The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Friday, October 9, 2015


Oh no, not again! is what we keep saying to ourselves, every time there is another mass killing.  Now it is a student at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon who kills 9 students and teachers, and when the police arrive, kills himself (October 1, 2015).

Almost everything about this is familiar, including the ensuing debate.  For one side, the obvious solution is more stringent gun control; ideally this would turn the U.S. into a low gun-ownership country like others where mass killings are rare. On the other side, the immediate reaction is keep our guns:  it's our Second Amendment right; banning guns would criminalize many law-abiding people; and in fact more guns on the ground would be the way to hold off these killers.

Neither of these positions would be such an easy solution as envisioned.

Most importantly, the current political reality is that no sweeping shift in gun control is likely to happen very soon.

Is the only thing we can do to stop mass killings, is to keep struggling over gun control? Is there nothing else we can do, right now?

We tend to assume that in public issues, state agencies should take care of it for us; we just have to mobilize ourselves to demand that the government do what we want. But is there nothing that people themselves, on the spot, can do about heading off  potential violence? 

In fact, research in the micro-sociology of violence suggests things that people can do in the immediate situation. There are turning points that swing either towards violence or away from it; and the right action at these turning points has proven successful in heading off things like fights, rapes, and riots. I have summarized some of these actions in the Practical Conclusions at the end of my book, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, and in my June 2014 Sociological Eye blog post, "Tank Man and the Limits of Telephoto Lenses: Or, How much Can Individuals Stop Violence?"

In two other posts I have pointed out key features that distinguish mass killings from other kinds of violence.  

One of these clues is that potential killers' pattern of amassing guns is different from ordinary gun-owners.  They don't look like ordinary American gun-owners, and this difference is important as a clue as to who is dangerous and who is not.

If this difference were better known, it could help overcome one of the worst political aspects of our polarized reaction to mass shootings. As it stands now, gun-control advocates tend to treat gun-owners in general as the problem; and gun-owners-- a large segment of the American population-- feel themselves as the object of attack, virtually as if they themselves were responsible for another mass-rampage shooting. 

If we can all focus on the significant clues, both sides-- gun-control advocates and gun-owners-- can both help head off mass shootings. In fact, gun-owners are in a position to do more about this in the settings where mass shootings are most common.

The most distinctive clues

-- A long period of clandestine preparation.  Most other kinds of violence happen rather abruptly. Quarrels which escalate into fights; domestic disputes that boil over into hot rage with whatever weapons are at hand; street-crimes and robberies that hinge on sudden opportunities; rapes at carousing parties: most of these violent events would be unexpected a few hours in advance. Mass killings of the kind that happen in schools, work-places, and more recently in theatres, gyms and churches, are planned much further back, typically over a period of weeks or months.

This period of clandestine preparation is not just a time of getting the logistics together and working out a rational plan of attack. The mood is not matter-of-fact but a kind of private ecstasy, a fantasy-land of smothering oneself  in the details of revenge for felt social slights.  Everything about the imagined revenge scenario is something to brood over and to savor -- researching past rampage killings, fixing a target, imagining the scenario, acquiring an arsenal complete with costumes and side-equipment.

-- An arsenal of symbolic overkill.  Mass rampage killers almost always amass far more weapons and ammunition that they need in their attack. They carry more guns, magazines and bombs than they actually use, and when they are shot, captured or commit suicide, they still have plenty more they could have used to continue the fight. Another sizeable portion of the arsenal is left behind, at home or in their car. Clearly they have an obsession with weapons-- the more guns the better, a 14-year old school killer in Kentucky said-- but most of it is superfluous power in a practical sense; it is part of their psychological preparation. Symbolic overkill is what gives them the emotional strength to carry out this horrific action that cuts them off irreparably from the human community.

-- Clandestine excitement.  From previous case studies, we have seen that this period of working in one's private underground-- either alone or with a small number of conspirators-- is the high point of their lives. "It was the only adventure I've ever had," the 14-year old Paducah, Kentucky school killer said.  Life has been a downer of social isolation or shame; now the tables are turned, and I-- the future killer-in-preparation-- am doing something far more significant, far more powerful than the people I am going to kill.  What needs to be emphasized here is that this high point is in the period of clandestine preparation; what the actual moments of the mass shooting are like is hard to tell, since few perpetrators survive, but motivation is in the present of on-going time, and it is clear that they are enjoying the build-up to the mass shooting.  The very fact that it is hidden away from other people, that there is a danger in being found out, makes it an adventure. This clandestine excitement gives purpose to their lives. And it gives them emotional energy, the forward-moving confidence and momentum that propels them down the emotional slope that leads to mass killing.

The difference from ordinary gun-owners

Ordinary gun-owners are not like this.  They don't spend long periods working out a a scenario of using their guns. They don't spend months obsessively planning the details of when and where the shooting is going to take place. It is not difficult to distinguish an ordinary gun-owner from someone who is preparing a mass shooting; the pattern of their daily life and state of mind are quite distinct.

Ordinary gun-owners are not involved in symbolic overkill. On the whole, they do not amass arsenals so huge that they never could be of any use.  True, there is some symbolism in having guns and historic weapons; it says something about one's self-image. But the key difference is that ordinary gun-owners are not so intensely focused on their weapons-collection as potential mass-killers are. It is not the center of their self-image, the most important thing in their lives; it is not tied to an obsessive plan for action that is building up in the middle-range future. 

Ordinary gun-owners are not full of clandestine excitement.  Their guns are clearly on display; or if they are locked away in gun cabinets, their existence is not a secret; there is no excitement about hiding them while looking forward to the day they will be used. The emotional atmosphere is different.

Seen up close, there is little danger of mistaking an ordinary gun-owner for a rampage killer. 

Gun-owning adults are the best observers who can head off mass killings

Once a mass killing has taken place, public scrutiny soon zeroes in on the lead-up to it. Retrospectively we learn about the killer, his (almost always a male) sense of social grievances, his obsessive revenge planning and arsenal-collecting.  What we need it for someone to see the warning signs, while it is still in the stage of fantasy killing, before it turns into real killing.

The persons who are in best position to do this are those close to the potential killer, members of his family, neighbors, and  acquaintances. This is especially important when the people nearby in his network are gun-owners. For one thing, gun-owners are usually the ones who have introduced the potential killers to guns, have given them knowledge about them; often they have been the source of guns (as in the case of the Sandy Hook mother who bought guns for her son), or because their guns were stolen by the perpetrator.

Gun-owners bear a special responsibility for those in their immediate social network who might get access to guns. And this goes beyond conventional gun-safety training. It is not just a matter of trying to ensure that guns are not fired accidentally or in the wrong direction;  it becomes a matter of making sure someone with an alienated world-view doesn't fire guns at all at their chosen target. 

