Violence and Motivation

As I was prepping blog posts on Saturday, I joked that this was going to be the week Jim argues with everybody.  It’s made for some interesting conversations so far.  (And very thought-provoking in some cases.)

I think my favorite snippy response is the author who answered my fact-checking of the e-publishing cheerleaders by blogging, “Jim C. Hines, however, is picking nits off the dead monkey, apparently feasting.”

Anyway, on with today’s post, in which I move away from publishing…


I’ve come across two stories I wanted to share regarding the Tuscon shooting and the debate that followed.

The first is from NPR, about a Secret Service study of 83 attempted and completed assassination attempts against various public figures.  (Full study here.)  “Perhaps the most interesting finding is that according to Fein and Vossekuil, assassinations of political figures were almost never for political reasons.”  (Emphasis added.)

Instead, the primary motivation was simply … to be noticed.  To get attention and see your name plastered all over the front page.  Who to kill is almost an afterthought to the decision to commit murder.  The target is whoever will generate the most attention.

We don’t know why Loughner chose to kill those people and tried to murder Congresswoman Giffords.  But this study seems to undercut the automatic assumption that he acted for or was influenced primarily by political reasons.

The study also examines the widespread belief that such murderers are mentally ill.  While Loughner may indeed be mentally ill, a fair number of the initial responses I read were almost tautological: “Only a crazy person would do this, so he must be crazy!” which struck me as problematic for a number of reasons.

The study found that fewer than half of the subjects were delusional at the time of the attack.  “Almost all had psychological problems.  But relatively few suffered from serious mental illness that directly affected their assassination behaviors.”


Boing Boing linked to a 2010 study of violent political rhetoric, and the effects it can have.

“Although the net effect of violent political rhetoric is nil, citizens with the greatest propensity to commit and encourage acts of aggression could well be pushed past a tipping point by violent political rhetoric. This point is emphasized further by the significantly-greater responsiveness of young adults – the population most likely to engage in all forms of aggression.”

In other words, the relatively mild violent metaphors and rhetoric used in the study had no significant effect on most subjects.  But a small minority of people (described as “trait-aggressive”) do respond to such rhetoric, and are more likely to support political violence.

Does this contradict the first study?  Could a trait-aggressive person, in theory, be moved by violent rhetoric to commit political violence, even assassination?  The author suggests this as a possibility, but the research showed only changes in approval of political violence — changes which were significant only for a small minority.  It does not show whether people are more likely to commit such violence.

This study got me thinking about the incident where Rand Paul supporters threw a protester to the ground and stomped on her head: not an assassination attempt, but violence in the heat of the moment.  I’d love to know whether those people assaulting the protester were in that trait-aggressive group.


I don’t know what caused Jared Loughner to murder those people on Saturday.  Two studies aren’t enough to draw any sweeping conclusions, and they don’t necessarily tell us anything about a specific individual.

Toxic and flat-out nasty political bickering can be damaging, as suggested in the second study.  And I stand by my disgust at those who would use such tragedy as a rallying cry or a metaphor to rile supporters and win elections.  But I find both studies informative in the face of the wave of accusations that followed last Saturday’s tragedy.

What do you think?