Massacres in Westernized Societies

As America reels from the latest massacre, everyone tries to make sense of an action that seems senseless. Everyone has a heated opinion, and the issue of gun ownership raises its ugly head again, and politicians, especially the two presidential candidates, are noticeably silent about what to do about the second amendment - the right to bear arms. Officials engage in rhetoric to further their own cause (to own guns or not) and argue as to whether the absence of guns would prevent individuals massacres. It may, however, be more pertinent to focus not on the macro aspects of such events, but the mirco aspects - the psychology of the individual who commits such gross atrocities.

This article seeks to show how a seemingly "normal" people who live in our communities, could either "snap" or deliberately plot over months to massacre as many people as possible. It uses Transactional Analysis to offer a meaningful profile of an individual living in a peaceful westernized society who could contemplate doing such a thing, and it asks the question that politicians should be asking, "What is going wrong in westernized societies that generate such individuals?"

Transactional Analysis (TA) theorists postulate that personality is a combination of genes and socialization, (the way we're raised - the nature versus nurture argument) and so researchers have sought to understand the impact of the family and parenting styles on personality development. TA offers a theory that shows the basic fundamental aspects of personality are present by the age of six years old, and are moderated and refined during childhood and adolescence. Neonatal research shows that newborn infants attempt to engage eye contact with their mothers, thus beginning the attachment/bonding process. When mother and baby are attuned to each other the baby thrives, feels secure and his personality develops in a positive way.

Human beings are not born with a conscience and only develop one through a "conditioned response". For example, if a child is securely attached to its mother and does something "wrong" and incurs his mother's anger, the anxiety is such that he will do anything to regain his mother's love and reduce his anxiety. The repetition of this conditioned response means that the child will assimilate an "internal code of conduct", a conscience, and be accountable for his actions as he matures. If a child is not securely attached to his caregiver, when he does something "wrong" he is less likely to feel the same anxiety as he has "nothing to lose", and so does not learn to develop a conscience. The importance of attachment to a mother figure in the emergent personality cannot be overstated.

In order for a child to receive the attention (Strokes) he needs, those who are securely attached don't have to try to get their mother's attention - she will anticipate his needs, teach him to tolerate frustration and he'll develop in a healthy way. The child who is not attached to his mother, (either through maternal depression, drugs or alcohol misuse, or merely due to intergenerational poor parenting skills) subconsciously adapts his behavior, and subsequently his beliefs about himself and the world around him, in order to get the attention (Strokes) he needs and must have. These beliefs are assimilated into his sense of self and TA theory postulates that the child develops "conditional worth." For example, "I'm only okay if I'm perfect, if I try hard, be strong and please others. So the four "life stances" are, Be Perfect, Try Hard, Be Strong and Please Others. The child will typically, subconsciously adopt one of these stances on life. As there is no rule book on parenting, most of us adapt to the life stances to some degree and that is not necessarily a negative thing. A Be Perfect stance can be the motivation to achieve in school or in our careers, pleasing others helps us connect to other people, and to cope with life's adversities we all have to try hard and be strong at times. These stances on life only become pathological when the individual sees himself as falling short of that ideal and suffers psychological distress as a result.

The socialization of children begins from the moment of birth, and as babies don't have language they learn what's acceptable behaviors in their family through non-verbal communication. When others smile and clap at a child's behavior, he will repeat that behavior, likewise when others frown or shout, the child knows that particular behavior is not acceptable, provided the child is securely attached to the parent. If not, the child doesn't care that its parents are displeased and will learn that acting out will get him attention. (This is known as Operant Conditioning or behavior shaping.)

