Blame And Self-Protective Bias

It’s a special kind of crazy when a bunch of kids get shot
When it’s labeled mental illness… and it’s not.
It’s a part of human nature we find frightening, and thus
We will do our best to label it… “not us.”
There are parts of our society which all could shoulder blame
But we’d rather hold responsible… one name.
We could build a safer culture, but you see, the trouble is
We deny that it’s our problem… cos it’s his.

Two thoughts, one on either side of the coin. Firstly, the number of people living with one form or other of “mental illness” (I use the term for convenience, while disagreeing with much of what it implies, but that is a looooong post for another time) is vast, and mostly invisible (nearly a quarter of the adult population in America, in a given year, deal with a diagnosable mental illness). Most of the people I have ever worked with have seen a doctor or therapist for anxiety or depression in the time I have known them. Longtime readers know that I, myself, occasionally lose the battle and need to retreat from the world.

So if we want to search for “mental illness” as a cause of any given incident, there are very good odds that we can find “evidence” in the recent past of any given individual. And such a finding would be essentially meaningless. It doesn’t predict such incidents, but does help to stigmatize mental illness, and does help to prevent people from seeking help, so as to avoid that label.

The other side of the coin… “human nature”–the vast spectrum of behaviors that encompass what we do–includes bits we are not proud of. Human nature includes heroism and barbarism; self-sacrifice and greed; cruelty and kindness. Human nature includes, without any need to assert “illness”, the ability to kill one another, as well as the ability to put oneself in harm’s way to save someone else. We love to give ourselves credit for the good things we do (individually and collectively), but do our best to distance ourselves from the bad.

And there is danger in this self-protective tendency. When we give ourselves credit, and deny ourselves blame, we paint an inaccurate picture of ourselves, and we deny the influences around us that led to our actions. We did good because we are good, not because of this or that factor. They (never we) did bad because of some innate evil, or flaw, or something that somehow allows us to think it could never happen to us. There is no need to look for reasons that we, as a culture, could fix, because good and evil are innate. And so we do not fix things we could. We say “when you blame society, you let the individual off the hook!” without recognizing that when we blame the individual, we let society off the hook.

If we do things because of innate goodness or evil, there is no need to act (indeed, trying to change things will be futile). If we recognize that we learn from and are influenced by our environments, if we recognize that human nature includes the ability for perfectly normal people to commit atrocities, then we can work to recognize the factors in our cultures, and we can work to change for the better.


  1. cazfans says

    Thoughtful as ever. Are you aware of the Archdruid Report? Another not quite mainstream blogger with an admitted fondness for trees & magic which I find not unrelated to cephalopods & poetry. I like you both and think you might like each other.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Protective coloration. Cuttlefish put chameleons to shame.

    (off to tell off that sneaky bastard PZ…)

  3. Ichthyic says

    oh, btw, I’m guessing the problem with the banner misplacement is that I think PZ is the only one that had code for rotating his banner graphic?

    the guy who did the site redesign probably didn’t notice that.

  4. Joan says

    I would have preferred to send this very personal and too long comment in e-mail, but your e-mail address is residing in the graveyard of my expired computer, so this has to be it unless you can re-up me .

    I might have had a rare moment of non sarcasm awareness here and missed the point of your poem, in which case you can disregard the following, In regards to your statement “When it’s labeled mental illness and it’s not. “ In this particular case, it most certainly was mental illness. It was not a gangland shooting. It was not a mob hit. It was not the devious plan of a sociopath. “Evil” didn’t “enter the community.” It was one socio phobic very disturbed kid who went over the edge, did a horrible thing and destroyed precious lives.

    The boy was already labeled as having a ‘borderline personality disorder’. That could well be the tip of the iceberg or even an early misdiagnosis. We will never know. Borderline personality disorder seems to mimic the lightening changes of moods of bipolar disorder, and the paranoia of some schizophrenics.
    The subjects tend to think in black and white. One minute they are idealizing someone and when a perceived slight appears from the adored one their former worship suddenly turns to hate. Then there is the time factor. A full-blown mental illness usually surfaces in late teens or early adulthood.

