- - Monday, March 26, 2018


How well do you know those closest to you? Not as well as you think.

We saw a familiar scenario last week after the bombings in Austin. It was a lot like the one that followed the Las Vegas massacre, and which followed many of the previous mass shootings, too. The familiar scenario is video of shocked and bewildered family members of mass killers telling reporters some version of, “He was such a nice guy – quiet, helpful…I can’t believe it…I HAD NO IDEA.”

From Columbine in 1999 to Austin in 2018, parents, siblings and spouses have failed to predict the explosion of violence from their family.

And we, the skeptical public, shake our heads in disbelief. How could the parents/wife/best friend not have known? We believe that in their place we surely would have known.

We are wrong.

People are routinely taken by surprise by the behavior of those closest to them; spouses are stunned by their partner’s infidelity, parents are shocked to learn their child is addicted, congregations are dumfounded by their clergy’s sexual misconduct, business owners are devastated by their employees’ financial crimes, friends are heartbroken by their friend’s suicide. It happens every day.

The world provides evidence that we do not know those closest to us as well as we think we do.  

Director Richard Linklater’s movies deal with the difficulty of knowing the other person in a relationship. He observed, “no one really knows anyone. That’s the thing about relationships … it is so hard for anyone to even know themselves. Who I am is always changing, so how can anyone else share in that?”

Science confirms his observation.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley and others have studied how well couples guess each other’s opinions and preferences. They consistently find that even long-married couples think they know one another a lot better than they actually do.

For example, on a survey that asked participants to rate their own intelligence, athleticism, and attractiveness, people thought they could correctly guess their partners’ responses about 80 percent of the time. Actually, they guessed right only 30 percent of the time - not much better than chance (10 percent)!

It turns out that there is only one way to know what someone else thinks, and that is to ask.  
We aren’t very good at prediction in general, and violence is particularly hard to predict. We know some characteristics of mass killers, but millions who share those characteristics never become violent at all.

Mass killers are often portrayed as socially isolated loners, but that’s not quite accurate, according to Katherine Newman, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied high-school and university shootings. “After the fact, when you interview people who knew them, they’ll say, ‘He had friends. I was one of his friends.’ But in general, their social experience is not one of easy incorporation.”

Many people struggle with social acceptance, with friendships – and with self-esteem.  Many experience failure and disappointments, unemployment and rejection – all things associated with mass killings…but only the tiniest number of those people ever become violent.

The combined evidence of science and art, as well as real life experience, leave us with what we have known for a long time; that - broadly speaking, though not in every case - the best predictors of violence are still these: a history of violence and access to guns.

All we need now is the resolve to act wisely on what we know.

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