The non-verbal communication is referred to as psychological "permissions" or "injunctions," positive and negative respectively. Psychological permissions allow a child to thrive and grow and injunctions prohibit growth. For example, if a parent is uncomfortable touching and holding, a child could assimilate a Don't Be Close injunction. If a child is shouted at or ridiculed when he falls over and cries, his subconscious may discern that showing his feelings is an unsafe thing to do, so could develop a Don't Feel injunction. There are 12 such injunctions with which a child may perceive the world around him. They are: Don't Exist; Don't Be You; Don't Be A Child; Don't Grow Up; Don't Succeed; Don't Be Anything; Don't Be Important; Don't Belong; Don't Be Well/ or Sane; Don't Think; Don't Feel; Don't Be Close. These injunctions elicit opinions and beliefs that a child carries into adulthood, where they inhibit the ability to become an autonomic, mature, self-actualizing person. Unresolved injunctions ruin relationships, foster low self-esteem, and leaves individuals believing that they are "not okay" and others are "not okay" either, and they become stroke deprived. This is known as "the despairing position" and is usually the precursor to suicide.

So it can be seen that the emergent personality has many facets originating from the early interaction between infant/child and his caregivers. As we all assimilate some injunctions during socialization, and the majorities of individuals are "well balanced" and function positively in society, it seems that there are "buffers" that reduce the impact of injunctions upon the self. For example, if parents have no motivation to succeed, another role model with drive and determination could prevent the child from assimilating a Don't Succeed injunction. It is only when a child has limited access to "balanced" care-givers that the likelihood of assimilating injunctions may occur.

TA postulates that there are three "ego states" and to be "whole" one should have accessible amount of energy in all three ego states. The Parent ego state consists of overseeing the self, dictating to the self, being judgmental or permitting towards to self, and it also houses the conscience and empathy for others. The Adult ego state consists of the ability to think objectively, appraise situations and recognize that each behavior has a consequence. The Child ego state consists of feelings and the early decisions an individual makes about the self based on the assimilation of life stances, permissions and injunctions.

While the vast majority of citizens of westernized societies would never contemplate murder, some individuals do, and psychologists seek to offer a profile of such individuals to explain what has gone wrong with their socialization process and thus their personalities. TA offers a profile of such individuals to explain the internal processes they contend with on a daily basis.

Typically individuals who commit atrocities in peaceful westernized societies would lack a functioning Parent ego state and have a flawed Adult ego state, which suggest sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. They would live their lives through the "despairing position" of "I'm not okay and others are not okay either," which would leave them stroke deprived and emotionally isolated. They would have "conditional worth", subconsciously believing that their sense of self could only be positive if they adhered strictly to the life stances of Be Perfect, Be Strong, Try Hard and Please Others. One cannot generalize which life stance those who commit atrocities would adopt as these positions are a direct reflection of differing family dynamics, however, it would be the failure to live up to these dictates that would trigger the inception of such atrocities. Likewise, the injunctions assimilated into the personality will reflect differing family dynamic and will be examined below.

The rationale for a lack of a functioning Parent ego state are obvious: any "normal" person who may having fleeting thoughts of committing any antisocial act would exercise self-control and be mindful of the impact of such acts upon other people. Although TA theory postulates that everyone has the ability to think, with the possible exception of those with severe brain damage, those who commit atrocities exhibit a flawed Adult ego state, as they fail to process the consequences of their actions. They may show the ability to plan and scheme, but such thought processes would be evidence of "magical thinking" and therefore distorted. They may be grandiose or have delusions believing that an outside entity directs their thoughts and behaviors.

It is entirely possible that those who commit massacres in westernized societies may have assimilated a Don't Exist injunction (the most damaging of all injunctions) for many commit suicide after the completion of their act, or are killed by the police in ensuing gunfire. Those who willingly give themselves up to the police would seem unlikely to have a Don't Exist injunction, as the drive to stay alive is obviously present, but exhibit many other injunctions that prevent them from becoming an autonomous, self-actualizing person. As history shows, most offenders of mass murder in westernized societies tend to be isolated and self-defeating individuals. That would suggest that they have assimilated the following injunctions: Don't Think, Don't Succeed, Don't Be Important, Don't Be Close, Don't Belong, Don't Feel, Don't Be Well/Sane and Don't Grow Up. Having such a flawed personality would produce a very real fear that others would "find them out" and so they would be very reluctant to interact with others, and would try to blend in so that their flaws would not be discovered. They may present a brittle façade of normality but would spend a great deal of energy maintaining that façade, thus furthering the conflict inside them.

