Narcissism: A Threat Assessment Perspective

One of the Columbine shooters claimed: ‘I feel more confident, stronger, and more God-like’ when using guns; whilst the Virginia Tech perpetrator compared himself to biblical figures and spoke of his attack inspiring a revolution. Describing oneself as a God and feeling far superior to others: these are common motivation factors for school shooters, linking to the personality condition ‘narcissism.’

The term originated from the Greek legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, but this condition is so much more than just vanity. The criteria outlined on the ‘Narcissism Personality Inventory,’ a forced choice questionnaire consisting of forty items designed to clinically measure the condition, are: low self-esteem, dominance, egocentricity, a grandiose sense of self-importance or superiority, fantasies of success and power, sensitivity to criticism, feeling indifferent towards others; exploiting interpersonal relationships and expecting favours without reciprocating, a lack of empathy, and alternating between over-idealising and devaluating other people. The combination of these factors seems rather paradoxical: How can one have a grandiose sense of self-importance and low self-esteem? Why alternate between idealising other people and being apathetic towards them?

The key factor here is fragile nature of identity. Identities are constantly being developed throughout the course of one’s life. Even during this process, it is not enough to simply assert an identity; it has to be approved or disproved through the feedback of others. For the narcissist, the grandiose sense of self-importance they hold relies on the validation of others: an ‘admiring audience’ is their equivalent of Narcissus’s pool of water showing his reflection. This means the high self-esteem and superiority they hold are ‘fragile’ in nature and masking a real sense of worthlessness and shame. Important to note here is these characteristics apply to ‘overt narcissism,’ rather than the other ‘covert form’ where those who suffer from it suffer from a feeling of hopelessness and despair.

A sense of injustice at the world and blaming everyone but themselves for their problems, coupled with some form of mental illness, means school shooters believe the attack they perpetrate will make a ‘statement’ to society and gain them some recognition. The school[1] itself becomes the target for internal attackers like the shooters at Red Lake High School and Virginia Tech University, who felt persecuted by specific persons, groups or just in general and blame the school for all their problems: challenging their ideological views about Neo-Nazi ‘racial purity’ in the case of the Red Lake perpetrator; not adjusting to university life and a lack or romantic success — which led to the stalking and harassing of female students — for the Virginia Tech shooter.

In that case warning signs could be indicative of a potential need for threat assessment: over-reaction (commonly aggressive or passive-aggressive) to the slightest criticism, high self-esteem that needs constant validation; the desire to be infamous and extreme fantasies of success and power; delusions of grandeur; a feeling of superiority combined with a sense of worthlessness; and a sense of isolation from others in a particular environment and/or society in general. Clearly, what is important here is the amount of traits (individual, personality ones and environmental and life factors) present: aggregating these over a certain period of time should be indicative of someone’s susceptibility to enacting a school shooting. If there was only evidence of one or two, for example, feeling isolated from school as a result of bullying and over-reacting to slight criticism, this could be attributable to other factors, such as feeling pressure from schoolwork. It is when these are combined with more disconcerting aspects, like fantasizing about having power over others and then intensive shooting practice, that red flags should be raised.

[Narcissism literature and discourse analyses of shooters’ writings were used to produce this post. A longer version of this model will appear in the book volume Gun Violence in American Society, a chapter I co-wrote with colleague, Dr. O’Grady. This model will be further developed in blog posts in the near future]

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[1] School here refers to a broad, all-encompassing term of education institutions, including elementary, middle and high schools, as well as colleges and universities.

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