shooters that the Virginia Tech shooter mentioned by name.

What, if anything, can we learn from these killings from those killers that might help prevent this type of thing from happening again? Is it even possible to prevent these sorts of things from happening? Or are they a natural occurrence out of our - out of our control.

Scientists have studied and published research about mass murders. And here to talk about that work, among other topics, are my guests, J. Reid Meloy, forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, and Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He's also founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being with us today.

Dr. J. REID MELOY (University of California, San Diego): My pleasure.

Dr. FRANK OCHBERG (Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Michigan State University): Good to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Now you - you published a paper - you're one of the authors of a paper called "A Comparative Analysis of North American Adolescent and Adult Mass Murders."

Dr. MELOY: Yes, Ira.

FLATOW: Dr. Meloy, published in 2004.

Dr. MELOY: Correct.

FLATOW: Do you find that the mass murderer in this case matches the profiles of those other murderers?

Dr. MELOY: The paper was a series of four papers that we did looking at both adult and adolescent mass murderers over the past 50 years. And there are a number of striking characteristics that have been identified in Mr. Cho that appeared in our paper.

Two that I want to highlight is, one, that we know that virtually all mass murders are planned, purposeful, they're carried out in an organized way over a period of time, and secondly, that the majority of adult mass murderers typically are individuals who have a psychiatric history and typically a majority are psychotic at the time that they're actually carrying out the killing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you also point out that these are very rare events.

Dr. MELOY: Yeah. These are extraordinarily rare events, which is one of the reasons they get the kind of - the kind of media attention that they do. And fortunately, because of that rarity, we do not have the kind of victims that we see in much more mundane acts of violence around the country.

But also it makes for prediction of these acts virtually impossible, because of their statistical rarity.

FLATOW: Because as a scientist you study mass events - lots of events - and there aren't very many events here to study.

Dr. MELOY: Correct. We had a total of 30 adult mass murderers and 34 adolescent mass murderers. And that was pretty much the universal sample over the past 20 or 30 years in North America. So again, they're exceedingly rare events.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you find that in these mass events - mass crimes - are the people who commit these crimes - are they usually people who've been under some sort of treatment already?

Dr. MELOY: Typically, yes. Yeah. And typically the mental health care has been either unavailable or inadequate to them. They've dropped out of it. They haven't either utilized or it hasn't been made available to them to access. Typically, that psychiatric history is fairly lengthy.

But also, they have additional characteristics such as what we call the development of a warrior mentality over a period of time, where because of the - sort of the blighted nature of their personal life, they retreat into fantasy and develop a lot of characteristics that have as a basis violent fantasy and a lot of fantasy that is focused on feeling that they are being persecuted by other people.

FLATOW: But the point it would also be is that they have expressed these fantasies that have people have seen the possibilities here.

Dr. MELOY: Well, retrospectively, it's very - it's very easy to say that. What typically happens, again from our research, is that the majority of these individuals do engage in what we call leakage. The two third parties, they will express either intent or violent fantasies through things - statements they've made or things that they've written, that bring the individual to very, very grave concern among other people that are around them.

But of course it's not until after the event itself that there is recognition among a group of people that may have been very disparate from one another and may have not communicated that this individual was of great concern to a number of people.

FLATOW: And would there have been anything that people could have done if the individual did not want to be cooperative?

Dr. MELOY: That again gets into an area that's very troubling - particularly in a case like this - and that is that mental health care in the United States is typically now quite brief and mostly voluntary, and that individuals cannot be committed to any kind of mental health care against their will unless they are typically an imminent threat to themselves or others. And therefore people pass in and out of the system for brief periods of time and typically don't get the kind of adequate care that they either need or in some cases that they're actually seeking out.

However, there's no evidence in this case that this individual was trying to avail himself of any psychiatric care. And the brevity of the care indicates that there was - that he was ordered into care briefly and then probably did not continue with it at all.

FLATOW: So there's no way - there's no way to just force these people.

Dr. MELOY: Yes. What I'd also like to say - a very important point - that most people that have a mental disorder are not violent. This is an exceedingly rare event. Typically the diagnoses in these cases are very, very complex and you need a number of ingredients to reach a point where an individual's actually going to carry out a mass murder.