Gun-owners need to become alert to the warning signs: social alienation, mental illness, and above all their combination with a young man's clandestine obsession with guns over a long period of time, accumulating symbolic arsenals, and centering one's life around the clandestine excitement of a scenario of violent revenge. Discerning this isn't easy; there are plenty of alienated youths, and today's entertainment culture is full of fantasy violence. It isn't playing the violent video games that is the problem; it is the accumulation of a real arsenal with all the paraphernalia of a mass murder scenario.  When this goes on for months, in one's own home, a concerned family member should get a sense of it.  Gun-owning parents need to encourage each other to look for the warning signs, and to take action when they see them.

The Roseburg, Oregon killings and its predecessors

In previous posts, I have analyzed the details of the December 2012 Sandy Hook  Elementary School shooting in Connecticut; the  July 2012 Aurora, Colorado theatre massacre; the July 2011 mass shooting at a Norway youth camp; the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. I have drawn especially on the psychological dynamics of the would-be killer assembling a clandestine arsenal leading up to the mass shooting at a high school in Paducah, Kentucky in 1997.

All these cases show the long pattern of obsessive preparation of a clandestine scenario, centered on collecting an weapons arsenal. Like the rest of them, the Roseburg, Oregon shooter had assembled far more weapons than he actually used.  He carried six guns with him to Umpqua Community College, along with five magazines of ammunition and a flak jacket. At home in his mother's apartment, he had seven more guns and large amounts of ammo. It  looks like the same symbolic overkill. It seems likely that as further details come out, we will find the pattern of obsessive clandestine preparation over a period of months.

There are already a number of parallels to the Sandy Hook shooter. In both cases, the shooter lived alone with his mother, who was devoted to caring for him. Both shooters had Asperger's syndrome, and both mothers strongly indulged their strange behavior. Both mothers were themselves enthusiastic gun-owners. Both took their sons shooting at gun ranges; the Sandy Hook mother regarded it as one of the few successful things they could do together. The Sandy Hook mother bought all five of the guns that her son used (including the gun with which he killed her), as well as his other paraphernalia of weapons, and his massive supply of ammunition. Everything her son did, she interpreted as a manifestation of his illness. The windows in his room taped shut with black plastic were to her just a sign of sensitiveness to light-- even though he could go outdoors when he wanted to. The possibility that he was hiding something in the rooms she was forbidden to enter was masked in her own mind by the feeling that she must do everything possible for her son.

At Sandy Hook, we find all the worst ingredients combined. Some of them are already visible in the Roseburg case. The socially isolated son; the single care-giving mother; the diagnosis of mental illness that she is trying so hard to counteract. The young man becoming obsessed with the pattern of previous mass shootings, building up an arsenal, even imitating some previous features such as asking victims if they are Christian.

Could these mass killings have been stopped before they started?  Yes, clearly the care-giving mother was in a position to read the warning signs.

That they did not is a pointer to the direction we need to go: much greater awareness of warning signs, especially among ordinary gun-owners.

What follows is a slightly modified re-posting of my September 2012 analysis.


What can the micro-sociology of violence contribute to understanding the mass killings in Aurora, Colorado, and similar incidents? In the immediate shock of public attention, there is an imperative to give policy answers.  I could join the chorus advocating a ban on weapons in the USA.  This is a hope; it is not a guarantee.  Mass shootings are very rare events.  There are about 15,000 homicides per year in the USA; the great majority are single-victim killings. Less than 1% are mass killings (4 or more victims in the same incident). Spectacular mass shootings, where many persons are killed or wounded, have been happening at a rate of about 1 or 2 per year, in the 30 years since 1980, for the most common type, school shootings; shootings in other venues, apparently imitating school shootings, are on the rise, especially in the last two years. It is their rarity that attracts so much attention, and their out-of-the-blue, seemingly random relationship between killer and victims, that makes them so dramatically alarming. 
This rarity means that very distinctive circumstances are needed to explain mass killings, and that widely available conditions cannot be very accurate predictors.  There are approximately 270 million firearms in the civilian population in America, in a population of about 310 million.  The vast majority of these guns are not used to kill people.  Even if we focus on the total number of yearly homicides by gun (about 12,000), the percentage of guns that kill someone is about 12,000 / 270,000,000, or 1 in 23,000.  Another way to put it: of approximately 44 million gun owners in the US, 99.97% of them do not murder anyone. It is not surprising that their owners resist being accused of abetting murder.
My aim here is not to enter the political controversy over banning guns. Many people who own guns are gun-cultists, for whom guns are symbolic objects, connected with their identity and lifestyle (analyzed in Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains). The political argument over banning or retaining guns has strong emotional overtones on both sides. Anti-gun-cultists dislike not only guns but the lifestyle and the values of the people who have them; this is evident in the case of anti-hunting movements, including the recently successful anti-foxhunting movement in England. (US surveys indicate the favorite TV shows of liberal Democrats are comedians satirizing conservatives. Experian, 2012) Both sides blur the gun issue with symbolic politics.  What can be said analytically is that banning guns is trying to manipulate a variable that is a very weak predictor of mass homicides. It resembles TSA procedures of searching everyone who enters an airport gate area; airplane terrorists are also extremely rare, and thus the vast majority of the persons who are searched are innocent.   More successful ways of heading off terrorists have focused on their organizations and networks (Sageman 2004). 
In the case of mass homicides, micro-sociology can help by examining the details that make this kind of murder distinctive.
Mass murders are mostly committed by a solo individual, almost never by more than two. Typically their target is a public gathering of 10 to several hundred persons. Not everyone is killed; usually the number of wounded is larger than the number killed; and many escape injury, since mass murderers resemble other violent persons in this respect: they often miss their targets.
In mass rampage killings, the killers are not aiming at particular individuals at all. The victims are anonymous, representatives of a collective identity that is being attacked. Hence mass attacks generally take place in institutional settings: mainly in schools, or work places, although recently also in exercise gyms and in churches.  The Aurora, Colorado attack in July 2012 was unusual (or the harbinger of new settings), in a movie theatre; the Norway shooting attack of July 2011 was on a youth camp of a political party. The number actually killed is misleading; the attack is an effort to destroy an institution through the people who belong to it. In that sense it is a symbolic attack-- a deadly symbolic attack. The motivation and tactics of the mass killer are very different from most homicides; here it is not a matter of a personal grudge coming from ongoing conflict with a particular individual, as in the nearly half  of all homicides which are among personal acquaintances; nor the targeted killing between gangs; nor the instrumental or accidental killings which take place in the course of another crime such as a robbery or rape.  Most other types of homicides are impulsive or emerge from escalated situations; mass rampage killings are elaborately planned in advance.
Rampage killers tend to attack not only a place but an event. The ritualized gathering has a symbolic meaning-- it is where the group celebrates itself through communion with its sacred objects.  Thus Holmes, the recently failed graduate student who shot 70 people (12 killed, 58 wounded) at a movie theatre in Aurora, chose the night of the premiere of an eagerly awaited Batman movie.  From a sociological point of view, being an entertainment fan is a major identity in contemporary youth culture.  Holmes, by imitating the costumes of characters in the Batman series, was entering deeply into a popular cult. His apartment was decorated with Batman paraphernalia. Without having the details of Holmes' life experiences and personal thoughts, it can still be said that the killer was simultaneously participating in a ritual of popular youth culture, and attacking the members of that cult. (Of the 12 killed, 10 were in the age range 18 to 32; 7 of them within 3 years of his own age, 24.)  The movie-theatre mass rampage killing resembles school shootings, where the killer is attacking his own institution and its members-- the scenario of the rejected member. 
Not very usable clues are the patterns that rampage killers are low status isolates, or recent academic or career failures, or introverts.  Like availability of guns, here again the explanatory variable is too common;  there are a tiny number of rampage killers, but incidents of career failures are widespread; the number of introverts in the population is probably around 40 percent; victims of school bullying comprise 5 - 15% of students; since there are about 13 million secondary school students in the US, bully victims would total around 650,000 to 2 million. About two-thirds of school shooters are bully victims, but there are other ways to be low status in the youth culture, so the number would be higher. The correlation of these predictors with rampage killings must be extremely low.
Better clues come from considering the micro-sociology of this kind of violence. Any kind of violent confrontation is emotionally difficult; the situation of facing another person whom one wants to harm produces confrontational tension/fear (ct/f ); and its effect most of the time is to make violence abort, or to become inaccurate and ineffective. The usual micro-sociological patterns that allow violence to succeed are not present in a rampage killing; group support does not exist, because one or two killers confront a much larger crowd:  in contrast, most violence in riots takes place in little clumps where the attackers have an advantage of around 6-to-1. 
Another major pathway around ct/f  is attacking a weak victim. But in almost all violence, the weakness is emotional rather than physical-- even an armed attacker has to establish emotional dominance, before he can carry out effective violence.  One might think this is simply a matter of using a gun or displaying a weapon, which automatically puts the armed person in the position of strength, the others in a position of weakness. Nevertheless, detailed analysis of incidents and photos of armed confrontations show that  groups without guns can emotionally paralyze an armed opponent, preventing him from using his weapon.
Guns provide emotional dominance when an armed individual threatens a peaceful group and they try to hide or run away.  This depends on the style of the victims. When rival street gangs clash, they do not turn their backs; they are used to gesturing, with and without guns, and most such face-to-face confrontations wind down. Running away has the effect of confirming emotional dominance; it is easier to shoot a person in the back than in the front; and turning away or attempting to hide one's face has the effect of removing one's greatest deterrent-- eye-contact with the opponent. Thus the hundreds who piled on the floor in the theatre at Aurora, or who ran from the attacker on the Norwegian island, may have saved some percentage of themselves; but they collectively could have saved more than ended up being killed or wounded, if they had used their superior numbers to confront the attacker.  I don't mean just the possibility of physically overcoming him, but taking advantage of the fact that groups are always emotionally stronger than individuals, if they can keep themselves together and put up an emotionally united front: they could probably have made him stop shooting. 
If this sounds implausible, consider how rampage shootings usually end: in a 1997 school shooting at Paducah, Kentucky, the solo killer, a 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in the school hall, allowed a teacher and the prayer leader to come up to him and take his gun away as soon as he had shot 8 girls and boys (who were facing away from him). I will discuss this case in detail below.  The Aurora theatre killer gave himself up to the police without resistance after he left the theatre. Even Breivik, the Norwegian killer, who stated a strong ideological motive for his killings, gave himself up without a fight once armed authorities arrived on the island, although he had plenty of ammunition left.  The key point here is not simply that the Norwegian police were armed, and the teenage campers were not; but rather that the police confronted him, while the teens ran away and turned their backs. Rampage killers almost always give themselves up peacefully, or else commit suicide. A rare exception is the Columbine duo, who exchanged fire several times with the police, at long distance and ineffectually, before killing themselves in a lull in the action. This is another respect in which rampage killers differ from other types of violent persons.