    As for Adam’s mother, nobody has examined her past, as yet, but we certainly can question her judgement. Those weapons were not antique civil war collectibles. That was not a light rifle for squirrel shooting. Those were modern weapons used by police and FBI to kill people. What were they even doing in a house with a son with borderline personality disorder?

    Could anyone have predicted this and done something about it? Probably not. While being treated for depression under the care of a psychiatrist (for meds) and a psychologist (for the rest) , my eldest tried to commit suicide . Only then did the dynamic duo come up with the proper diagnosis of schizophrenia. Six months later our youngest presented with bi-polar disorder. His personality had gone manic and for months we had been trying to get him either admitted or examined but he was deemed ‘not a danger to himself or others’. Our mental health system is a shambles.

    Both are presently functioning well, due to the fact that they are employed, covered by insurance, and are taking their much needed and in one case prohibitively expensive meds. Had they not been employed at the time their illnesses presented, they would most likely be dead or on the streets. A parent has little very little control over a late teen or a 20 year old.

    If you were talking in terms of correcting the public’s broader misunderstanding of metal illness and it’s vilification of same we have a long way to go. As for societal collective guilt, we will never get rid of guns in this society but my youngest suggested that after eliminating the sale of attack weapons to civilians they should heavily tax guns and give the proceeds to mental heath .


  5. Joan says

    Ok, so the writer is afraid that because someone who does a deranged thing like this boy is labeled as mentally ill that it says to the public that all mentally ill people will do deranged things and then sets out a false bias against the mentally ill? That they are all crazy killers?. Tarred by the same broad brush? Truth be told, there is already a false bias out about mentally ill. You see it on every cop TV program out there. Schizophrenics, the majority of whom are harmless are more than likely more afraid of you are portrayed as devils.

    In the case of the boy who shot the congresswoman and the shooter in the theater, they are in mental institutions at present, until someone decides they are rational enough to go to trial and possibly be executed. They actually have a category in some states where one is considered mentally ill but knowing right from wrong and thus subject to execution..

    If it was not mental illness in the case of Adam, and it seems pretty likely based on his history, then to what would you attribute it? Demonic possession? Well adjusted people do not kill people in a movie theater. They do not shoot congress women, They do not kill young children. Even in a wartime situation, people are appalled when a soldier is accused of deliberately killing women and children. They reason that the ‘snapped’. etc.

    In situations like this people naturally want to know why, As if that could make it better. They cannot figure out the reason for the terrible act. If the shooter had survived do you think he would have been able to relate a rational reason? We have been taught to believe that that which is not rational is either deluded or crazy or both.

    I said that we will never know if the boy would have been officially diagnosed with something like schizophrenia because he did not live long enough. He was diagnosed with a mood disorder and the symptoms of a mood disorder minus the hallucinations are frightening enough for both the patient and his kin.

    So what do we do as people? The first reaction is of course to ban guns. Good idea, but well we know it is not going to happen.

    The second reaction is to make the schools safer. Circle the wagons. Pull up the drawbridge. This school was set up to screen callers before they were allowed in, but he blasted a door and broke in anyway.

    The final reaction is that the religious head to church or outside vigils to mourn and pray and give thanks it was not their child.

    I am thankful that it was not my children that were killed at any stage of their lives. I am also thankful that they did not progress to a stage in either of their illnesses where they might have done a horrific act to themselves or others. There, but for the grace of psychotropic medicine… …and finally finding the correct doctors… go my children.

    There is no way to predict anything like this in advance and prevent it, but we can most assuredly push for better health care for the mentally ill. It is the step child of medical benefit programs.

  6. Ichthyic says

    There is no way to predict anything like this in advance and prevent it, but we can most assuredly push for better health care for the mentally ill. It is the step child of medical benefit programs.

    which means there is no reason to link this incident to the fact that we need better mental health care, everywhere.

    so, why don’t you stop doing it?

  7. Ichthyic says

    Well adjusted people do not kill people in a movie theater.

    are you a mental health care professional?


    then all you have to base this on is incredulity.

