On Distancing Ourselves

My plan for this week has fallen into a state of chaos. There are a number of ways to respond to chaos, but only some of them are productive. I’m opting bring order to this state of affairs by adapting rather than forcing an agenda. The original plan was to craft a piece about the moral and social normative structure of contemporary American society. Specifically, I wanted to discuss how it instructs us to classify agents as either human or inhuman and whether or not this normative structure is flawed. That plan fell through because my dog, whom I love dearly and depend on for psychological well-being, has sustained a neck injury. I’ve cancelled classes, social engagements, professional duties, and reallocated my time budget for the week so that I can be with her in a supportive role. Some of the activities I had to cancel were key to writing the piece I had planned. We were at the hospital all day Thursday and I was neither in the frame of mind nor in a position to research my piece. Today, I’m medicating and hand feeding the pup, making sure she’s in positions that support her neck, and reassuring her with gentle touches and baby talk (which she loves). She’s responding well to treatment—a great relief—but I look, and feel, like I’ve aged ten years in three days.

I knew last week that something was terribly wrong with Tilly. In a matter of 24 hours she went from being a happy, playful, loving, and highly social critter to cowering, whimpering, and shaking uncontrollably every time I’d touch her. She was terrified of me. Her eyes would widen, pupils fully dilated, and she’d lay flat like she was about to get beaten. I recognize terror when I see it. To my knowledge, she’s never been beaten. Her response was not only confusing, but the implications disturbing. I couldn’t imagine any of the people who have regular access to her committing such an atrocity. The people in my life are all trustworthy. At least, I had every reason to believe this until my dog started behaving this way.

I spent an entire week trying to figure out the source of her suffering. The overwhelming impulse to look for causal explanations is wired into us. As far as we know, humans are unique in our ability to theorize about the world. We look for ways to label things in our environments (a process called conceptualization) and then figure out the dependence relations between them. We are particularly prone to see causal relations everywhere, so causal explanation has become an all-consuming human occupation. And this is what I’ve spent the bulk of my (very) spare intellectual time doing this week in between hand-feedings and belly rubs.

The good news is that I still have excellent reasons to trust the people in my life. As it turns out, Tilly is the source of her own injury. The vet at the OSU animal hospital diagnosed her in a matter of minutes. She is obviously an authority on the causal structure underlying Tilly’s behavior; she knew to look for subtle behavioral indicators that I couldn’t even see. She has a great deal of knowledge and experience that I’m lacking. In fact, the injury event was something I hadn’t even noted as significant. Several months ago in an overly excited state, Tilly lept out of a chair and into the hardwood floor. She yelped, and I checked her for injury, but I didn’t think to check her neck. After several months of low grade inflammation, she finally had a flare up and has been suffering from nerve pain. That moment of hyper-enthusiastic bravado resulted in a slipped cervical disk. Her condition is not reversible, but it is treatable. One more mystery put to rest by someone with the relevant expertise and, therefore, worthy of my trust. However, I’m still thinking about the very human tendency to organize the world in a way that aids our understanding and gives us a psychological sense of protection from chaos. Specifically, I’m thinking about who, or what, we count as authoritative sources of information when we need to try to understand our experiences.

This week has presented us (humans) with explanatory challenges far more notable than the slipped disk in the neck of a tiny dog. But my response to my dog’s behavior is very much the same in kind as our collective response to the apparently senseless chaos that transpired in Las Vegas last Sunday. If you haven’t already heard—which would be remarkable, I admit—a man with an arsenal of assault rifles killed nearly 60 people and wounded over 500 more at an outdoor concert. It’s being touted as the worst mass shooting in U.S. History. At least for now. (That qualifier is, in some ways, the worst part. We fully expect this to happen again.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the various responses to this event that have evolved on social media and elsewhere, but I want to refrain from covering ground that has already been worn bare. Rather, what I want to do is abstract from the details to illuminate an interesting pattern in our social behavior. Understanding this pattern may help us craft more productive responses to social chaos in the future (individually and collectively).


My experience with trauma and subsequent battle with inner chaos makes me particularly sensitive to behavioral cues that indicate fear, anxiety, pain, and psychological suffering. This is not surprising. Our brains are wired to work this way. The more experience we have with certain psychological states (including emotions), the more likely we are to be competent in applying the concepts associated with those states to the behaviors of others. This phenomenon is called mind reading. Through experience we come to associate external, behavioral cues with inner causes (e.g. mental states). When we observe another person’s behavior our brains automatically extrapolate from prior experience in crafting perceptions that are informative. This happens before we ever become aware of what we’re observing. Extrapolation is the process of going beyond the information that’s given, and the brain is exceptionally good at this. During interpersonal interactions, we don’t have direct access to the minds of others, but we’ve learned how to successfully read the minds of others off of their behavior through experience.

Mind reading is something we do very naturally. Cognitive scientists have been able to document the development of the skill in toddlers and very young children. Generally, by the time neuro-typical kids go to grade school, they are proficient mind readers. There are different theories about how our brains/minds perform this task, but the details are not particularly important for the present discussion. What is important is the role that experience plays.