FLATOW: Frank Ochberg, today is the anniversary of the Columbine school killings. You did work on the mental profiles of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Do you see similarities with this Virginia Tech shooter?

Dr. OCHBERG: I see similarities in the impact of the events and the pain that it's caused individuals and a whole community and the desire to try to do something to prevent this.

Incidentally, I agree with everything that Dr. Meloy has said. But I think in the case of Harris and Klebold, we had a rare deadly duo. I don't believe that either one of them would have had the will and the capacity to do what they did alone.

And it appears to me that Harris was moving along the career of a psychopath. This is an area that Dr. Meloy has great expertise in. And he may want to say more about that.

A psychopath is not the same thing as a psychotic. A psychopath lacks a conscience and it doesn't have the capacity to feel guilt or remorse or to truly identify with a role model. And when you have a mind that doesn't have a conscience, it goes in a certain direction, not necessarily sadistic. But again - and it appears to me that Dylan Klebold had a very different personality, persona, set of issues, probably more depressed and angry, probably not psychotic.

FLATOW: All right - Dr. Ochberg, hold on to that thought because we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk about it some more. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the shootings at Virginia Tech, and are there any similarities to other mass murderers, to other shootings around the country?

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Talking with J. Reid Meloy, forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University in East Lansing, when I rudely interrupted Dr. Ochberg, who was trying to make a point.

Do you want to try that again?

Dr. OCHBERG: Well, we don't know enough about Mr. Cho to say what his diagnosis and mental state is. But by now it looks as though Harris and Klebold together had what it took to do what they did.

Dr. MELOY: Yeah.

Dr. OCHBERG: But individually didn't. And one was a cold, calculating, glib psychopath to be, and the other was hot-headed, hot-tempered, and not psychotic, and probably not psychopathic.

FLATOW: Purely statistically speaking, Drs. Meloy and Ochberg, is there any way we could say these things will never happen? I mean they're - (unintelligible) a better word, there are crazy people out there.

And we try to - we try to analyze them and pull them apart and whatever. But there are crazy people who will do crazy things.

Dr. MELOY: Yes. Go ahead, Frank.

Dr. OCHBERG: Well, I've been thinking about the possibility of outpatient civil commitment. And you never want to come up with new and potentially difficult -even dangerous - ideas in the shadow of a provocative rare event.

But there certainly are people who present a lot of concern to those around them and to experts who have a chance to evaluate them. And yet they don't pass the threshold for civilly denying them their liberty.

They come before probate judges. There is an evaluation and sometimes a battle of experts. But ultimately they get their freedom.

What we don't have is a way of compelling these people to check in with somebody who is part therapist, part probation officer, part protective service worker, and also to allow some exchange of information about these people.

If we could narrow the scope so that it wasn't applied broadly but it was applied where we have the kind of concerns that arise with these cases, perhaps we could prevent something. I don't think we'll get it down to zero.

Dr. MELOY: Yeah. I would agree with Frank. One of the things that I think is very important to recognize is that sometimes focusing on threat assessment and threat management rather than attempting to predict is a much more realistic approach in these cases.

And I think from a social policy perspective, two things are important to consider here. One is that high quality mental health care and services be available quickly and efficiently to anybody that wants them, whether they're in high school or whether they're on campuses throughout the country.

And that secondly, that schools and colleges consider having a threat assessment team that's there on campus. Typically it's multi-disciplinary. It's composed of educators from the campus, a mental health professional, law enforcement - local law enforcement.

And this group of people know who they are as a member of the team. And they can actually consult with each other via telephone on a moment's notice. They perhaps have regular meetings.

And through this process, the kind of individuals that Frank has referred to begin to, in a sense, come on the radar as individuals of serious concern on the campus. And then mechanisms can be set up without interfering with their civil liberties to pursue a route of provision of mental health care perhaps as an involuntary outpatient.

There's actually an excellent program in California called a conditional lease program - which is a judicial commitment program for insanity acquittees that's I think a very good model for this.