  8. Joan says

    I never linked this incident to the fact that we need better mental care. I said that the young man must be mentally ill to do something like this. My younger son, who after hearing the media blitz all day and into the night and knowing the inevitable anti-gun legislation would never get legs was the one who suggested that idea about taxing gun sales and giving the proceeds to mental health.

    OK, your mind is made up and nothing I have said is going to change it. For some strange reason it’s important to you for this to not be linked to a mental health issue . Sure. The mental health care issue should stand on its own. However, it’s going to come up as is the gun control issue and the ‘lets make fortresses of our schools. In my city they are already assigning cops to guard schools. We are not even in the same time zone as this incident.

    As to the shooter, there have been other articles written and subsequent to the Aspergers revelation and Borderline Personality Disorder was cited. I never mentioned Aspergers being related to the possible causes of this sad incident as you very well know. It’s pretty easy to set up a false premise of something I did not say and shoot it down.

    Of course I am not a mental health professional. If I had been, then the very delayed diagnoses of my own children might have been avoided. If we had no insurance, however they might well have ended up on the street. I only spoke from my own sad experience, as of course you would known having read what I said. But I have had 20 or more years dealing with the mental health system because of my son’s illnesses. The fact that our mental health system is broken, is pretty obvious but again, nobody could have seen this coming.

    Again, I have to wonder..if the boy was not mentally disturbed, what exactly was he? A sane person who just happened to get a thrill out of shooting his mother, 20 first graders and 6 adults and finally himself?.

    Personally I do not believe any good at will can come of this horror. All this ‘community is pulling together’ palaver might play well on TV but there are 26 families that will be faced with their worst nightmare during the time of year when they should be with their children, and loved ones. It is a terrible thing.

  9. Ichthyic says

    I said that the young man must be mentally ill to do something like this.

    you’re still not getting what’s wrong with that assertion.

    Again, I have to wonder..if the boy was not mentally disturbed, what exactly was he?

    Anders Brevik was not diagnosed with any mental illness, yet his rampage killed quite a lot more people even.

    it’s this automatic assumption on your part that somehow this person can’t have been “normal”…. not “one of us”.

    and yet, how do you know he wasn’t?

  10. Joan says

    And you are still not answering my question of what you think he was? If not insane then sane? If sane then what was his motive? Who is trying to make this an ‘us against them’ issue? It’s certainly not I. Again, you have a real fondness for setting up things I never said nor would even think and shooting them down.

    Bevick, huh? He himself wished to be tried as sane. That does not make him so. Oops! Now we will get into another argument about whether this sociopath who believed he was a member of a non existent cabal was mentally ill or just evil? Or maybe we will get into whether a sociopath comes under the mantel of mental illness. Not going down that road either.

    This argument, which I would not really call a discussion, is obviously going nowhere. Just declare yourself the winner and try to have a nice day. I will do the same.

  11. Cuttlefish says

    A meaningful definition of insanity would be predictive, not simply an after-the-fact label. Is mental illness a reasonable predictor of incidents like these? Again, a quarter of Americans are dealing with a diagnosable mental illness in a given year–considerably more over an entire lifetime. Mental illnesses of one sort or another are found world-wide, but some cultures see considerably more violence than others. Mental illness is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition in predicting incidents of violence.

    However, once such an incident does occur, it follows as the night the day, before we know anything meaningful about the assailant, he (I’m trying to think of a case that merits the “he or she”, but none come to mind) will be labeled as deranged, insane, mentally ill… And because mental illness is so common, those who look for it as a causal factor may well find it. Those who look for video games will also likely find them, because they are so common. If we looked to see the presence of religion in their background, again the odds are in our favor. Of course, the vast, vast majority of those who have had (or do have) a mental illness, and the vast majority of those who have played video games, and the vast majority of those who have been (or are) religious, are never going to be involved in something like this (fortunately, such incidents are very rare, though well publicized–and “rare” is never rare enough).

    If not insane then sane?