Why Rampage Killers are Not Suicide Bombers
Rampage killers do not approach their victims in an angry or threatening mode; they give no warning until they start firing.  In this respect their pathway into violence are not at all like disputes that escalate into violence; nor like confrontations among gangs or other ostentatious tough guys, who often do more blustering than actual violence. Rampage shooters are more similar to suicide bombers, whose tactical advantage is pretending that the attacker is just an ordinary, innocuous person until the last moment when the bomb is set off.  Political organizations that use suicide bombers do not select belligerent persons, but the most mild-mannered, self-controlled individuals. Rampage killers are even farther at the end of this continuum. 
But rampage killers differ from suicide bombers in ways that reveal what is central to their motivation. The suicide bomber kills him/herself at the same moment as the victims; this has the advantage of not seeing the carnage one has made. Suicide bombers are usually idealistic individuals who believe in a cause, and have never engaged in violence before; so the tactic is ideal for keeping any notion of violence out of their mind-- the most successful pathway is to keep one's mind focused on the normal details of routine activity, or on one's ideological message (see Collins, Violence,  for analysis of the last dialogue of suicide bombers, including a recording in the cockpit of the airline downed on 9/11).  But rampage killers are obsessed with their attack; they want to see the token representations of the hated institution die. A minority of rampage killers commit suicide, but only after they have experienced the process of killing that they have fantasized about for so long.
Motives and rituals of confrontation also affect the weapons they use.  A remote bombing attack-- where the attacker places a bomb at the target and detonates it later from a safe distance-- does not fit the psychological scenario the rampage killer seeks. Disgruntled students often fantasize about blowing up the school, and this is perhaps their most common form of rebellious rhetoric; but it is entirely verbal ritualism (and circulation of a cultural cliché), since virtually all mass killings in schools have been carried out by shooting rather than bombs. And this is so even though many of the killers collect an arsenal which includes bombs; for instance the two killers at Columbine High School in 1999 brought nearly 100 explosive devices, and managed to explode 8-to-10 of them, but caused all their casualties by shooting. It appears that bombing is not sufficiently confrontational for the psychological scenario that a mass institutional killer seeks.
Suicide bombers belong to an organized group, a movement with a long-term goal that they hope to advance, beyond the deaths of individual contributors; whereas rampage killers engage in purely personal revenge.  Why this should affect the scenarios they choose?  Suicide bombers have an abstract agenda; rampage killers are persons who have been personally humiliated.  What they want is to reverse the scenario that has dominated their lives-- being looked down upon by others in that institution; the habitually dominated seek a moment of dominating others. This fills their horizon; the rampage killer rarely plans what happens next. In all his elaborate planning, he has made no plans for escape. The mass killing is the final, overwhelming symbolic event of his life.

