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Opinion on Current Events: Three Frightening Factors of School Shootings


Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura is the most cited living psychologist and the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University.



Following a school shooting in Ohio, Joseph Grenny shared his thoughts about the media’s effect on these events. Tragically, we witnessed yet another shooting in Santa Barbara, California this past week.
Our mentor and friend, Albert Bandura—one of the greatest living and most influential psychologists of all time—continues the conversation by sharing his thoughts on the topic of violence in schools, based on years of social science research. The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of VitalSmarts. The following article was originally published April 4, 2012.

Public-school shootings strike fear in the public at large. Such occurrences have three factors that make them especially frightening.

The first is unpredictability. There is no forewarning when or where a shooting might occur. This makes every student a potential victim.

The second feature is the gravity of the consequences. Shooting sprees leave in their wake many deaths and severely debilitated survivors. Easy access to semiautomatic handguns, magnified in killing power with large magazines, increase the risk and carnage of heavily-armed attacks.

The third feature is uncontrollability—a perceived helplessness to protect oneself against such an attack should it occur.

Over the years, I have studied the social modeling of unusual modes of violence. Airline hijacking is but one example of the contagion of violent means. Airline hijacking was unheard of in the United States until an airline was hijacked to Havana in 1961. Prior to that incident, Cubans were hijacking planes to Miami. These incidents were followed by a wave of hijackings, both in the United States and abroad, eventually including more than seventy nations. Hijackings were brought under control by an international agreement to suspend commercial flights to countries that permitted safe landings to terrorists.

D. B. Cooper temporarily revived a declining phenomenon in the United States as others became inspired by his successful example. He devised a clever extortion technique in which he exchanged passengers for a parachute and a sizeable bundle of money. He then parachuted from the tail of a Boeing 207 to avoid entanglement on the tail or stabilizers. The newscasts provided a lot of details on how to do it. Within a few months there were eighteen hijackings on Boeing 207′s modeled on the parachute-extortion technique. They continued until a mechanical door lock was installed so that the rear exit could only be opened from the outside. Cooper became a folk hero for eluding the FBI, celebrated in song, on t-shirts, and in fan clubs.

For reasons given earlier, public-school shootings are especially alarming. The media face a challenge on how to report violent acts without spreading what they are reporting. There are two ways they can minimize the contagion. The coverage should avoid providing details on how to do it. Nor should killings be widely publicized.

The Columbine massacre, which received massive coverage, was followed by a series of copycat school killings. Other teenagers were arrested for plotting a school shooting on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. They had the guns, ammunition, and plans on how to disable the school camera system. They modeled themselves after the two Columbine killers to the point of wearing black trench coats.

Once an idea is planted it can be acted upon on some future occasion given sufficient psychosocial instigation to do so. For example, in his ranting video and manifesto, which was publicized by one of the networks, the Virginia Tech killer mentioned the two Columbine killers. In the electronic era, where anyone can post most anything online, mitigating detrimental contagion presents a more daunting challenge. As a society, we need to step up to and find a solution to this challenge.

Albert Bandura

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3 thoughts on “Opinion on Current Events: Three Frightening Factors of School Shootings”

  1. RF

    Advise that I got from the wise ‘old’ men: “If you want to finish something, stop talking about it”. The more we talk about anything, the more importance we give it implicitly.

  2. Jean Hughes

    You neglected to mention the fact that most of the people doing these shootings had unresolved mental health issues. The teenage years and early twenties are when most mental illnesses manifest themselves. When these things happen people are usually very quick to jump on the “Gun Control” bandwagon or blame follow up shootings as “copy-cat” events instead of addressing the real reasons behind them. Those reasons are the lack of funding for mental health resources, the extreme difficulty in accessing those resources and the rights of those with mental illnesses to refuse treatment. Perhaps if there were less of a stigma surrounding mental health issues and more resources available we would see a decline in these shootings.

  3. Deeae

    Violence – and especially mass violence – has less to do with mental illness than it does a moral failure in the individual perpetrating the violence and is, ultimately, an indictment of the society in which that individual has grown and matured.

    To the extent that the agents of society publish/broadcast the identities of violators and their atrocious acts, society becomes even more complicit in those acts, albeit passively, through abdication of its power and authority to honour life and dignity in every exercise and at every level.

    When its governing bodies do not govern intelligently and with an accurate moral compass, thinking that freedom has a higher value than or is independent of responsibility, healthy and sane boundaries are inevitably tested and, at times, exceeded.

    Without a course correction sufficient to reinstate the boundaries at the now weakened or broken sections, the testing will continue, inflaming the populations dependent on good government for safety and well-being until, one day, an eruption will occur …

    … at which point the governing body will immediately announce, through the same media, its revulsion of what has just “happened”, express deep sympathy for the victims and their families …

    … and affirm or reaffirm their “moral” stand against such unacceptable behavior.

    That this article has rendered such little commentary in the more than two years since it was published is testament to how many of us (the healthy and the unhealthy, the well and the ill) are asleep at the wheel, likely rendered unresponsive from exhaustion or distraction or medication.

    I doubt Mr Bandura’s writing has ever met with such silence in all the decades of his professional career.

    Thank you, sir, for taking the time to write.

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