Sandy Hook and Useless Common Sense on Guns

As a parent and a human being, I am horrified and terrified by the events of last week in Newtown, Connecticut.  I have hugged my kids, I have sat and cried upon reading notes sent by six year old best friends. But as a psychologist, I can’t help but read the discussion around this event through this lens: I know that some people feel that if more people had guns, everyone would be safer since we would regulate our behavior more carefully. We would have less crime if we knew that anyone around us could shoot us if we got out of line. This is not just a theory of the Constitution, or a theory of guns, but a theory of human behavior. And as such, it is batshit insane. So I ignored it.

But then the governor of my state endorsed this, or at least opened the door for a “discussion” which is what people in public office want to do when they want to endorse something without explaining it.

As those who read this blog regularly, I find mockery without seeking understanding distasteful, especially when I feel myself engaging in it. So here is my effort to understand this, through my understanding of the psychology of cognitive biases. I think, in all this, there is also a lesson about the value of psychology in the face of what some might call common sense.

If I were to pick a psychological topic for people in this debate to understand more fully, it would be the concept that in calculating the likelihood of events (future or past), or how things are caused, we take our thoughts, our memories, and our imagination as data. We might recognize that our views are subjective and we may try to account for our own values and experience, but what we do not account for is that we are not merely subjective, but we are all biased. We are biased because our imaginations are biased. It is simply easier to think of some things that others.

Depending on how it is applied, this tendency is sometimes called the availability heuristic, sometimes the simulation heuristic. When judging what causes something else (was it the guns or the deranged mind?), we engage in counterfactual thinking (what could have stopped this?) and we judge things that are more mutable (things we can imagine changing) as more important to causing an event than those we can’t imagine changing.

This feels like logic, but it is not. A thought experiment is not an experiment.

Just because I can imagine looking more carefully doesn’t make it likely that I would have avoided getting hit by that car when I was on my bike. Just because it is easier to imagine avoiding the accident than breaking my neck, doesn’t make me any less lucky that I only had a few stitches on my hand.

Just because we can imagine that mentally ill person being violent, doesn’t change the facts:

Most people with SMI [severe mental illness] are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with SMI. In fact, people with SMI are actually at higher risk of being victims of violence than perpetrators. Teplin et al found that those with SMI are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.ii

Just because we can imagine that if only Dawn Hochsprung had a weapon when she heard that crash, the shooter would have been stopped, doesn’t make it more likely.

Just because someone can imagine that a crowd ganging together and rushing an attacker (yes, someone imagined such a thing in print) might be an effective way of limiting fatalities, doesn’t make it so. Bringing up Flight 93 only proves the point that one could only think this because of its success in another totally unrelated and different scenario.

In a case as horrible as this, how could we not nudge our memories and our imaginations to make it not happen? Isn’t it merely human to imagine this evil man-child, this villain, this terrorist, blown away at the door by a vigilant police officer or quick thinking super hero-teacher? Isn’t it equally human to imagine this monster, angry and frustrated, only being able to access a small handgun and a small clip, then walking into this school and *only* killing half the class?

These are human responses, and when I confront tragedies large and small I do the same thing. But when we are designing laws and policies, I think we can do better than what some columnist thought about on a cab ride home. We have to force ourselves outside of our own imagination, both by expanding our imagination, but also by consulting the science of how people actually behave and evidence of how people have actually behaved in the past.

The data on the complicated but not random phenomena of suicide offers a sad but necessary reminder of the limits of our imaginations and the need to ignore our common sense. Common sense might make it easier for us to imagine that suicide is only the result of extreme chronic depression and hopelessness. Someone who hits “rock bottom” and can’t take it any more. But suicide in bipolar disorder also can happen in the manic phase, and it is often better considered an acute event, rather than an inevitable chronic one. What might seem like the most personal, independent and isolated decision one could ever make can actually be contagious, and affected by media reports. While a suicide attempt is often an indicator of psychiatric disorder, it is not a death sentence.  Finally, this act, of taking one’s own life, for most of us almost the very definition of “the unthinkable,” is actually far more common than we’d like to acknowledge. More common than homicide. More common than deaths from war. Worldwide, more common than accidents, homicide and war put together.