Insulating Oneself from Direct Face-to-Face Contact with Victims
Even when an armed individual threatens a large unarmed group, he needs to circumvent ct/f -- the debilitating tension that makes violence so hard. He needs a technique for insulating himself from the persons he is going to kill. There are several ways to do this, and recent massacres show some of the techniques.
The Aurora killer wore an elaborate black costume, assembled from military and police supply businesses, including helmet, gas mask, throat guard, assault vest, leggings and gloves.  This somewhat resembled Batman-- also an ordinary person with a secret identity-- who goes into violent action transformed into a bulked-up dark costume and head covering.  Holmes's costume also let him fit in with the crowd of fantasy fans, as the style of dressing as comic-story characters has become popular at youth-culture gatherings (e.g. Comic-Con in San Diego-- his home town-- which took place just a week before the Aurora shooting). Before donning his helmet and gas mask, Holmes displayed his flamboyant shock of hair dyed bright red; this attracted attention but eased him into the role, as he told people he was the Joker-- thus imitating both the arch-villain and the super-hero. He waited until the action of the film was under way before tossing smoke bombs into the theatre and starting to shoot. A witness described the atmosphere: "smoke, explosions-- bats flying across the screen because the movie's still playing-- it's dark." When the lights came on, Holmes stopped firing and left the theatre.
Psychologically, his bulky costume put a layer of insulation between himself and the world, and his bizarre-looking gas mask gave him an artificial face. The normal tendency of a focused interaction between persons is to reflect emotional signals back and forth, so each becomes entrained in the other person's emotions; mutual eye contact and full face-to-face concentration brings a strong sense of the other person's humanity, and makes it difficult to carry out violence. The would-be rampage killer needs to distance his social emotions from his own awareness; masking or disguising one's own face is one way to do this.  In general, masks or hoods either on the faces of the aggressor or the victims increase the amount of violence, by destroying the normal human link in face-to-face eye contact.  Later I will describe a case where the killer, just before opening fire in a school, puts on shooting-range ear-plugs; these have no practical value but insulate him from the sounds and sensations of normal social interaction.
Breivik, the Oslo killer, followed an even more sophisticated pathway. He likewise took on an alien role, wearing a police uniform with a helmet and face shield that obscured his face. In preparation, he practiced meditation techniques, to keep himself detached from the human reactions of the persons he was preparing to shoot. He also extensively practiced violent video games; of course, tens of millions of other youth did too. But Breivik incorporated it as preparation for a real-world attack; unlike the usual frame in which game-players recognize what they are doing as unreal, he consciously connected it with the need to steel himself from any pangs of human sympathy; in effect, he recognized ct/f  as an obstacle he would train himself to overcome.

Deep Backstage
Almost everyone has a backstage, a region of privacy (the bathroom, your own bedroom etc.) where you prepare for and recuperate from the frontstage social interaction that is typically the center of your life. Some individuals-- introverts, isolates, the socially excluded-- spend much of their time in the backstage.  Many persons build elaborate fantasy backstage lives that becomes a substitute for successful interaction rituals on the frontstage, especially in today's world of the Internet and electronic games.  This is particularly common among young males, the upper age rising from teens through 30s in recent decades with the postponement of adult careers, inflation of educational requirements, and underemployment. The demographic is the same as most rampage killers, although only a tiny proportion becomes violent. Information-technology-obsessed "gamers" have become a recognized category among teenagers-- a low status at the far end of the spectrum from the extroverts and athletes who dominate school and leisure activities.  
Mass rampage killers-- and an unknown penumbra of wannabes-- go even further. Their obsessive backstages have two distinctive features. First, their private obsessions concentrate on their vision of a personally inimical world: not the standardized war and fighting fantasies of mass-marketed games, but their own real-world hatreds and institutions.  They become increasingly drawn into preparing their counter-attack. 
A second feature is that a rampage killer makes his backstage into a super-successful ritual, while also keeping it ultra-private.  It resembles a personal religious cult, with its own ceremonies, sacred objects, and moral standards. Of course, many innocuous pursuits can also be built up in private into a quasi-religious obsession.  The would-be rampager's success, in building an emotionally compelling world that is completely antagonistic to other people's,  is so extreme because he has found a unique source of emotional energy: clandestine excitement.
Ordinarily, motivations are generated socially, by successful interaction rituals; mutual focus and emotional entrainment with other people build up collective effervescence; an individual's emotional energy (EE) is tied to an arena of successful social membership, and to its collective symbols and moral standards which guide action. Spin-off rituals exist, such as solitary prayer or artistic creation, but such practices are first learned in a group that fills them with sacred significance, so that individuals can take them further in privacy.  But clandestine solitary rituals are not like this; they are never shared with a group, and collective ritual can't give them a jump-start.   So how can a totally solo ritual generate enough emotional energy to outshine every other motivation? 
The answer is clandestine excitement: the energy that comes from successfully keeping other people out of one's backstage.  The backstage of the would-be mass killer is illicit; he knows it cannot be revealed to others without provoking severe condemnation.  This distinguishes it from other kinds of obsessive backstages; boys caught up in video games and electronic cults  do not generally hide what they are interested in, and multi-player games and on-line contacts subject them to a degree of social control, reinforcing a standardized construction of social reality. The would-be rampager is playing a much more exciting game, hiding from others his horrendous plans; and this excitement feeds the emotional input that drive his private ritual. His backstage ritual is in a deepening spiral, a unique source of emotional excitement: as the prospective rampager gets into increasingly serious preparations, the excitement level rises.  It is not just the excitement of what he is going to do, in the great showdown event-- this may actually be frightening to contemplate. The positive energy comes from the ongoing adventure of doing something illicit, collecting weapons and hiding them, making specific plans-- the excitement is that of carrying out a secret mission.  From an alienated life, the future rampager now has many moments of excitement, every time he has to fool someone who might notice what he is doing.  On the whole, these are easy tasks, risks that he can handle. His daily life of clandestine planning now gives a feeling of confidence, initiative, enthusiasm-- the very definition of EE.  The preparing rampager gets a buzz from successfully duping persons around him while going through the motions of everyday life. He is playing a higher-order game of social attunement-- pretending to be attuned to them so he can control their perceptions of what he is really doing.

