Malcolm Gladwell Explores a Theory on School Shootings

In 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Thresholds of Violence”. In his article, Gladwell explored the motivations behind school shooters – using his trademark combination of interviews, data, and psychological theory. Gladwell is a renowned journalist, popular for the insights he brings to issues of the social sciences. This article is not the first time that he has explored topics of social psychology ahead of current events. In his book Blink (2005), Gladwell explored the mistakes that police officers can make when they are in the heat of the chase. As we know from the current Black Lives Matter movement, these mistakes can often have very controversial and tragic ends.

It is fitting to revisit Gladwell’s article in 2018, as the students of Parkland, FL have begun a massive movement to change the gun laws that are to blame for the epidemic of school shootings that occur in America. These driven teenagers are angry. Why shouldn’t they be? But as the marches and school walkouts sweep the nation, there is still an ongoing debate revolving around the cause of these mass shootings. Malcolm Gladwell had a theory on what was behind the motivation of these killers – and he shared that theory with the world more than 3 years ago.

Gladwell pads his article with massive emotional appeal, laying out the psychology of the issue using the power of storytelling. In this piece, Gladwell is telling his audience the story of John LaDue, a seventeen-year-old kid from Minnesota who almost became a school shooter. Gladwell isn’t interested in how police were able to stop this event from occurring, instead he is fascinated with the motivation that drove LaDue to the point of murdering his fellow students.

John LaDue

LaDue tells police officers in his formal interview that he “just wanted as many victims as possible.” As a motivating factor for murder, it is a pretty weak one. Gladwell seems to find it weak as well, and probes deeper to find a more substantial reason that LaDue wanted to murder, not only his classmates, but also his own family. In the interest of hooking into the emotions of his readers, Gladwell stops LaDue’s narrative for a moment to review the painful history of American school shootings.

There are a lot of school shooting incidents to offer up as evidence that this issue has become a major problem for Americans. Tragically, since this article was published in 2015, there are many more incidents of school shootings that Gladwell can add to his list. According to Gladwell, “since Sandy Hook, there have been more than one hundred and forty school shootings in the United States.” Sandy Hook occurred in 2012. These statistics hit the reader hard. They are supposed to.

One of the elements of school shootings that Gladwell’s article aims to explore regarding this “modern phenomenon” is that the shooters do not appear to fit into any pattern. This is a problem because it makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to prevent school shootings. Gladwell provides narrative evidence of this puzzle by showcasing the individual backgrounds of various shooters – some were the products of “chaotic home life,” while others “had not been traumatized.” He mentions that Eric Harris, the mastermind behind the massacre at Columbine High School, was a “classic psychopath” that was able to manipulate and fool everyone around him. At the conclusion of this psychological survey of school shooters, Gladwell returns his audience to the story of LaDue. LaDue also does not fit any profile that law enforcement and professional criminal psychologists have created to explain school shooters.

It is here that Gladwell finally presents his social psychology theory on school shooters to his audience. He has effectively reached readers and connected to them on an emotional level. It is time for some logical reasoning and social science.

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Gladwell carefully unfolds a decades-old theory for his readers. This theory, developed by Stanford scientist Mark Granovetter, seeks to explain “a person or group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are and what they think is right.” Gladwell sees an instant connection between this phenomenon and the school shooters of modern America. He acknowledges that Granovetter’s theory was an attempt to explain riots – but that it can be adapted and brought into the future.

The key element of Granovetter’s theory about riots is that it diverged from the popular (at the time) idea that the motivation to join a riot occurred on an individual level. Unlike others that believed individuals altered their personalities while in the moment, Granovetter saw riots as “a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around him.” This theory hinges on another social science theory – the threshold. Gladwell explains that Granovetter described the concept of thresholds as “the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.” Gladwell continues to explain that thresholds build on each other in levels, until the group becomes so large that it pulls in more and more individuals that would have never even conceived of joining the group.

This is a very powerful theory. As the reader begins to see how Gladwell connects it to the puzzle of school shooters, a figurative lightbulb begins to turn on. The implication that these acts of group violence (riots) can grow and evolve means that “they have depth and length and a history.” Something that is becoming true of school shootings in America. Gladwell argues that this theory of thresholds and riots can be effectively applied to seeing school shootings as “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot” that seems to have no end in sight.

After explaining and evolving Granovetter’s theory on riots and making his powerful hypothesis that this theory could explain school shootings, Gladwell brings the reader back to Columbine High School in 1999. Gladwell quotes another social psychologist, Ralph Larkin, to argue that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – the two Columbine shooters – “laid down the ‘cultural script’ for the next generation of shooters.” It is a powerful observation, and something that a reader can validate by turning on the news in 2018. Gladwell uses statistical facts to support Larkin’s argument. There is no denying that the majority of school shooters that were interviewed after Columbine cited Harris and Klebold as heroes.

Gladwell returns to the narrative of LaDue, the wannabe school shooter that was arrested before he was able to carry out mass murder. To Gladwell, LaDue fits the profile of a “high threshold” individual – based on Granovetter’s theory. LaDue was pulled into the phenomenon of school shootings, but lacked the “lower threshold” personality that was required to actually follow through. This saved lives only because the police arrested him in time. There is no way to know if LaDue would have gone through with his plans.

Gladwell ends his explorative argument by observing that “the problem [with American school shooters] is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts.” Gladwell tells us that it is worse because “young men no longer need to be disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.” It is entirely possible that the future safety of America’s schoolchildren lies in the exploration of Granovetter’s threshold theory.

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