Why do kids commit murder?

This article appeared in the print edition of the Sacramento Bee on 11-26-2006 as part of a series of articles on this topic.

For all of the theory and speculation about why kids commit murder, the answers do not differ greatly from what we have learned about adults who kill. With few exceptions, adolescents are just as capable of knowing that what they did was wrong.

As with adults, some adolescents kill because they are chronically aggressive, cold and unfeeling. Some will kill because they "explode" in response to a history of "over-controlled hostility." Some will lash out after wallowing in feelings of victimization and after nurturing longstanding resentments. Others kill because they have been traumatized and are unable to tolerate their existence. Some who are immature and narcissistic become “obsessed.” Deprived of love or gratification, they feel justified while escalating to violence. Less common, but often more dramatic are the killings committed by the psychotic, those with disturbed and disordered thoughts and only a tenuous grasp on reality.

During the course of my career as a forensic psychologist, including the time that I worked at the California Youth Authority, I have conducted several hundred evaluations of adolescents who have committed homicide or attempted homicide. Today, the district attorney can take most juveniles charged with homicide directly to adult court. Before the law changed about five years ago, adolescents routinely underwent extensive psychological examination before a judge would decide whether to try them as an adult or as a juvenile. An additional evaluation was required before an adolescent convicted as an adult could be sentenced to an adult prison.

A psychological interview provides unique insights into the mental, emotional and motivational dynamics of the offender. Typically, it is the only time that the full story is told in rich detail, from the offender’s perspective, and with their feelings, beliefs and perceptions exposed. At no other point in the criminal justice system will the offender ever describe what they were thinking and how they viewed reality when they pulled the trigger or struck the fatal blow. Their story is rarely shared with the prosecution or the court, and may not be revealed to their own attorney. Often times, in a psychological interview, what the offender says is not sufficient to explain the motivation for their actions. In other cases, offenders will say enough for us to know whether the case should be described as an example of tragedy or an example of evil.

Although similar in these ways to adult offenders, there remain unique features of adolescent violence.

We know that the young tend to engage in more high-risk behaviors of all types. The research suggests that a familiar stereotype about kids is probably not true. Studies show that teenagers do not actually tend to view themselves as invulnerable or invincible, any more so than adults. Instead, kids are more likely to behave as if they are invincible because of immaturity, impulsivity and bad judgment. Lacking experience and being less mindful of obligations, responsibilities and consequences, they can display an indifference to risk and a sense of fearlessness that facilitates dangerous behavior.

Values, attitudes and beliefs also contribute to violence. Many juveniles have learned or come to believe that aggression is a legitimate method for resolving various interpersonal problems and conflicts encountered in life. When provoked, they fight back or attack, never thinking that a simple act of battery might have a deadly outcome.

Over the years, I have watched as the concept of “respect” has evolved in the youth culture. It is heard in the words of kids who say, “I respect them if they respect me” and those who explain their outbursts by saying, “He didn’t give me my respect.” I have come to view this as a particularly virulent and dangerous attitude, the idea that “respect” is a possession, an entitlement or a conditional offering. Sometimes teenagers kill while defending a sense of honor that they never earned or deserved.

The defense of honor frequently interacts with group dynamics. For a variety of reasons, adolescents tend to roam in groups, often displaying the attitudes and trappings of gang culture, even if they are not actually organized, sophisticated and with criminal purpose. In a group, even loosely formed, individuals may engage in extreme behaviors that they might never have undertaken on their own. The phenomenon results from a “diffusion of responsibility.” In a crowd, individuals often abandon restraint and give vent to impulses because no one feels individually responsible. Violence in defense of the honor of the group is a common theme.

There is a final element that can turn a simple confrontation into a deadly encounter. That is the possession of a weapon. I have heard it said time and again: The knife or gun was just for protection. It is rare that I have heard a juvenile admit that the gun made them feel powerful, but it is often clear that the weapon was carried for its emotional value, rather than for its use as a tool. And then, in response to some situation, the impulse and bad judgment come into play and the weapon is used.

Patterns notwithstanding, what I have found is that every case is different. A psychologist’s purpose is to explain, not to judge. In responding to the threat of violence, the worst thing that we can do as a society is to fail to understand exactly what happened in any particular case. Sometimes we ignore facts out of fear that an explanation will be offered as an excuse. If we rely upon our preconceived notions about the causes of violence, rather than listening to what a particular individual was thinking and feeling at that particular moment, we will fail to learn what is most important: How do we as a society protect ourselves from violence?

Follow up comment:  My discussion above about the "demand for respect" that is often involved in youth violence has often been a point of discussion among those who have discussed this article with me.  I wanted to add here a quote from a column by Leonard Pitts from the Miami Herald,  who was writing about a gun play incident involving two NBA players,  Karl Malone and Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards.  It happened in December 2009,  and while it was essentially just horseplay,  weapons were brandished.  After noting that "the leading cause of death for black men 15 to 34 is homicide,  usually at the hands of another black man,"  and after noting that the two players involved were both African-American,  Pitts had this to say:
"Granted,  stupidity knows no color.  And yet ... it is difficult to think of these two guys whipping out guns like something out of Dodge City and not see shadows of all of the other men of the same heritage and age group who once were here but now are gone because they regarded guns in the same profoundly unserious manner.  Because they saw them not as tools of hunting or self-defense but,  rather,  as toys - as argument settlers and point makers,  as extensions of their personal reproductive gear,  as a means of demanding respect.
I wanted to capture this quote because I think it reflects the source of a lot of youth violence:  acts not necessarily intended but behavior that got out of hand for no reason at all.  January 2010

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.