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Some warning behaviors for targeted violence

By J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.

As the debate concerning public and social policy surrounding gun control intensifies, I would like to offer some comments on the identification of individuals who concern us as potential perpetrators of planned killing(s). These thoughts are from the trenches of threat assessment, and don’t address or offer opinions concerning the larger policy issues we face as a country regarding firearms and public mental health care — one of which is emotionally charged and the other sorely neglected.

The usual demographic characteristics such as a young male, loner, psychiatrically impaired, bullied, and angry don’t work as markers of risk, simply because there are hundreds of thousands of individuals in the USA, and the world, who match these demographics and pose no risk at all. The disturbing fact is that targeted violent events, such as the mass murder in Newtown, cannot be predicted because they are too rare. If we attempt to do this, we err on the side of labeling thousands of individuals as potential perpetrators when they are not a risk at all. So where do we turn?

For the past several years we have been working on identifying warning behaviors (acute and dynamic patterns of risk), which may signal an impending act of targeted violence, including mass murder. These patterns create concern in observers, and warrant a reasonable response to mitigate such risk, whether that involves increased community and educational attention, mental health intervention, or law enforcement interdiction. Anyone can evidence these warning behaviors:

  1. Pathway warning behavior: any behavior that is part of research, planning, preparation, or implementation of an attack.
  2. Fixation warning behavior: any behavior that indicates an increasingly pathological preoccupation with a person or a cause. There is a noticeable increase in perseveration; strident opinion; negative statements about the target(s); increasing anxiety and/or fear in the target; and an angry emotional undertone. It is accompanied by social or occupational deterioration.
  3. Identification warning behavior: any behavior that indicates a psychological desire to be a “pseudocommando” or have a “warrior mentality”, closely associate with weapons or other military paraphernalia, identify with previous attackers or assassins, or identify oneself as an agent to advance a particular cause or belief system.
  4. Novel aggression warning behavior: an act of violence which appears unrelated to any pathway warning behavior which is committed for the first time, often to test the ability of the individual to actually do a violent act.
  5. Energy burst warning behavior: an increase in the frequency or variety of any noted activities related to the target, even if the activities themselves are relatively innocuous, often in the hours or days before the attack.
  6. Leakage warning behavior: the communication to a third party of an intent to do harm to a target through an attack.
  7. Last resort warning behavior: increasing desperation or distress through declaration in word of deed; there is no other choice but violence, and the consequences are justified.
  8. Directly communicated threat warning behavior: the communication of a direct threat to the target or law enforcement beforehand.

If we observe these warning behaviors in others, we should be concerned. If we see something, we should say something. We don’t know if these warning behaviors predict targeted violence, yet these accelerating patterns have been found in a number of small samples of subjects in Germany and the US that have committed school shootings, mass murders, attacks and assassinations of public figures, and acts of terrorism. We are getting some tantalizing results: in comparing a small sample of school shooters and school threateners in Germany, our research group (with Dr. Jens Hoffmann) found that the school shooters were much more likely to exhibit pathway, fixation, identification, novel aggression, and last resort warning behaviors when compared to the school threateners who had no intention to attack. Although the samples were small, the effect sizes were large in a statistical sense.

The paradox in all this work — targeted violence threat assessment — is that we will never know which of the individuals of concern would have carried out an act of violence if there had been no intervention.

J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and President of Forensis, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to forensic psychiatric and psychological research. He co-edited Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures (OUP, 2008) with Lorraine Sheridan and Jens Hoffmann, and is currently co-editing another volume entitled International Handbook of Threat Assessment, which is scheduled to publish in 2013. Learn about his latest news by following Forensis on Twitter at @ForensisInc. The scientific basis of this blog article is available in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 30:256-279, 2012.

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