In order to have reliable mind reading skills, we first have to have the relevant mental state concepts. For instance, I have to understand something about what a desire is and what role it plays in motivational psychology in order for my brain to create a plausible explanation of why someone acted in a certain way. I also need to have a grasp on the fact that people can have false beliefs, that emotions manifest in bodily sensations, that intending and desiring are more closely related to one another than intending and knowing, etc. Concepts like BELIEF, DESIRE, INTENTION, EMOTION, KNOWLEDGE, etc. play specific roles in our commonsense psychological theories—that is, implicit theories we have about human behavior that we’ve picked up through social interaction. Without robust experience of the mental states that our concept are about, we have little more than mental state words (‘belief’, ‘desire’, etc.) taking up space in our theories and doing no useful work in helping us understand ourselves and others.

Let me explain this in a little more detail before I say why it’s relevant to mind reading and mass violence.

The word ‘belief’ refers to the class of mental states that satisfy a particular role in cognition: the belief role. The statement “Sally has a belief that P” deploys the word ‘belief’ but if the word is not associated with a concept, the statement has little meaning to the hearer. In other words, if you don’t know what a belief is, the statement that “Sally has a belief that P” will not be very informative.

Neuroscientists will frequently speak of concepts as statistical predictions made by neural networks in the brain. Philosophers and cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, treat concepts like the meanings expressed by words. Words are mere symbols that the mind manipulates, but the concepts associated with those symbols are what confer understanding. There is a way to map the language of philosophy and cognitive psychology onto the language of neurology (there is, after all, a strong dependence relation between the neurological and psychological) but the translation is not perfect, and there is really no point. Our colloquial English makes use of pretty much the same concepts that are of interest to philosophers and cognitive psychologists. So, from this point forward, when I say ‘concept’ I am referring meanings expressed by our words/terms.

Concepts become associated with words through experience, and our brains automatically deploy concepts when processing sensory information. The brain develops and uses concepts to help filter out the irrelevant noise that is constantly bombarding our senses. Concepts influence how we experience the world, what information gets in and what doesn’t. More robust conceptual resources tend to translate into richer, and more detailed, experiences of the world. So, for instance, a virtuoso pianist will experience a particular sound as middle C, whereas a novice musician may merely experience it as a sound that emanates from a particular instrument (say, a piano), and a mouse is not likely to experience the sound as anything other than environmental noise.

Robust conceptual resources give us better access to the world, including the minds of others. However, which words we use and which concepts we come to associate with those words depends on our social environment. New words and concepts are developing out of our social environments constantly. The age of the internet has brought with it a proliferation of new words and concepts that is likely unparalleled in history. Examples of this are too numerous to count, but for a relatively recent case, google “virtue signaling”. You can trace the introduction of the phrase and its associated conceptual evolution over the past year or so.

Now, here’s a fact about social environments: there are always gatekeepers that dictate what our words mean, what people, places, events or things they apply to, and who is allowed to use them. These gatekeepers are usually in the form of social norms that are enforced in contemporary American society by people who have large media (and social media) platforms. This past week was a perfect example of how this works. The cacophony of voices all vying for a position of authority on how to label the perpetrator of the Vegas Shooting was almost deafening. But this is not what I came here to discuss. A lot of the debate was politically motivated, which is not a bad thing, but it threatens to pull our focus away from something important.

The serious threat I want to discuss today is not that we have lax guns law, that we have another mass shooter, or that there is racial bias in the characterization of the perpetrator by mass media. The serious threat roiling under the surface of this situation is this: no one appears to be able to read the mind of the perpetrator. Further, we interpret this as a problem with him (i.e. That he is simply inscrutable) rather than a problem with the conceptual resources we keep deploying in our attempts to craft explanations.

The typical response to incidents like this is to apply dehumanizing rhetoric: the perpetrator is a wolf, a psychopath, the embodiment of pure evil, etc. These descriptions help us distance ourselves from the perpetrator who we push to the side as not really human. But we’ve been (as of yet) unable to convincingly create the picture of a monster in this situation because no one, not even those closest to him, can detect any traits that would help us classify him as non-human.

Quite a number of people on Twitter have offered ways we could have read his mind had we really wanted to, and that doing so would have led to the conclusion that the perpetrator was not really human. A common suggestion is something like this: he owned x number of guns but no one detected a problem? This entails the truth of following claim: All people who own x number of guns have a problem. What problem is this? The most obvious suggestion is that the problem is something that dehumanizes the perpetrator: abnormal psychology. The relevant claim is now this: all people who own x number of guns have abnormal psychology.

Now, in order to refute the truth of this generalization I need only provide an example of one person who both has x number of guns and does not have abnormal psychology. Challenge accepted. One person who has x number of guns and does not have abnormal psychology is my dad. He’s a gun collector. He has a lot of guns, most of them are beautifully crafted (even custom) handguns with special features. Among his rifles is an AR-15, which stays locked up in a 600 pound gun safe. He displays zero symptoms of abnormal psychology. In fact, I understand why he has guns and his reasons are not crazy. Even though I disagree with the ownership of the AR-15, I understand that my dad’s assessment the risk to his life is skewed from the norm because of the disproportionate number of past experiences he’s had with a violent psychopath. This skewed probability, however, is not a feature of abnormal psychology. It’s very normal.

