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Behind school shootings, rejection and anger

Aug. 20, 2007
Courtesy American Psychological Association
and World Science staff

Af­ter a stu­dent shot 32 class­mates to death, then him­self, at Vir­gin­ia Tech un­ivers­ity in Blacks­burg, Va. last April, po­lice asked them­selves what his mo­tive could have been.

The en­trance to the Vir­gin­ia Tech cam­pus where a sen­ior, Se­ung-Hui Cho, calm­ly shot doz­ens of peo­ple on April 16.


A new study claims to offer an­swers for why most such school mas­sacres oc­cur: stu­dents re­jected by peers with­draw, then get an­gry and lash out.

Re­search­ers at the Shy­ness Re­search In­sti­tute in New Al­ba­ny, Ind. say the per­pe­tra­tors of­ten suf­fer from “cyn­i­cal shy­ness”—an ex­treme form of shy­ness, hard­ened by re­jec­tion, that mainly af­fects males and can lead to vi­o­lence.

The re­search­ers pre­sented a stu­dy, based on anal­y­sis of school shoot­ings in the last dec­ade, at the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­socia­t­ion an­nu­al con­ven­tion in San Fran­cis­co last week­end. 

In­sti­tute psy­chol­o­gist Ber­nar­do Car­duc­ci and col­league Kris­tin Ter­ry Neth­ery stud­ied the cases of eight youths who be­tween 1995 and 2004 com­mit­ted shoot­ings at their high schools. The re­searchers ex­am­ined the news ac­counts for what they called in­di­ca­tors of “cyn­i­cal shy­ness,” which in­clude lack of em­pa­thy, low tol­er­ance for frustra­t­ion, an­ger out­bursts, so­cial re­jec­tion from peers and bad family rela­t­ions. 

“The in­di­vid­u­als in­volved in the sev­en deadly high school shoot­ings with­in the last dec­ade clearly had char­ac­ter­is­tics of cyn­i­cal shy­ness,” the re­search­ers wrote. These stu­dents “tend to be male and des­per­ately want to be so­cially en­gaged with oth­er peo­ple. But of­ten lack­ing in so­cial skills, [they] get re­jected by their peers and then avoid so­cial con­nec­tions be­cause of the re­sult­ing pain.”

Re­peat­ed rebuffs can in­ten­si­fy hurt feel­ings that ul­ti­mately sour in­to an­ger, they added. To han­dle the re­jec­tion, said Car­duc­ci, these youths cre­ate what he calls a cult of one. “They end up alone and start hat­ing the peo­ple who re­ject them. This al­lows the cyn­ic­ally shy per­son to dis­tance him­self from the hurt, but al­so makes it eas­i­er for him to re­tal­i­ate with vi­o­lence.” 

Teach­ers, par­ents and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als should look out for stu­dents whose shy­ness is a source of an­ger and hos­til­ity, said Car­duc­ci. “Most young peo­ple who are shy do not ex­pe­ri­ence their shy­ness as a source of an­ger and hos­til­ity,” he said. “But for those shy stu­dents who are seem­ingly iso­lat­ed and an­gry, we need to pro­vide ways for them to learn how to en­gage with oth­ers and cre­ate a sense of com­mun­ity for them­selves. This is es­pe­cially true dur­ing times of tran­si­tion, like go­ing to col­lege.”


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After a student shot 32 classmates to death, then himself, at Virginia Tech university in Blacksburg, Va. last April, police asked themselves what his motive could possibly have been. A new study claims to provide answers for why most such school massacres occur: students rejected by peers withdraw, then get angry and then lash out. Researchers at the Shyness Research Institute in New Albany, Ind. say the perpetrators often suffer from “cynical shyness”—an extreme form of shyness, hardened by rejection, that mainly affects males and can lead to violence. The researchers presented a study, based on analysis of school shootings in the last decade, at the American Psychological Association annual convention in San Francisco last weekend. Institute psychologist Bernardo Carducci, and colleague Kristin Terry Nethery examined the cases involving eight individuals between 1995 and 2004 who had committed shootings at their high schools. They examined the news accounts of these shootings for personal and social indicators of “cynical shyness.” The researchers listed these including as lack of empathy, low tolerance for frustration, anger outbursts, social rejection from peers and bad family relations. “The individuals involved in the seven deadly high school shootings within the last decade clearly had characteristics of cynical shyness,” the researchers wrote. These students “tend to be male and desperately want to be socially engaged with other people. But often lacking in social skills, [they] get rejected by their peers and then avoid social connections because of the resulting pain.” Repeated rejection can intensify hurt feelings that ultimately sour into anger, they added. To handle the rejection, said Carducci, these youths create what he calls a cult of one. “They end up alone and start hating the people who reject them. This allows the cynically shy person to distance himself from the hurt but also makes it easier for him to retaliate with violence.” Teachers, parents and mental health professionals should look out for those students whose shyness is a source of anger and hostility, said Carducci. “Most young people who are shy do not experience their shyness as a source of anger and hostility,” he said. “But for those shy students who are seemingly isolated and angry, we need to provide ways for them to learn how to engage with others and create a sense of community for themselves. This is especially true during times of transition, like going to college.”