I think trying to expand our imaginations (or at least remind ourselves of their limitations) can also be a useful complement to statistics. Feel comforted by the idea of having a gun when your house is burglarized? I know I have imagined this. My house growing up was burglarized three times, once when my family was in it. My first apartment out of college was burglarized.

Now try imagining that gun in many other moments of its life. Listen to Nas’ “I Gave You Power.” Imagine it in the hands of every other person who lives in your house. How about in ten years? (“Having school-age children in the household did not significantly affect gun ownership rates, either positively or negatively“)  Imagine that you leave the door unlocked and someone comes into your house at night and sits on your couch and fumbles around for remote. I know someone who this happened to, a new neighbor got very drunk and walked into the wrong house at 2am. Do you use your gun?

What really strikes me about the proposal to arm teachers (or arm everybody) is in our frenzy to get schools safe, we are ignoring what schools do when they are not being attacked by assault rifles. We are so caught up in this moment, in our grief, in our human desire to reverse this, that people can only imagine a teacher’s gun erasing this moment, and not all the other moments it would create. To many non-teachers, the moments where a teacher must think “This makes me scared and angry, but I really shouldn’t shoot this person” vastly outnumber the moments where drawing and/or shooting a gun might be appropriate.

Sandy Young, one of my favorite commenters over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place at the Atlantic  relates his experience this way (but read his whole comment):

Three times in my career as a teacher, I have had to confront and disarm disturbed and angry students. Once I had to disarm an intruder. None of these cases involved firearms; they involved knives, a machete, numchucks (sp?) and a crowbar. Each time I had to face them down and tell them that they had but two choices; they could surrender the weapon to me, or they would have to use it on me.

Each time, I watched and waited as they pondered their decision. I was surprisingly calm. I felt in that moment that I had simply cast my fate to the wind. It was only later that the shakes set in.

I am a college professor, not a high school teacher, nor an elementary school teacher. But through my kids, my visits, and my loved ones, I know that discipline in a classroom often consists of personal inhibition of action, rather than active confrontation. Teachers try to create in the classroom a model of the civil society that Alan Jacobs sees us relinquishing in efforts to ensure personal safety through assured destruction. Classrooms are exactly the last place that we should bring guns in. Safety in the classroom has to be assumed and thoughtless, not constantly reminded through the presence of weapons.

To come around, once more, to our deficit of imagination, and to suicide: According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, one in five American high school students reported seriously considering suicide in the past year and 8% of high school students make an attempt. That is two kids in a class of twenty five. If we get more guns into more people’s hands, whoever wields a gun is likely to use it in the way that guns are currently most commonly used: to kill themselves, not save children from homicidal maniacs. Just because it is harder to imagine this, doesn’t make it any less true.

In this debate that we have, over gun control, over access to mental health, over our collective reaction to rare events, I hope that we can at least agree to give priority to evidence about how people actually behave, instead of how they behave in our minds.

About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in news, politics, psychology, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Sandy Hook and Useless Common Sense on Guns

  1. christine cabarle says:

    I do not think this could have been explained better. I hope it goes viral 🙂

  2. Christel Werenskiold says:

    Thank you! Especially for the insight that people with mental disorders are more likely to be VICTIMS of crime, than doers of crime… Also the information that suicide is more common than homicide, accidents and war – put together. Getting more guns out there is only going to increase the problem.
    Some statistics might help in the argument as well:
    The number of people killed in homicides by firearms pr. 100.000 capita in The United States is higher than the total number of the following countries:
    Belarus, Bulgaria, Checz Republic, Hungary, Poland, Moldavia, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Sweeden, UK, Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Makedonia, Austria, Belgium, France, Lichenstein, Luxemburg, Monaco, Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Melanisia, Zambia, Congo, Algeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cuba, Grenada, Canada, Bermuda, Kazahstan, Kyrgystan, Tjakistan, Turkmenistan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, Brunei, Malysia, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Arsabadjan, Bahrein, Cypres, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Libanon, Palestine, Quetar, Turkey,
    …………… But even this is not enough to get the numbers up. To get close to the US homicide rate, I had to include countries that the most dangerous in the world: Belize, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Trinidad…….
    Are Americans more homocidal than the rest of the world?
    Probably not: You just have worse laws……………….