But that you use these kind of mechanisms that don't institutionalize people but in a sense provide some level of monitoring and coercion, particularly if it's - if you're facing somebody who is increasingly paranoid, because paranoid individuals - just by definition - are going to be very suspect of anybody offering any kind of care.

FLATOW: And yet Cho was able to go out, legally purchase a handgun with a background check, and none of this background was influential in denying him buying a gun.

Dr. OCHBERG: Ira, I've gotten 40 calls from around the world about this in the last 36 hours, and the ones from overseas make that point over and over. How can this happen? It doesn't happen in our country. I don't want to use this as a platform for talking about gun control, but it is clear that this kind of personality should not have access to a lethal weapon.

How we prevent this in a practical way in America is a big problem.

Dr. MELOY: Yeah. I again would just want to echo that, that I am a firm believer in the right of individuals to bear arms in this country, but secondly, I'm also a firm believer that individuals that do bear arms have the skill and the competence in their use, that they're licensed to be able to do that and that also they have the stability to do that.

Now, I'm not sure how that actually translates into public policy, but you know, the parallel that's been raised a number of times just in the past few days is the whole notion that we don't give out drivers licenses just by, you know, signing a form and then being handed a license because we recognize the lethality risk of driving a car, and I think that needs to be recognized too with any kind of possession of a firearm.

Dr. OCHBERG: Ira, could I come back an endorse Reid's notion of having the interdisciplinary team on every college campus, every high school. That would be a boon, but I was consulted by one of these interdisciplinary teams a few years back about somebody who resembled Mr. Cho, and there really was very little we could do.

We don't have mechanisms in place in most parts of America to allow the kind of continual contact that we need to provide a person like this, regardless of whether they want it or not.

FLATOW: And you both point out that our mental health system is so weak that just from the get-go we're at a disadvantage.

Dr. MELOY: Yeah, the system is such that - you know, the whole direction of the system, and I've been watching this since the, since the late 1960s, has been in briefer care and short-term care and shifting people from an institutional setting back out into the community.

Well, I think the intent under John Kennedy was commendable. The reality is that the outpatient services have not kept up with the deinstitutionalization. So now we have the mentally ill either in custody around the country or walking the streets. In a sense, one has a right to be psychotic and free in this country, unless one poses and imminent threat to another, and that has also contributed to this notion of very, very brief care, where persons are then committed but then released very quickly back into the community.

Dr. OCHBERG: I can tell you, I was the responsible federal official in the mid-'70s for mental health services through the federal government in the United States, and it is sad. It's not that we had a bad model. We didn't have the political support for the funding for the program as planned.

The community mental health services model, if all the elements are there, can work, but nowhere is it working the way it was intended. It's one of several sad things about what the American public sector could do, should do and isn't doing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Bob in Kings Beach, California. Hi, Bob. Bob, are you there? Bob, are you there, Bob?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I guess we lost Bob. But he was going to ask a good question. It was a question I was wondering about myself. How do the mass killings and Cho as a mass bomber - how does he compare to suicide bombers in, let's say, Baghdad? I mean he basically did the same thing, did he not?

Dr. OCHBERG: Very different, very, very different. Because what we know about suicide bombers is normalcy in the functions of their mind, extreme belief, and a participation in family life. They are not deluded. We may not agree at all with their martyrdom, but these are not people who have schizophrenia or (unintelligible).

Dr. MELOY: Yeah, another important difference is that typically in that kind of political social context of suicide bombing, you have some kind of command and control mechanism. The person is being directed to go do this, to go blow himself up, whereas in this particular case, as in other mass murder cases we've seen in the U.S., we have an individual who has become increasingly isolated, increasingly resentful and alienated from other people, and then in the course of that has also deteriorated mentally and oftentimes has become quite paranoid.

With the adult mass murderers, virtually all the cases, these individuals act by themselves; they're not directed by anybody to do this. And even with the adolescents, about three-quarters of the adolescent mass murderers act alone. But to sort of bounce off a point that Frank made earlier, about 25 percent, and this would include the Columbine killers, about 25 percent of adolescent mass murders do act as a pair when they commit their offenses, and that's something that emerged from our research.

