Yesterday a 19 y/o man named Robert Hawkins entered the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska with an AK-47 assault rifle and killed eight people before killing himself. News commentators have been discussing what happened and several are discussing the question of whether he was depressed and taking antidepressants. I think people feel better blaming antidepressant medication for these incidents because it is too frightening to accept that there are so many sociopaths (with the potential for violence) living among us.
Hawkins apparently had no arrest record prior to this event and was not known to be violent. At the time of the shooting he was living with the mother of a high school friend, Debora Maruca Kovac. He called her immediately before the shooting, saying he was, “sorry.” He also left a suicide note saying that he would now be “famous.” Ms. Kovac also said she took Hawkins into her home because, he “reminded me of a lost puppy that nobody wanted.” (Watch landlord describe phone call from shooter) Let this be a wake up call to those of us who have felt sorry for a suspected sociopath. Hind sight is always 20/20 when it comes to people who have the traits of sociopathy. Foresight is never as good.
Researchers have discovered that people with a lot of sociopathic traits fall into two groups. The first group are the “primary psychopaths.” Primary psychopaths are not neurotic, they are in fact immune to anxiety and depression. In his famous book, The Mask of Sanity, published in the 1940s, Dr. Hervey Cleckley described many people who were primary psychopaths.
In the 1980s, Dr. Robert Hare developed a widely used test called the PCL-R. He used Dr. Cleckley’s research to develop this test and his initial intent was to identify these primary psychopaths. The PCL-R has subsequently been used to assess thousands of people. Further research has identified a second group of psychopaths. These people have been called “neurotic,” and “secondary” psychopaths. Researchers who want to distinguish this group also call them sociopaths. This second group is much more common, than the first!
Neurotic or secondary psychopaths are more behaviorally impulsive and so are very prone to violence. This impulsivity also means they can’t control their emotions, so, different from primary psychopaths, these individuals experience a lot of negative emotions, anxiety, depression and anger. These emotions make others feel empathy for them.
Both primary and secondary psychopathy are caused by the human social dominance drive. In primary psychopathy this drive gives rise to a personality that has unshakable, high self esteem (grandiosity). Primary psychopaths perceive themselves as having status and ruthlessly pursue acquiring more status and defending the status they have. This is why they never admit fault and they are not able to experience shame.
Secondary psychopaths also have very strong dominance motivation. However, because they have poor impulse control, they have a hard time acquiring status and maintaining that unshakable grandiose view of themselves. When secondary psychopaths experience a status threat such as the loss of a job or love relationship, they are very likely to react violently; they also do not experience shame, but they do experience humiliation. While people who feel shame, submit and act remorsefully, people who feel humiliation blame everyone else and act aggressively.
Hawkins and his behavior fit the profile of a secondary psychopath. In the last two weeks, he reportedly lost his job and his girlfriend. Please understand that his desire to be “famous” reflects the abnormally high activity of his social dominance drive, as does his violent behavior. People who are not under the power of this drive shut down and feel shame/remorse when they have these setbacks.
The social dominance drive is behind all of man’s inhumanity to man. It is therefore very important that we learn as much as we can about it. Unfortunately there are very few researchers studying the role of dominance motives in human behavior. I know of only two in the United States. Furthermore, the role of dominance motivation in sociopathy/psychopathy is not acknowledged much. I hope to change that. I look forward to the day when news commentators stop talking about antidepressants as causing this behavior. It is only through acknowledgement and understanding of the dominance drive that we can begin to combat its effects.