©2019 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Recent news of mass shootings has made everyone more anxious and fearful that it could, in fact, “happen here.” The search is on for causes and solutions to this increasing problem. I have been asked to explain whether our understanding of HCPs (people with high-conflict personalities) can shed any light on this subject. I believe it can.
High Conflict Personalities
The mass shooting of in El Paso, Texas, that killed 22 people and injured 24 others, was preceded by the posting of a “manifesto” by the shooter against Hispanic people in Texas. This was clearly a targeted killing. Does this fit the four key characteristics of a high-conflict personality?
1) Preoccupation with blaming others (their Targets of Blame)
2) Lots of all-or-nothing thinking (and all-or-nothing solutions)
3) Unmanaged or intense emotions (which can overrule their logical thinking)
4) Extreme behavior or threats (including acts that 90% of people would never do)
Applying this definition, this shooter was clearly an HCP.
(Note: HCP is not a mental health diagnosis, but a pattern of conflict-related behavior. While I generally advise against telling someone they are an HCP, I believe there is value in recognizing and talking about this pattern of behavior in situations where someone is a potential danger to others, especially their Targets of Blame.)
Are all mass shooters HCPs? Probably not, because some just target people at random without seeming to care who they kill, such as the Las Vegas shooter who killed over 50 people and wounded over 500 at a country music festival. But that may be rare. I would suggest that most mass shooters in recent years were HCPs, although their Targets of Blame may not always be obvious.
What is clear is that they lacked empathy and remorse for what they were going to do, since mass shootings require planning and known outcomes. Frequently, their histories show aggressive and reckless behavior, a pattern of deceitfulness and a sense of grievance toward a person or a group. This suggests the presence of a personality disorder, such as antisocial or paranoid personality disorder.
Personality disorders are a generally hidden mental health diagnosis, because their primary symptoms are interpersonal. They tend to all have these three key characteristics in common: 1) dysfunctional relationships, 2) lack self-awareness of their part in their problems and 3) lack of change in their behavior. They’re stuck and often feel anxious or depressed about life, but can’t look at themselves to make things better. A few do change, usually with involvement in intensive therapies like DBT (designed for borderline personality disorder) for several years.
Perhaps half of people with personality disorders are not HCPs, because they do not have specific Targets of Blame. Instead, they feel helpless and blame the universe or no one in particular. However, about half of those with personality disorders are HCPs because they do have Targets of Blame, and they attack them verbally, legally, reputationally, financially and sometimes violently.
For these reasons, people who are both HCPs and have a personality disorder, tend to get into intense conflicts with those close to them (such as girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, children, close co-workers or close neighbors) or people in positions of authority (such as police, government officials or groups of people who they perceive as powerful) who become their Targets of Blame. For psychological reasons they cannot see their part in their own problems, so they become preoccupied with blaming others. (And you can’t point this out to them; that just makes things worse.)
Targets of Blame
For many years, we have been studying and teaching about high-conflict behavior in interpersonal relationships, including domestic violence, workplace conflicts and neighbor disputes. In some of these cases, people have gotten killed by HCPs in these close relationships, such as the domestic violence perpetrators who kill their partners when they try to leave. They had become Targets of Blame through no fault of their own. In fact, anyone can become an HCP’s Target of Blame, even if you know them for only a very short time, such as in a workplace or neighborhood dispute. HCPs blame others but most of them don’t kill anyone.
Now, with these mass shootings, we often see that the shooter perceived that the group they were attacking was actually very powerful—people in positions of power—so they became their Targets of Blame. Look at just three examples: In October, 2018, a man killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, claiming he was fighting back against those who were helping refugees “invade” the United States. In March 2019, an attacker killed over 50 worshippers in a mosque in New Zealand after issuing an online manifesto about fearing that whites would be “replaced” by Muslims (in reality only about 1% of the New Zealand population). The El Paso shooting targeted Hispanics for their “invasion” of Texas.
Culture of Blame
The fact that HCPs attack people that they perceive are in poweris often contributed to by HCP cultural leaders (certain politicians, businesspersons and media) who dramatically and emotionally suggest that various groups are very powerful, when in fact these groups are usually very powerless. For example, throughout the development of the United States there have been waves of immigration from different countries, such as Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, China and so forth. As each group came in, they were seen as dirty, disgusting and dangerous by those who came before. HCP cultural leaders often gained power by using them as easy Targets of Blame. They were actually the weakest people and relatively unknown, so it was easy to spread false rumors about them being physically, sexually or psychologically powerful—and therefore to blame them for any current problems or even made up problems.
But most cultural leaders after the Civil War and World War II made strong efforts to change their language to one of ethnic and racial inclusiveness. For over fifty years, the United States has committed itself to reducing or eliminating such discrimination as part of national public policy and personal moral values. However, there have always been a few HCP politicians who promoted attacking various Targets of Blame, such as Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s.
As I explain in my new book, Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths—And How We Can Stop!, emotions are contagious and its easy for HCPs to be influenced by cultural leaders who speak the same way they think: in all-or-nothing terms with intense emotions suggesting extreme behavior. This suggestibility can be quite powerful, especially for those who already may have some mental instability and are looking to feel powerful in their own lives by dominating or destroying others.
When HCPs are under stress they are more likely to strike out at their Targets of Blame. While the vast majority of HCPs just strike out verbally or legally or financially or reputationally on the internet, a few are more dangerous than the average person. Can you spot them in advance? Possibly. Many people who become violent say something to someone that would be considered a red flag.
A few years ago, I developed a method call the WEB Method®for raising awareness of some of the warning signs of HCPs in relationships. This method stands for their Words, your Emotions and their Behavior. In a nutshell, by paying attention to these you may be able to recognize HCP patterns and high-risk situations.
For example, there was a business contract mediation in Phoenix a few years ago in which the self-representing subcontractor wrote the following statement to the lawyer for the business owner a few days before the mediation:
I am going after you with every fiber in my being and I won’t rest until I see
you behind bars for conspiracy to defraud.
Using the WEB Method, this would be a very concerning statement. In brief, even in this one sentence there is a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and threats of extreme behavior. While many people might say this was a harmless statement, others who have been trained in this method say that they would cancel the mediation or build in extra precautions. This would have been wise, since right after the real-life mediation, the subcontractor pulled out a gun and killed the lawyer and the business owner.
Likewise, in the recent mass shootings there were some who knew the gunmen and were not surprised. They had made threatening comments and seemed attracted to extreme viewpoints and activities that drew their attention. Perhaps with greater public awareness of HCP patterns of behavior people will speak up and take precautions in high-risk times and situations. In my mind, here’s the formula that we need to watch out for:
HCP + Life Stressors + Culture of Blame + Weapons = High-risk Situation
While no one can totally predict when or where another incident of domestic violence or workplace violence or mass shooting will occur, there are warning signs in many cases that could be recognized to prevent another senseless and horrific act. But this awareness alone will not stop every violent incident. We still need to reduce the current Culture of Blame and the easy access to weapons. If our ability to collaborative made it possible to fly to the moon and to hold a peaceful concert with 400,000 in the mud at Woodstock in 1969, we should be able to put our collaborative efforts together to significantly reduce the level of domestic and mass violence fifty years later.
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.