Mass murders are prevented by our aggressive weeding out of sociopaths
Mass surveillance alone can’t explain the relative scarcity of mass murder
Talking about the causes of mass murder is difficult, especially in light of the recent rash of mass killings in the United States. As an armchair biologist, my mind quickly goes to the Animal Kingdom. While humans aren’t the most murderous species, not by a long shot, we are probably still number one in mass killings. Every creature minimally has mano-a-mano defenses against conspecifics or members of their species. If a shark attacks another, the defendant has teeth as well. Perhaps what makes humans different is our technology. With the invention of fire comes arson. And with the invention of complex societies and flammable structures, the stakes for arson are high. Sure, people can flee from fires, but their homes cannot. A countervailing force against arson must have evolved along with the invention of fire. Otherwise, humanity wouldn’t have raced up the ladder of civilization to where it is today.
Even in the face of recent mass killings, it’s still mind-boggling how often mass killings don’t occur. I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna or put my head in the ground about the problem of mass murder. On the contrary, I want to take a cold look at the subject of mass safety. When I went to a baseball game and peered down at the stands packed with thousands of people, my first thought was, How is everybody so calm about this? The security at these places isn’t that tight. The only thing I can think of is that for whatever reason, people don’t want to commit mass murder. Not only do they not want to, but the amount of indifference must be overwhelming. 99.999% of people have to not want to kill lots of people. Otherwise, there would be no spectator sports or mass gatherings whatsoever. The real reason that Times Square doesn’t get blown up is that people don’t want to.
The mechanism for reducing the desire for mass murder has so far been ostracism. Everybody works to weed out sociopaths. The most effective policing occurs in schools, where children don’t have the wisdom to hide their darker sides. Videos of playground fights, as well as of adult fights, and also fights among animal conspecifics, typically show everybody pulling punches. Everybody asserts themselves without maiming each other. Everyone stands within some invisible boundary of human decency. Furthermore, if you break the rules in school, the adults may punish you, but you may still be cheered on by your peers. You may even cultivate a “bad boy” reputation. But there are rules that would get you ostracized by both classmates and adults. If you are a true sociopath, not in the sense of Tony Soprano, but more like Jeffrey Dahmer, nobody would want to be your friend. Tony Soprano has a code. Dahmer did not. We fear someone like Dahmer more than even someone like bin Laden. We punish “rule”-breakers, but we remove sociopaths.
When we think of the enforcement of social norms, we typically think of curbing public harassment. What is more common, but invisible, is the policing of very standard human behavior. While we encounter drunks on subways all the time, we just brush them aside. But what we don’t brush aside is when someone stares at you with a blank expression. That person seems dead inside. We aren’t just offended by their behavior, but we are disturbed. It’s that latter feeling that brings with it true ostracism. We will talk to a police officer and do whatever we can to commit that person to a mental institution.
This policing of sociopaths seems like a subset of the policing of liars. We want people to speak fast, with little calculation, otherwise, we don’t trust them. I thought of this when pondering Trump. He slips up often, but the silver lining is that he comes across as trustworthy. Faux pas are a small price to pay for the belief that what you say represents what’s inside. If someone is the type of person that when asked a question, takes a long time to answer, they appear dead behind their eyes. People elicit chilling effects if they don’t react within standard bounds of human behavior, boundaries that include indecent, but still human, responses. We isolate these cold people, and isolated people can do less harm.
Liars and counter-liars are in an arms race, with everybody policing everybody to make sure they at least respond in a human — i.e., impulsive and imperfect — manner. Pervasive tests for veracity are the web that keeps society together. Likewise, pervasive tests for sociopaths are the web that keeps society safe. Now that the fabric of our social web is changing, do we also have to also change our policing?