    Thanks again for your insight.
    Christel Werenskiold, Denmark.
    Source: United Nations Homicide Statistics.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks Christel. Pretty depressing.Part of me hopes that we can come out of this feeling that we need to do a better job of treating our mentally ill. Rather than protecting us from them, more often than not they need protection from us. But I am not holding my breath.

  3. corkingiron says:

    Very insightful, my friend. I mentioned a colleague who was killed. She was concentrating on solving a student’s problem with an English project when a knock came on the door. A commonplace interruption of a classroom’s daily life. There was no warning issued. She was shot as soon as she opened the door. Having a weapon would not have made any difference to her death, but it most certainly would have made a difference to her work.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for coming by Sandy.That is horrific. My dad broke up a few fights when he was a high school teacher, your experience rang true to me. While I have been resisting commenting at TNC’s place lately, since I don’t know too much about most of what he is writing about, I have continued to enjoy your comments there. I always like scrolling down and seeing your avatar.

  4. I am only a recent follower of your blog, but in that short time I have come to expect reasoned, well written wisdom. Once again you have not disappointed. I hope that many others get to read this.

  5. Pingback: The Struggle For a Rational Sandy Hook Response - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

  6. jtimleck says:

    And here in lies the distinction between psychology and sociology no? And all the clamor around “mental illness” as THE issue here hides the reality of what you are highlighting. So when will psychologists step this issue outside of the shadows of “choice” and “rationale” and “drive” and put it into the very real, and human stupidity that is day to day life rather than pretending we can understanding and, indeed, *predict*, some behaviors based on “mental health” etc.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Well, I can’t really speak for psychologists in general, just my own perspective as someone with training as a psychologist, and I have immense respect for sociology and sociologists (some of my best friends…). I agree that it is important, even as we urge a public health perspective (using both psychology and sociology) on violence, to avoid implying that any given act of evil is due to some sort of specific brain or psychological malfunction (even if we just can’t find it yet). I don’t think we can be perfect predicting behaviors, but I do think we can do a better job with data than with our own imaginations.

  7. James Burns says:

    I am not sure that you demonstrated understanding of the heinousness, and pure senseless nature of this tragedy. In particular you have not dealt with the prevention of incidents like this which have nothing to do with gun control or treating suicidal children.

    There has been a mutation in the paradigm of acceptable behavior over the past 50 years which has produced an immense number of individuals who feel no guilt and suffer no consequence for their progressively anti-social behavior. Witness the proliferation of single or no parent households, astounding divorce rates, teen pregnancy rates, proliferation of novel “psychiatric” diagnosis (AKA ‘excuse’). widespread illicit, and diverted drug abuse, elementary and middle school office referral rate without consequence, the population increase in detention centers, corrections institutes and prisons, the backlog of appeals cases in our courts. Our society has been slowly transformed into accepting socially maladaptive behavior and we are now surprised that a 20-something who is a direct product of the single parent family, and given the “protection’ of Asperger’s syndrome, would feel that somehow brutally slaughtering his mother and our federally-mandated, defenseless educators and children is somehow acceptable for his psyche.

    You have spent a lot of words on suicide that still don’t give us a direct cause and effect for this most horrible of social crimes. Perhaps you could spend some time drawing the simple line between lack of structure and consequence, and the progressive isolation, apathy and hopelessness that our children feel. Suicide and homicidal maniacs know no structure or consequence, otherwise they may demonstrate some restraint. Our society has decided not to provide the structure or restraint.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for coming by and reading the post.
      I’d agree that I haven’t cited a direct cause and effect for this horrible crime, because I think such a judgment is beyond me, not to mention inappropriate given what we know. Suicide and homicide in general have many different causes, and this particular crime has many causes. I was merely trying to point out that using our common sense and imagination are inadequate guides for the prevention and diagnosis of these events.
      As for your issue with the lack of structure over the past 50 years, I’m inclined to disagree. I would submit that our prisons are full because of our drug laws, not because we have descended into a thieving, murderous society. As far as I know, the homicide rate has been dropping steadily for the past decade or so.
      I would add that I am open to evidence, if you have it. If there are places in this country where people get more structure and consequence (perhaps the military?) do they demonstrate restraint and have lower rates of suicide and homicide? As far as I know, this is quite untrue when it comes to suicide:
      But thanks for dropping by, and glad you saw fit to comment.