The Backstage of a Young Teen Killer

We can follow the construction of a deep backstage in a high school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky in December 1997 (investigated in detail by Katherine Newman, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shooting; quotes from pp. 25-6).  A 14-year old boy, Michael Carneal, opened fire in the school lobby on a Christian prayer circle just at the beginning of the school day, killing 3 and wounding 5.
The sequence of events begins with struggle over low rank in the social hierarchy of the school.  In all known school shootings, the perpetrators were outside the popular group; many of them had been manhandled, punched, trapped in a locker or thrown in a garbage can, taunted and jeered at. For Michael, the worst was when a gossip column in the school paper implied that he was homosexual, precipitating a further barrage of taunts. Like most school shooters, Michael was unathletic, unattractive, and easily dominated: a clear counter-ideal by which the teenage status hierarchy could remind itself of what is and is not, and an easy target for attacking the weak. He did not fight back when attacked.
Rampage shooters are not only humiliated by the school hierarchy, they hide their humiliation.  They try to go on faking it on the outside, not admitting that the bullying and put-downs are getting to them. This gives an additional significance to the pattern that they rarely confide in teachers or parents, much less their compatriots, about their feelings of humiliation. This is not just an instrumental issue of failing to get help; being unwilling to confide  is in fact a realistic assessment, if the problem is regaining status in the student hierarchy, which is lost by enlisting adults as allies against students.  But this cuts off an avenue of expressing shame which could have turned the emotional dynamics away from the cycle of bypassed shame and humiliated rage (emphasized by Scheff 1991). 
Bullied rampage shooters are not entirely passive nor entirely isolated; generally they have some friends, rather outside of school than in it.  Although they do not fight back against being attacked, or meet taunts with counter-taunts, they may attempt of their own. Michael, who was repeatedly hazed by the school band members -- the one organization he did belong to -- also carried out pranks to annoy the teachers and other students, episodes of clowning, ostentatious noise-making and mild physical intrusions like slapping other’s heads as he walked by their seats.  He responds to victimhood by taking on the role of the clown, simultaneously staging the impression that they are not humiliated but take it all in fun, while also attempting to get the group’s attention. This is Goffmanian frontstaging, leaving the humiliation hidden on the backstage.  And it is a strategy that fails; higher-status students find it annoying, and retaliate by increasing their level of harassment.  Hence a build-up of taunting, physical attacks, and character assassination, as the dominants defend what they feel is their legitimate status hierarchy. 
A deep backstage gets constructed from a spiral of backstage activities.  In middle school, Michael was already involved in a number of personal backstages:  the fact that he did not fight back against bullying nor express his feelings about it, kept these feelings reserved for a private backstage. He was also adept at presenting himself to adults as normal and well-adjusted, including covering up for his own pranks. 
His backstage manipulation of frontstage impressions took a further turn when he moved to high school, and tried to gain admission to an alternative counter-culture group.  These were the Goths, ostentatiously dressing in black, displaying pagan religious symbols, and rhetorically challenging the dominant school status hierarchy. Michael as an awkward freshman received little status in the Goth circle either. He tried to bribe his way into the circle, stealing money and a fax machine to give to them. So far he was stepping into the criminal pathway. But in fact he did not go far in this direction; his backstaging took another twist when he began to pretend to steal CDs (alternative music being the central interest of the Goth subculture) to give to them, but in fact taking them from his own collection.  Michael was now trying to impress the Goths with his criminality, itself a pretence; he was not even a straightforward thief.
Around this time Michael became acutely conscious that other people had hidden backstages. He was impressed with the Goths’ charges that the Christian prayer group which met in the school lobby every morning was itself just a show.  Behind the facade of pious purity, the Goths said, they were just as sexually dissolute as anyone else. This was just the most obvious form of hypocrisy.  The ostensibly altruistic Christians upheld the school status hierarchy of athletes and popular sociables which mercilessly put down nerdy kids like Michael. Around the same time, Michael wrote a short story in which he declared “there is a secret in my family that my parents and my sister know... I am always excluded from things... I overheard my parents debating whether they should tell me or not.”  His perception was not entirely fantasy. The school status hierarchy is omnipotent in its time and place; children who have friends in their neighbourhood or through family networks nevertheless may be ignored by the same friends at school because of their different ranks in the school status hierarchy (Milner, Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids). Michael’s older sister, who belonged to one of the popular groups, treated him very differently at home and at school.
Michael was becoming obsessed with backstages, recognizing that others had a backstage just as he did. Now he was formulating layers of his own backstages, deep backstages on which he contrived to pretend to belong on more conventionally alienated backstages like the Goths; he was descending into an inner world in which he was suspicious of the layers of staging everywhere.
His final round of backstage activity was to develop a plot around guns.  During Thanksgiving holiday, after taking part in the ritual dinner with his family, he visited the home of a neighbourhood buddy at a time when he knew the family would be away having dinner with their relatives, using his insider knowledge of their doings to find an opportune time to break in. He must have been secretly observing details of the layout for some time beforehand, since he was able to find the hidden key to the gun case, and take several weapons, which he hid in a duffle bag and carried home on his bike.
“Affecting a nonchalant air when he arrived at home, Michael parked the duffle bag by some pine trees outside his bedroom window, and went in to greet his parents. ‘I’m fine,’ he said, when they asked about his day.  Once upstairs, he locked his door, climbed out the window, and retrieved the bag, stashing it under his bed.   Michael carefully screened the weapons from view by moving Lego boxes in front of the bag. He went downstairs to watch TV for a while but was too excited to sit still for long." He returned to lie on his bed.
This is a significant detail. In previous months, Michael had developed a phobia about sleeping in his bedroom, believing that a monster was under his bed who would drag him under while he was alone; instead he slept on the living room couch.  But he used his bedroom to store his possessions, and now it hid his cache of guns. The monster no longer threatens him; it has merged with himself, or rather with his weapons, which are stored in just the place where he imagined the monster to be.
"Lying awake on his bed later that evening, Michael felt a satisfaction that had eluded him for a long time.
'I was feeling proud, strong, good, and more respected. I had accomplished something. I’m not the kind of kid who accomplishes anything.  This was the only adventure I’ve ever had,’” Michael later told a psychiatrist.
This is an extension of his earlier backstage activity of stealing, or pretending to steal, gifts for the Goths. The plotting, breaking and entering, disguising the guns to transport them on the street, sneaking them into a hiding place in his room, interspersing these moves with normal appearances before his parents to avoid suspicion -- all this was an antinomian adventure.  He is excited by the backstage action; it is the same kind of appeal that exists whenever someone has a clandestine backstage and a secret hiding place, whether it is drugs, pornography, stolen property, or weapons; Jack Katz (Seductions of Crime) shows that the allure of shop-lifting is chiefly in the staging excitement, not in the intrinsic value of the items stolen. Carrying out backstage activity in front of unsuspecting audiences is itself a thrill. Michael seems to have deliberately repeated the thrill during the weekend, sneaking the guns out of his house again, carrying them hidden in the duffle bag on his bike to another friend’s house, where he displayed them, and even took turns shooting in their backyard. On Sunday afternoon of the vacation weekend (the night before school would begin Monday morning), Michael displayed his cool by playing chess with his father; at night he took two more guns from his father’s closet and added them to his cache under the bed.
Monday morning there was more clandestine action. “Michael came downstairs with the rifles bound together with duct tape, covered by blankets. On top of the blankets he piled the sheets from his bed and, when asked, told his mother that the cat had thrown up on them and that he taking them to the laundry room.  Michael went into the laundry room and deposited the sheets, but then went directly outside and put the bundle of guns in the trunk of [his sister’s] car.  The pistol and ammunition were stuffed into his backpack.  He got into the car with his sister and rode off to Heath High, eager with anticipation.”
Michael is full of clandestine excitement.  This is no ordinary backstage.  He is evading detection while under the gaze of those who might detect him; he is taking advantage of his usual condition of low status and remoteness from the center of attention to build a threat that only he knows about.  He is enjoying his backstage, no longer furtively withdrawn into it, but purposively and agentfully.  More emotional than the ordinary backstage, we might call it a deep backstage; it is the thrill of carrying off on the backstage what would be a difficult confrontation on the frontstage.  Michael’s confrontational tension and fear is ordinarily so high that he cannot respond to ordinary bullying and taunting; now he has turned that tension into a clandestine energy.  His months of activity on various fronts have made him an expert at backstages.  In this arena at least, he has some emotional energy: the confidence to carry out  his fantasy of overcoming confrontational  tension/fear.
Is there a precipitating moment? Michael has planned and fantasized about guns for months. But it is not clear when he is riding in the car to school that he will shoot anybody.  Even if he has fantasized about it, there is still the barrier of ct/f  to overcome.  Many violent confrontations abort at the last minute; it may well happen that he will change his mind.
Michael arrives at the school and carries his bundle of guns into the lobby. To a teacher, he says that it contains his English project.  He is not yet ready to confront.  He heads for the group of Goths, 5 or 6 boys standing in a circle on one side of the lobby.  Nearby the Christian prayer group is forming.  Michael is  between the two groups: both of them ritual groups, indeed performing counter-rituals to each other.  After a contingent moment he will turn from the first to the second and fire at them. He is making a choice between ritual loyalties.  As he drops his guns to the floor, making a metallic clank, the Goths pay him scant attention. The leader of the group says, apparently sardonically, “Sounds like guns to me.”  Do they actually know Michael has guns?  In the past they have engaged in plenty of violent talk, which Michael has attempted, without much success, to join.  They are primed to interpret more talk about guns from Michael as a ritual; even bringing guns into the school, in itself a serious violation, an antinomian act of rebellion, is probably perceived by them as an act of bluster, an attempt to raise his status in the counterculture group. Two sides of the Goths’ perceptions converge here: on one side they might well interpret Michael’s presentation as indeed bringing guns into their presence, since they fantasize about it rather openly themselves; on the other side are a series of reasons not to treat him seriously: that he is a young nerd trying once against to raise his status in their group; that their own talk about guns is bluster and no more; that to go any farther with the guns would get themselves in trouble, whereas their bluster is end enough in itself. They turn their backs on Michael and proceed to talk about punk music CDs.
This is the situational turning point.  Michael has now been doubly humiliated: by the mainstream status system of the school, epitomized before his eyes by the prayer group a few yards away; by the counter-culture group, who put him at the bottom of their own status hierarchy, reject his best efforts to live up to their antinomian standards, and now literally turn their backs on him at what he had intended as his moment of greatest impressiveness.  No one looks at him as he reaches into his backpack and puts on a pair of bright orange ear plugs which he has pilfered along with the guns and ammunition. This is the paraphernalia shooters wear on firing ranges to protect their ears from the blast of the shot.  No one in either group looks at him as he takes out the pistol, loads a clip, and raises it into firing position, following the posture of the shooting range. Probably all these moments are on the cusp of the turning point; but still no one gives him any attention.  He waits until the last words of the prayer are finished, and pulls the trigger, first in a quick burst of three, then deliberately finishing the rest of the clip.
Why does he stop shooting?  Students watching the scene describe it as a mixture of shock and unreality as the bodies fall. The pistol in the enclosed space sounds to one of them like little popping noises of firecrackers.  This is in keeping with the experience of soldiers and police, for whom the situation of firing, the apex of confrontation, is dissociated from their normal senses; a large majority of these shooters report the sound of their own guns, or of guns fired at them, sound tiny and far away, perhaps not even heard at all (Artwohl 1977). The earplugs are not really necessary, since Michael probably would not hear the shots anyway.  The chief effect of the earplugs is to heighten the sense of unreality, cutting out normal sounds that make other bodies in the vicinity seem active and real, not just pictures on a screen.  He has reached the point of isolation from all social feedback.  Of course he had been heading that way for months, with his succession of backstages; now he has reached the bottom of the tunnel.
As soon as he finishes his clip, he starts to come back into the social world.  Although he has plenty of guns and ammunition, he makes no effort to reload.  He takes off the earplugs and turns passive as authority figures -- the big senior male who leads the prayer group, the school principal -- confront him. Now his backstage has turned into frontstage, his emotional energy has disappeared; the confrontational barrier becomes real again, and he freezes, unable to shoot any more.