FLATOW: Let me ask you this question. We're watching the terrible healing process that's trying to take place at Virginia Tech. We're seeing the effects on families and getting some idea of what it's like when you have a massacre like this, and it makes one feel about what people in Baghdad must be going through every day. This happens every day on a larger scale. They must be going through some sort of hell there.

Dr. MELOY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the traumatic effect of this on a population is just enormous, and also I - you know, I want to note that yesterday was the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing case too, which was a different scenario but also had an enormous impact on all of us in the U.S., particularly the citizens of Oklahoma.

Dr. OCHBERG: Ira, while we can assume and believe that the impact in Baghdad is similar to the ones here, I don't think that the American empathy is the same.

Dr. MELOY: Right.

Dr. OCHBERG: I think there's something about an event that takes place with our children in our schools, and we bleed, and we rage, and we identify strongly, but when it takes place in another culture, in another climate, and there are a different set of victims, we don't have the same national identification.

Dr. MELOY: Correct.

FLATOW: Talking about the mass murder this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with J. Reed Meloy and Frank Ochberg.

I notice - I know, Dr. Ochberg, that you were the founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and I noticed yesterday that one of the CNN anchors broke down on the air, and he cried when he described how the cell phones of some of the dead students were ringing with, obviously, people who knew them, wanting to know their, you know, their whereabouts. This must be taking a terrible toll on some of those reporters.

Dr. OCHBERG: Absolutely, Ira, and when I see that, actually, rather than feel that this is a disgrace to the profession or there's some weakness here, I think good, this is human, and there is nothing wrong with being moved to tears. What I worry about is when some of your colleagues reach the point where they're depressed, alcoholic, where through vicarious exposure they have post-traumatic stress disorder. And let me tell you, the research shows that the war correspondents have the same rates of mental and emotional difficulty as the combat soldiers.

Dr. MELOY: There's also, there's another side to this, too, that I just want to point out, and that is the, you know, the saturation coverage by the media of these events, that you know, when we do this, you know, there's an emotional immediacy that's brought to each viewer and each perceiver of these events around the country.

And then there's also the risk with the pain, the kind of detailed attention to this act, particularly the visual display of the photographs of Mr. Cho that he produced, perhaps as a way to make himself notorious after death, that the risk there is this may also energize other - typically young males to engage in similar acts, and that's a pattern that many of us have observed, that you'll see a clustering of these events as a young man who perhaps shares similar characteristics with Mr. Cho will not identify with the victims but will instead identify with the shooter and see the kind of notoriety that he's getting and want to be like him.

FLATOW: Do you think then it was a mistake to show that tape?

Dr. MELOY: I'm of two minds about it. I think that this - the saturation and repetitive nature of the display of these images I think was in error, but I think also it's important for people to see an individual in this kind of state of mind who can still carry out such an organized act of mass murder, because one of the misunderstandings - well, actually two among the public regarding cases such as this - is one, is these individuals snap.

There's no such thing as snapping. That's not a diagnostic term. These acts are planned. They're purposeful. They're carried out over time. These are not impulsive acts, and we see that displayed graphically in this self-created media that this young man has done, and that we also see an individual who is carrying out these behaviors and planning and in a sense - our term is decompensating, that you see him devolve into this kind of very, very disturbed mental state, and for people to see that actually and to recognize that this can happen to people I think is important.

Dr. OCHBERG: Ira, can I make a quick comment on that?

FLATOW: Yes, quickly, please.

Dr. OCHBERG: I don't think we should contemplate denying the public newsworthy images, newsworthy but terrible, horrible facts that have occurred before us. I mean, the newscasters are our eyes and ears, and we've got to know. But as Reid is saying, we have to warn consumers, don't overdose on this.

We have to tell parents of vulnerable kids, kids who can become aggressive adolescent boys and play with these ideas, limit the exposure. If you find a child who seems to be addicted to this as a source of pleasure, question what this child needs. But I don't want to blame the restaurant for serving too much food to the person who overeats.

FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today: J. Reid Meloy, forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego; Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State, also founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Thank you, gentlemen.

Dr. MELOY: Thank you very much, Iraq.

Dr. OCHBERG: Thank you.

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