    “Sanity”, unlike “mental illness”, is a legal concept, having to do with understanding the consequences of his actions. The deliberate nature of this assault makes me suspect that he will be unable to make an insanity plea. I have no idea what his motivation might have been; I am willing to wait for further information. Might it turn out that he had a mental illness that directly contributed to his actions? I suppose so, but we do not have any evidence for that yet. His actions yesterday were horrible, but to label him mentally ill solely on the basis of yesterday (which, at the time of my posting, is what I was seeing in various media) does nothing to add to our understanding. Indeed, it may actually hinder our understanding–if we are satisfied that he did it “because he was insane”, there is no need to investigate further.

  12. Ichthyic says

    If sane then what was his motive?

    now we’re back to your first post:

    we may never know.

    Can you, personally, deal with not knowing why?

  13. Joan says

    Cuttlefish, I have some doubts as to whether this fellow would have been able to make it through a jury trial without being convicted, based on the current legal definitions of insanity and based on the fact that his act was premeditated. He’s on record as trying to buy a gun for himself and giving up because the 14 day waiting period was not to his liking. On the other hand, the very unreasonableness of the act is what makes people come to a puzzled conclusion that the fellow must be insane.

    What is it when you realize the consequences of your actions but just don’t care about yourself or the welfare of the people who are affected? sociopath would be the usual buzz word. Criminally insane is the legal definition. I confess to having little to no empathy for a sociopath, who feels nothing for his victims, but if that were true in this case it would only come out (maybe) if he had lived. What we do with the criminally insane is variable. This young man had a ‘troubled history’ and his mother pulled him out of school and home schooled him. That is the latest in the painfully slow reveal.

    I would like to repeat, and I’m beginning to feel like a parrot, here, that I did not ever say that mental illness is a predictor of violence or anything like that. We are blessed that our children are empathetic, non violent, and have both retained their droll senses of humor throughout their far from ideal lives. Flat affect does not seem to interfere with droll. I pray it never does. It was my youngest who came up with the tax the guns idea. You know, the son who is bipolar? I thought it a pretty good idea, but then he’s my son. :)

    This particular incident is frightening to everyone. The anti-gun, anti-shoot-em up video games, anti-TV violence people are out in force all over the net comments. I don’t believe anyone is wanting to sweep this under the table as ‘just’ mental illness and ” no need to investigate further.” We desperately search for reasons for the horribly unreasonable because it is so frightening, because we don’t want it to happen again, because we are helpless, because we all want to ‘do something’ . The Aurora bomber, whose strange act bears a lot of similarities to this one, was investigated to pieces ex post facto with as much information as the closed books of psychiatrists would allow and based on his current condition found (so far) to be insane, or whatever the correct term is at the moment.

    There is a whole lot of ‘not knowing why’ and self blame that parents of the mentally ill have to deal with. We “live with it” every day. We live through years and years of trying to reason with people who are not thinking rationally but feel to the bottom of their souls that something is true, despite all evidence to the contrary. These occasional trips down irrationality lane are called ‘episodes’. What a sanitized name for the hell the patient goes through when the meds fail and must be changed. Then there is the guilt. Thankfully the era of continually blaming the parents, (Freud was big on blaming Mom) and suspecting horrible childhood experiences for misfiring neurons of their children is gradually going by the wayside as mental health research advances. There is no way of knowing what went on in this boy’s head and if we did know we would never be able to comprehend his way of thinking.

    This is such a horror. I keep looking at the presents under our tree, and thinking what hell the parents and loved ones of those poor people will be going through, every Christmas from here on in. Unlike the war against Christmas. This is only too real.

  14. Ichthyic says

    We live through years and years of trying to reason with people who are not thinking rationally but feel to the bottom of their souls that something is true, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    I’m just gonna leave that there…

  15. Cuttlefish says

    What is it when you realize the consequences of your actions but just don’t care about yourself or the welfare of the people who are affected? sociopath would be the usual buzz word. Criminally insane is the legal definition.

    First, no it is not the legal definition. (BTW, one common part of many of the legal definitions–being legal definitions, they can vary from place to place–is an ongoing, chronic element. That is, one incident, no matter how horrific, is not likely to be sufficient to earn an “insanity” ruling.)