The Strongest Clue: a Ritualized Hidden Arsenal
Most of the characteristics of mass killers-- low status isolates, bully victims, school failures, gun owners, players of violent games, even persons who talk or write about fantasies of revenge-- are far too widespread in the population to accurately predict who will actually perpetrate a massacre. A much stronger clue, I suggest, is amassing an arsenal of weapons, which become the center of an obsessive ritual; the arsenal is not just a practical step towards the massacre, but has a motivating effect that deepens the spiral of clandestine plotting into a private world impervious to normal social restraints and moral feelings.
School shooters and other rampage killers generally amass an arsenal of weapons, bringing far more to the shooting site than they actually use or need.  Michael Carneal brought a total of 8 guns, wrapped up in a unwieldy bundle as well as in his backpack: a 30-30 rifle, four .22 caliber rifles, 2 shotguns, and a pistol, and a many boxes of ammunition; but he used only the pistol. The pair of 11- and 13-year old boys  who killed 5 and wounded 10 on a school playground in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998 carried 7 pistols, 3 rifles, and a large amount of ammunition, of which they fired 30 shots.
The two shooters at Columbine HS carried a semi-automatic handgun, a carbine, two sawed-off shotguns, and almost 100 home-made bombs; they fired 96 shots from the carbine, 55 from the handgun, and 25 from one of the shotguns; their magazines held 240 rounds, of which they still had about 100 rounds, plus 90 of the bombs, when they committed suicide. In the first 20 minutes of their rampage, they killed 13 students and teachers and wounded 21. Then their emotional energy seemed to run out-- they even laughed sardonically that the thrill of killing was gone. They left 34 students unharmed out of 56 who were hiding under desks in the school library, and merely taunted other students while they wandered the halls firing aimless shots, before shooting themselves 25 minutes later, synchronizing their last action with a chant: "One, two, three!"
Holmes, the Aurora killer, carried a shotgun, an automated assault rifle, and 2 handguns; previously he spent 4 months amassing equipment in his apartment, including multiple ammunition magazines and 6000 rounds, of which he used only a small part. He also constructed 30 explosives out of aerial fireworks, refilling them with chemicals, a task that must have taken many days.
Brievik had 4 guns, 2 of which he took to the island.  He spent two years acquiring the weapons, since guns are hard to get in Europe, and Norwegian regulations are strict. Nevertheless he persevered through the official steps for a hunting license and undergoing training at a police-approved shooting club to get a pistol permit.  To create a massive car bomb (which he used in the first phase of his attack, at a government building in Oslo), he spent several years acquiring a remote farm as a front for buying fertilizer and chemicals.  He was busy in his hidden backstage, video-game training, writing propaganda, and making a fake police uniform and identification.  On the island, he used his police persona to assemble the youths, ostensibly to announce precautions, before starting to shoot them at close range. He brought over 400 rounds with him, fired 186, and still had over half remaining after fatally shooting 67 persons and wounding 33. He too seemed to waver towards the end of his 70-minute shooting spree, making several phone calls offering to give himself up (at 40 minutes and 60 minutes), but then resuming shooting until the police finally arrived.
The stockpile of weapons is symbolic overkill. These guns are for showing off -- both to intimidate others, but mainly to impress oneself. They are the sacred objects of the private backstage cult that builds up the rampager's obsessive motivation to the massacre.  Once at the sticking point their emotional energy never seems to carry them far enough to use all their weapons. Whether they bring all their weapons to the massacre or not, their primary significance has been during the build-up; i.e. the guns they bring are from the focus of their cult activities-- they are a kind of security blanket.
To be clear about the diagnosis: I am not saying that anyone who collects guns is a potential mass killer. The crucial signs are: first, the guns are kept secret, part of a deep backstage. In contrast, most gun owners are quite open about them; they may be involved in a cult of guns but it is a public cult, visible as a political stance, or a well-advertized pastime such as hunting or target shooting.  (Abigail Kohn, Shooters. Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures.)  It is the hidden arsenal that is dangerous-- psychologically dangerous. Second, the rampage killer amasses a large, unrealistic collection of weapons as far as their actual use is concerned. This symbolic aspect sets them off from other kinds of criminal users of guns.  
The symbolic aspects of weapons go beyond their sheer physical availability.  Hand-guns are widely available through illegal channels in lower-class urban areas; but  they are not used for mass school shootings, but typically in street crime or gang vendettas.  Up to 22% of inner-city students say they could get their hands on a gun; and between 4 and 12% report they have brought them to school; overwhelmingly their stated reason is protection against other students -- i.e. in the gang milieu of these communities (Klewin 2003). Many of these claims may  be exaggeration and bluster for the sake of the local status system; and  some of the gun-carrying students use them not for defense but to intimidate or retaliate against others; but in fact they rarely use them in the school itself,  and virtually never in mass institutional shootings but only in targeting specific individuals. (From 1992 through 2000, 234 students were killed at US schools and 24,406 away from school, a ratio of less than 1 percent (DeVoe 2004).  The school is not their turf; their violence has a different symbolic focus and ritual location:  their rival streets. In contrast, virtually all the institutional mass murderers have been middle-class whites, and recently, high-achieving Asians.
Guns in the hands of gang members and their youth cohort counterparts are potential murder weapons. But these young men are not potential mass murderers, nor institutional rampage killers. They do not stockpile weapons in hidden caches, secretively protecting them with fake-normal behavior; on the contrary, they show them off to each other at every occasion.  They don't have a clandestine backstage the way a nerdy rampager does. They don't need it, because their emotional attractions to violence, or at least ritualized bluster, are part of their public interaction rituals. By the same token, their interaction rituals push them towards intermittent individually-targeted killings, but not impersonal mass rampages against unarmed members of hated institutions.