It is impossible to speculate what the "trigger" might be that initiates an individual to act out his fantasies resulting in mass murder without a detailed social history as triggers may differ, but there's little doubt that there must be some psychological gain that they believe they can't satisfy through alternative safe activities. Planning a massacre would provide "stimulation, a purpose and temporary release from Don't Succeed and Don't Be Important dictates," but as the planning becomes a reality, and the individual loses the ability to think rationally (to use his Adult ego state), the internal conflict becomes so pathological and the sense of self so fragmented that the only outcome will involve suicide or outside intervention. Having a flawed Adult ego state (a Don't Think Injunction) means that an individual would be "acting out" beyond awareness, subconsciously, what TA theorists call, a "Life Script." It means that he formulates opinions about himself in infancy and early childhood, tests his theory during adolescence, and then followed his Life Script as an adult without giving it any thought. It's like being on "automatic pilot" - no thought needed.

If the sense of self, the personality, is so fragmented that the individual cannot place boundaries around the self, if suicide is not an option, he will seek someone else to put boundaries around him, which would then reduce his internal conflict somewhat. Spending his life in prison would enable him to "play out" his assimilated injunctions of Don't Think, Don't Succeed, Don't Be Important, Don't Be Close, Don't Belong, Don't Feel, Don't Be Well/Sane and Don't Grow Up.

Institutionalization fosters and reinforces all these aspects of the self, and although the notion of life imprisonment may be noxious to most people, the boundaries, rules and regime may serve to reduce some of the mass murderer's internal psychological conflict.

This article sought to ask and examine, "What is going wrong in westernized societies that generate such individuals who could commit massacres?" It has shown how the personality develops using Transactional Analysis theory, and how inadvertently through the assimilation of injunctions, personalities may become pathological and cause individuals such psychological distress that they would do almost anything to reduce the internal conflict raging within them. This article does not seek to "blame" parents for the quirks in their children's personality. Most parents do the best they can while they are young and prior to processing through their own injunctions. What it does seek to highlight is the absolute importance of bonding with a newborn infant so that the child becomes securely attached, develops a positive self-image and high self-esteem, and most importantly, develops a conscience. All the time that women give birth without the rudiments of parenting skills, these deficits in personality development will continue, causing at the very least psychological misery and failed relationships. At the very worst, inadequate parenting skills can produce individuals who are so internally conflicted, without empathy, who are sociopathic and psychopathic, and who are capable of carrying out the atrocities that occur in every westernized society. Basic parenting skills should be taught in schools, and attitudes towards "mental illness" need to change. Personal growth, where individuals explore their sense of self, and resolve their own assimilated injunctions, elicits "mental health", and personal growth classes should be available in schools also. It is only then that mothers will be able to parent from a healthy position and produce stable, secure children who go on to become stable and secure adults.

That these individuals exist in every westernized society and live among us without detection, and the atrocities that they may go on to perform, is a tragedy at every level.

I wish I'd known everything I know now prior to having my five children because then I would have done some things differently, not all, but some. When I see some "flaws" in my grown up children I can relate them directly back to decisions I made as an inexperienced mother, and wish that their own "personal journey" didn't include resolving any issues initiated by my actions. Of course this is an idle wish as no one can be a perfect parent. Despite having no academic knowledge about parenting at the age of 20, I was lucky to be driven by my adoration of babies, so although I didn't know about attachment theory then, all five of my babies were securely attached to me, thrived and developed a conscience.
What concerns me so much, especially working with troubled teenagers, is the obvious lack of attachment between themselves and their families, and the absence of a conscience. These teenagers go on to have babies themselves and repeat the cycle of maternal deprivation. Authorities are aware of these unfortunate individuals and their impact on society, but it is those individuals who have slipped through the net, kept their heads down, appear okay on the outside but suffer horribly on the inside that worry me the most. Attitude towards mental illness has to change so that individuals who hurt can get the help they need without being labeled or stigmatized.
I am working on a new book, "How to Be Your Own Supervisor" that will help anyone who can read, so they can heal themselves and understand their parents' beliefs, actions and parenting styles. Of course my series of therapeutic novels, I Only Said, can help too. I have a favorite saying, "There's no blame, only understanding." Sincerely, Dr. Celia Banting.