Another Twitter user offered up a different, but equally wide-spread and unhelpful, look into the mind of the mass shooter from Vegas: “anyone who would do this can’t be normal.” This begs the question: normal in what way? If we interpret ‘normal’ as applicable to people who follow certain norms (in this case, social and moral), then the claim that this Twitter user makes is trivially true. The shooter clearly did not follow social or moral norms. If we interpret ‘normal’ as meaning something like ‘typical human psychology’, then the claim becomes: anyone who would do this can’t have typical human psychology. Let’s unpack this claim a little bit.

First, let’s formalize it slightly:

P1) If you commit mass murder, then you have abnormal psychology.

This conditional allows for the following logical operation called Modus Tollens:

P1) If you commit mass murder, then you have abnormal human psychology.
P2) You don’t have abnormal human psychology
C) Therefore, you don’t commit mass murder.

We seem to think that having abnormal psychology is necessary but not sufficient for being a mass murderer. That’s what P1 claims. A logically equivalent claim to P1 is this: If you don’t have abnormal human psychology then you can’t be a mass murderer. This claim is not obviously true, and since it’s logically equivalent to P1, then the truth of P1 must also be questioned. That is, the deduction above from P1 and P2 to C doesn’t look sound. It’s clearly valid (Modus Tollens always is), but it’s not sound: one of the premises is false, and the most likely culprit is premise 1. And yet, experience teaches us that premise 1 is true. The number of mass shootings since Columbine in 1999 have increased significantly and the amount of media coverage per shooting has also increased. Our concept of a mass shooter has been developed through repeated experiences of the perpetrators that are wholly mediated by the media. When someone or something mediates your concept-forming experiences, the content of your concept can be actively shaped. The usual way of describing the perpetrator of a mass shooting is through descriptive reference to abnormal psychology.

Premise 1 in the argument above is likely false, but let’s try to interpret ‘normal’ in a way that makes sense of the claim that people who commit mass murder aren’t normal. Perhaps what it means isn’t that they have normal human psychology, but that the contents of their beliefs and desires are somehow morally or socially problematic. For instance, suppose they believe that they can bring about world peace by killing some people and they truly desire to bring about world peace. Or perhaps they think that killing people will promote a purer political agenda. At this point some of my readers are likely thinking, “how can anyone get to these conclusions through a normal process of reasoning?” The answer is frightening: all it takes to send reasoning completely off the rails is a few key false beliefs. No psychotic break is necessary. Cognition (specifically, reasoning) is only as good as the inputs into the process. Let me say this again: someone can have utterly normal psychology and be a quality example of humanity, and still do something utterly morally confounding.

Sans evidence of false beliefs or political motivations, we have no way to understand the mind of this mass murderer. We simply cannot read his mind off of his behavior. None of our conceptual or explanatory resources can give us a satisfying way to bring order to the chaos. He’s completely human and yet completely inscrutable, and that’s terrifying. It implies that our mind reading skills have fallen behind our social progress.

What I’m about to say is highly speculative, but I think it’s an idea that’s worth exploring. How many of you noticed the distance between the shooter and the concert venue? It was remarkable, actually. This mass shooting bears little obvious resemblance to prior mass shootings in the U.S., but it does bear a striking resemblance to online trolling. Bear with me while I explain.

I am not suggesting that we label this incident an incident of trolling or that the perpetrator has the psychological profile of a troll (research in this area is inconclusive and quite possibly biased with respect to the order of causal explanation). What I’m suggesting, rather, is that we may need to develop new conceptual resources to explain the phenomenon accurately. What I’m proposing is that we really examine how distancing ourselves emotionally seems to enable actions that would be much more difficult, of not impossible, were we in close, interpersonal contact. The striking thing about Columbine was that the perpetrators knew their victims and they verbally and physically interacted with them during the attack. The social-psychological conditions under which Columbine happened are very, very different than those that obtained in Las Vegas last weekend. But mass shootings are evolving, as are (apparently) mass shooters. Is it possible that there is a correlation between the rapid evolution of our social environment and the increasing interpersonal distance that it creates, and the increase in mass shootings in the U.S.? Further, if we put psychologically normal human beings under the right social conditions, would they develop these tendencies? What, exactly, are the right social conditions? (I think emotional distancing can also happen when we have norms that discourage people—men, actually—from developing robust emotion concepts. But that’s worth an entire post…)

I haven’t a clue, and a scientifically respectable answer to this question will require research I am not in a position to do. I find this idea striking for a number of reasons, but most of all because of this: our response to the event (distancing) may be fundamentally related to its cause (distancing) and this is a problem we might be able to effectively address on a purely individual level.


Special thanks this week to all of my many friends, family members, and colleagues who reached out with words of comfort and offers of assistance with Tilly. You’re the best.  Also, a special thanks to my readers for slogging through this very drafty post. You’re true champs!