Why split hairs?  Why not say, all guns are potentially dangerous; the solution is to get rid of all of them.  I will not repeat the practical arguments made at the outset; and Breivik shows that even very strict regulations can be evaded by a sufficiently obsessed perpetrator. If we are looking for ways to actually prevent violence, in the sequence of events and emotions that make up people's lives, we need to be aware of the pathways leading to particular kinds of violence.

What We Can Do About Mass Killings

There is a very strong clue that a massacre is being prepared: an isolated individual (or possibly a duo) engaged in an obsessive clandestine ritual around a hidden arsenal of weapons.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me repeat: It is not the possession of guns that is the warning sign; it is hiding an arsenal, and clandestine obsession with scenarios of violence. When clues like this appear in one’s own home, the gun-owning parent should be in the best position to recognize it.

What is needed, above all, is a commitment by gun-owners to keep their own guns completely secure, and not to let them fall into the hands of alienated young people, including one’s own children or their friends.

My recommendation is to gun-owners themselves. The issue of gun control in the United States has been mainly treated as a matter of government legislation. That pathway has led to political gridlock. That does not mean that we can do nothing about heading off school shootings. Simply put: keep alienated youths from building a clandestine arsenal where they nurture fantasies of revenge on the school status system, or whatever problems they have with their personal world. Gun-owning parents are closest to where this is most likely to happen. We need a movement of gun-owning parents who will encourage each other to make sure it doesn’t start in their own home.


 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon

Sources:  news reports; Wikipedia; U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics;

Collins, Randall. 2004.  Interaction Ritual Chains.  Princeton Univ. Press.
Collins, Randall. 2008.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.  Princeton Univ. Press.
Kohn, Abigail. 2004. Shooters. Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures. Oxford Univ. Press.
Lankford, Adam. 2015. “Mass Shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem.” paper delivered at Annual Meeting of American Sociological Association.
Newman, Katherine S., Cybelle Fox, David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth.  2004.  Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.  NY:  Basic Books.

Artwohl, Alexis, and Loren W. Christensen. 1997.  Deadly Force Encounters.  Boulder CO: Paladin Press.
DeVoe,  Jill, et al. 2004.  “Indicators of  School Crime and Safety.”  U.S. Dept. of  Education.
Experian Simmons. 2012.  "Top TV Programs Among Voter Segments."  Reported in Los Angeles Times, August 30, B3. 
Katz, Jack.  1988.  Seductions of Crime. Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil. NY: Basic Books.
Klewin, Gabriele, et al.  2003.  "Violence in school."  in Wilhelm Heitmeyer and John Hagan (eds.), International Handbook of Violence Research.  London: Kluwer. 
Milner, Murray, Jr. 2004.  Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools and the Culture of Consumption. NY: Routledge.
Sageman, Marc.  2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
Scheff, Thomas J. and Suzanne Retzinger. 1991. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


The Mona Lisa is considered the world’s most famous painting, chiefly because of its mysterious smile.  What is so mysterious about it? Art critics have projected all sorts of interpretations onto it, and these are endless. There is a more objective way to analyze the Mona Lisa smile, using the social psychology (or micro-sociology) of facial expressions.
As the psychologist Paul Ekman has found, analyzing emotions in photos all over the world, emotions are shown on three zones of the face: the mouth and lower face; the eyes; and the forehead. Our folk knowledge about emotions concerns only the mouth: the smiley face with lips curled up, the frowning face with lips turned down. These intuitions  also make possible fake expressions. The mouth is the easiest part of the face to control. You can easily turn up the corners of your mouth, and this is what we do on social occasions where the expected thing is happiness or geniality. Arlie Hochschild, in The Managed Heart,  calls this emotion work. In the contemporary fashion of political campaigning, politicians are required to be professional producers of fake smiles.

The muscles around the eyes and eyelids are much more difficult to control, and along with the forehead these are usually outside one’s conscious awareness. So a fake smile—or any other fake emotional expression—is easy for viewers to catch, because we are unconsciously attuned to the entire emotional signal all over the face. One reason we like photos of small children is that they haven’t yet learned how to fake emotional expressions.

If we examine the Mona Lisa face, zone by zone, the reason for its mysteriousness becomes clear: there are different emotions expressed in different facial zones.

Her mouth, as everyone has noticed, has a slight smile.
Her eyes are a little sad.
Her forehead is blank and unexpressive.