      • James Burns says:

        Thanks for your respectful reply to my comment. I think we may be misunderstanding each other more than disagreeing. I would not have used the artificial structure imposed by military life as an example of ‘structure and consequence’. That society does not nurture and is therefore not reflective of the moral and social responsibility to which I refer.

        Further, I was not suggesting either of us could draw a specific cause and effect regarding this horrific event, but rather simply decrying the decline in the individual’s personal sense of moral and social responsibility that I witness daily as a physician, and which I believe contributes to the birth of an event such as this.

        A large part of our society defines themselves by their diagnosis and somehow mentally separates themselves from their actions through this depersonalization. Our medical and legal systems have fostered this by first defining new diagnoses, and then building a legal defense for them. And then our health insurers abandon them with their maze of health insurance ‘products’ few of which contain any coverage for mental illness. I am no longer surprised to see how the media is quick to report the ‘diagnosis’ carried by the perpetrator of an act of senseless violence which somehow shifts the blame. Kind of like “the devil made me do it”.

        In any event, I shall turn the soapbox over to someone else. I appreciated your post and response. Thank you.

  8. I am not American but an anthropologist who has lived most of my life in Southeast Asia. Currently I live in Laos, where the base of the defence system is the village militia. People in the militia keep guns in their home and may turn out to help police any mass event — they do not find need to stand guard in classrooms. Ordinary people not in a militia are restricted by law from owning a gun of any sort. The law is not applied in most of Laos since people use single shot weapons for hunting, and in a very few areas travel in groups with guns at the front for protection. There is no single case of such mass murder as occurs regularly in America. Laos remains a Least Developed Country.

    I was born in Malaya (now Malaysia) where there was a practice of ‘amok’ — a Malay word referring to an individual ‘running amok’ with a long knife, cutting down anybody near enough to be cut down before he either was killed or killed himself (only men were involved, no women). This traditional practice was not approved of by anybody but it happened and cannot be denied. It seems to have direct parallels with what is now happening regularly in the USA. The difference is the killer was armed with a knife, not an assault weapon. Another difference is that as Malaya became Malaysia and introduced tough laws, the number of amok cases dwindled to near zero. Malaysia is one of the richest countries in the region and sees itself as modern and civilised.

    I make these points to show that America is not alone in its 1st Amendment — which from my reading directly links the right to bear arms with a militia (at the time logical — but militiamen then were armed with muzzle-loading muskets. And America is unfortunately not alone in having people who for whatever reason want to massacre other people. But America is alone in doing nothing to protect its normal citizens except allow them to buy firearms for self-protection. What use the nation state, police force and legal system?

    Can America really not see that it is alone in the world?

  9. Sometimes a thought experiment barely qualifies as thoughts. Excellent piece.

  10. Joe Riener says:

    “… In 1796, [the English poet] Charles Lamb’s sister, Mary Lamb, exhausted from needlework, had a breakdown, and in a rage injured their father and killed their mother. ” from “The Annotated Frankenstein” edited by Susan J. Woodson and Ronald L. Levao.

    What’s new isn’t the homicidal madness. It’s the technology.

  11. lajikal says:

    Thank you for this post. I think, when faced with tragedy, the first question people tend to ask is, “Why?” when perhaps we should ask, “How?” There’s plenty of research to review (e.g. While it’s soothing to imagine a different set of circumstances, we should focus on the data at hand.

    Some might argue that “science doesn’t have all the answers.” That’s true. However, “this argument reflects the mistaken notion that science is a set of answers, rather than a set of processes or methods by which to arrive at answers” (McFall, 1991).

    This is certainly an emotional time for everyone. We’re talking about the deaths of innocent children. It’s hard. Can we prevent this in the future? Maybe. Deaths from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) have been steadily decreasing since we started broad, educational campaigns (

    Whether a kid is killed by a gun or a teddybear, better understanding the mechanisms defines places for interventions. I think this is a good starting point for prevention. So, thank you again sincerely for your thoughtful post.

  12. Pingback: Sandy Hook and Social Policy on Guns in Schools « j.r. lambert

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