    Secondly, what you have just described also fits the behavior of a good number of others, none of whom will have the label sociopath attached to them–from politicians to bankers to soldiers. Certainly, it appears to fit the terrible events in Newtown, but in reaching for this particular label for these actions, we add nothing to the description while simultaneously adding to the stigma attached to the word. Your own children, as you say so eloquently, already suffer, as do those who love them, even before the additional burden of the social stigma and differential treatment they and you receive because an umbrella term.

    A knee-jerk labeling of anything unacceptable as “mentally ill” (or insane, deranged, crazy, or any number of other terms) serves to limit our awareness of the evil that perfectly normal people can do, while amplifying our impression of the danger of mentally ill individuals to others. It’s not that different from christians pointing out that someone who behaves differently from their own standards are “christians in name only” or “not true christians”, or “self-described christians, but not real followers of Christ” or some such distancing terms. No, true christians can and do do bad things. So can any sane person.

    On the other hand, the very unreasonableness of the act is what makes people come to a puzzled conclusion that the fellow must be insane.

    Exactly. They have no predictive before-the-fact evidence whatsoever. A hindsight designation of insanity is purely circular reasoning, adding nothing to the situation but a stigmatizing label, and limiting our understanding. Why on earth would we deliberately muddy the situation like this?

    Well, it does serve to distance *them* from *us*. As the title says, it is a self-protective bias.

  16. Ichthyic says

    I think Joan exhibits a textbook case of exactly what Cuttlefish put in the title of the thread:

    Self-protective bias.

    I see it, I understand it, hell I’m looking back thinking I am over-judging it, but I’ve seen that others can react differently, too.

    I see that this protective bias shuts down meaningful exploration of possibilities, encourages stereotyping and witch-hunts, and typically will lead to unproductive conclusions.

    I see that perhaps it’s best to wait to speak of traumatic issues until the need for such protective bias dies down a bit, if the goal is not just to console each other, but to seek a productive way forward.

    maybe in a week, two weeks, people will start thinking instead of reacting.

    Maybe Obama was right in saying “Now is not the time”, if what he really meant was… wait at least a week or so.

  17. Joan says

    I am most certainly not distanced from my children, who, if they were not protected from the American’s with Disabilities act, might not have jobs. NAMI has been trying for at least the 20 years that I’m aware of, to enlighten the public about mental illness. So, I really don’t think my reaction is ‘knee jerk’ or pejorative to the mentally ill, nor do I feel that the average person is so naive to think all permutations of mental illness are represented by this extreme situation. Linking it to Aspergers is certainly stupid, but even the hot topic media has not been dumb enough to do this.

    Neither, sadly do I think any of us are unaware of the evil that so called normal people can do. After this election year, I can believe anything. Our local media dedicates at least 10 minutes to the latest bloody crimes committed in our city each night, while ignoring world news entirely. I think I did mention way back in my first post that people who snapped in a war situation and massacred women and children were situations we were sadly familiar with.

    It is just human nature when faced with indescribable inexplicably cruelty to feel that the person who committed that cruelty must be imbalanced. Perhaps it’s easier than thinking he must be indescribably evil in nature. However, I totally fail to see how it stigmatizes mental illness that a person might fall prey to it. It’s like saying don’t talk about cancer, because it might cause us to get it.

    OK, Well, this is obviously going nowhere, so we will just have to agree to disagree on this one, and I’ll go back to agreeing on the other 99.9 percent of what you have to say. knowing how opinionated I am, that’s not a bad record at all for about 5 years of Cuttle-reading. :-) Has it really been that long? I’m ready for another book.


  18. Ichthyic says

    It is just human nature when faced with indescribable inexplicably cruelty to feel that the person who committed that cruelty must be imbalanced.

    uh, that’s what I just said.

  19. says

    I would be more than happy to call people like the shooter “insane” if we, as a culture, can separate “insane” from “mental illness.” Insane can then be nothing but the hindsight diagnosis while the chunk of the country with actual diagnoses in the various manuals by the medical communities can stop being related to violence.

    Of course this won’t happen so it may be easier to stop wildly speculating and applying labels that are wildly mismatched or wildly unrelated.

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