We will see further peculiarities as we examine each in detail.

Mouth and lower face.  Smiles come in different degrees. As Ekman shows, stronger smiles—stronger happiness—pull the corners of the mouth further back (from the front of the face). Corners of the mouth may tilt up but they don’t have to; very strong smiles, which pull the mouth open and expose the teeth, often have the line of the upper lip more or less horizontal. What makes the smiley mouth is more the rounded-bow shape of the lower lip, and especially the wrinkle (naso-labial fold) that runs from the corners of the nose diagonally down to the beyond the corners of the lips. In very strong smiles, these triangle-looking folds become deeper, and are matched by a flipped-over triangle of skin folds from the chin to the outer corners of the lips, giving the lower face a diamond-shaped look.

Compare the Mona Lisa. This is a pretty pallid smile. Yes, she does turn up the lip corners a bit, but this is more of a conventional sign than what we see in a real smile. More importantly, there are no naso-labial folds running downward from her nose, nor any mirroring triangle up from the chin. Real smiles raise the cheeks (as we will see in a moment, this affects the eyes in a smile), but Mona Lisa hardly has any cheek features at all.

Eyes and eyelids.  Smiles, especially stronger smiles, make wrinkles below the eyes, more or less horizontal, slightly curved across the bottom of the eye socket (deeper wrinkles the more the cheeks are raised). This has the effect of narrowing the slit of the eyes, as the lower eyelid is raised.  This is a tell-tale detail, since narrowing eyes can also happen in other emotions; in happiness, the lower eyelid may be puffed-out looking but not tense. (By contrast, angry eyes have very hard-clenched muscles around them; fearful eyes are wide-open and staring; sad eyes we are coming to).  For the happy face, all these muscle movements cause crows-feet wrinkles to spread out from the corners of the eyes.


Mona Lisa’s eyes? The lower lids do look a little puffy, but there are no wrinkles below them; her cheeks if anything are flaccid. And no crows-feet.

Sad eyes.  Sad eyes are passive. The lower eyelid is weak, and there is no horizontal wrinkle below it, since the cheek is not pushing up. Whereas in a smile the upper eyelid is open, so the eyes brightly look out, the sad upper eyelid droops a bit. Even more noticeable is the brow, which tends to collapse and sag downwards; this makes the skin of the upper eye socket droop almost like a veil slanting over the outer corner of the eyes. This is particularly noticeable in the picture of the Middle-Eastern woman below right; next to it is a photo of a woman at her lover’s funeral. The photo on upper left is a composite, with sad eyes at the top, and neutral lower face.


Mona Lisa’s eyes. They are not brightly exposed and wide-open as in the happiness photos above, where the upper eye-lid is generally narrow as can be. Mona Lisa’s upper eyelids are partly closed, so are her lower lids; and the skin at the outer edges of her eye sockets droops a bit.  These are sad eyes, although only mildly so.

Mona Lisa is a combination of sad eyes and a slight smile, but the way she is painted makes her even more mysterious. As already noted, she lacks the naso-labial folds and chin folds characteristics of happy smiles.  Leonardo da Vinci did very little with the cheeks, but concentrated a great deal on the corners of the lips and eyes. This was his famous sfumato technique—a smoky look producing deliberate ambiguity. This also has the effect of obscuring just the places where important clues to genuine smiles are found; there are no crows-feet around her eyes, but then there are no expressive wrinkles in this painted skin anywhere.

Was this the actual expression Lisa Gherardini, La Gioconda, had on her face when Leonardo painted her? Probably not.  Leonardo worked over all his paintings a long time; the Mona Lisa took him four years, and was still unfinished in his estimation. He kept experimenting with the portrait, quite likely upon just these features. The idea that Leonardo was trying to portray a specially mysterious lady was a favorite with romanticist 19th century art critics, as was the very unlikely idea that he was having an affair with her (he was apparently a homosexual, once charged with sodomy, and was never known to have a relationship with a woman).  He was an artist in an era when artists were rivals over the super-star status of their time, and technical innovations made for fame. What we are viewing is less a real emotional expression at a moment in time, as a virtuouso experiment at the frontier of what could be pictured.

No eyebrows. Another reason the Mona Lisa seems strange to us is that she has no eyebrows. For many emotions, the brows are important points of expression; as we have seen, somewhat subtly in sadness; in happiness, mainly by contrast with other emotions—unmoved eyebrows are generally part of the happy face, unless it is really over the top:

For anger, the position of the eyebrows is the strongest clue—the vertical lines between them as the facial muscles clench make even a stripped-bare cartoon emblem of anger.

So eyebrow-less Mona Lisa gives us less clues than usual to emotions; all we see are the bare ridges of her upper eye sockets through the haze of Leonardo’s sfumato, making even the sad expression less clear to us. There was nothing intentional about this; in the late 15th century shaved eyebrows were a fashion for European ladies, as we see from the Fouquet madonna (painted 1452) and the Piero della Francesca portrait (1465; the Mona Lisa was painted 1503-6).


This may be one reason why the Mona Lisa was not particularly well known in its day, nor was it considered mysterious, nor was there much comment on her smile. Leonardo da Vinci was famous but less so than his contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael, and his most celebrated painting was The Last Supper. The Mona Lisa was a minor work until the 1850s-60s in France, and the 1870s in England, when it became the object of gushy writings by ultra-aesthete art critics, led by Théophile Gautier and Walter Pater. (The history of how this happened is told by Donald Sassoon, 2001.) Mona Lisa and her smile became mysterious, in fact the mysterious Feminine, an Eternal Spirit with all the Capital Letters. And not just the benevolent Earth Mother but a Cleopatra-Jezebel-Salomé temptress. This sounds like fantasies of mid-Victorian males—perhaps understandable in an era when women wore bustles and men hardly ever saw much more than their faces. As Sassoon notes, women were always much less taken with Mona Lisa than were men.


Is there any truth in the interpretation, that Mona Lisa was a subtly flirtatious sexpot?  Again we can call on some objective evidence, how erotic emotion is expressed on the face.

Sexual turn-on, at least for female faces, has a standard look (as can be seen by thousands of examples on the web): eyes closed or nearly so, mouth fallen open. The woman’s face is otherwise slack, no fold lines like other emotions; it may be happiness but the expressions are quite distinct.

Marilyn Monroe made the eyes-half-closed expression virtually her trademark.  The sex idol of a less explicit era than today was also a great actress in her line.

Mona Lisa? If there is any sex in her face, only a repressed Victorian could see it.

So this is micro-sociology?  The purpose of micro-sociology is not to be an art critic. I only make the venture because so many popular interpretations of the Mona Lisa blunder into social psychology.  But reading the expressions on photos is good training for other pursuits. Paul Ekman holds that knowledge of the facial and bodily expressions of emotions is a practical skill in everyday life, giving some applications in his book Telling Lies. And it is not just a matter of looking for deceptions. We would be better at dealing with other people if we paid more attention to reading their emotional expressions—not to call them on it, but so that we can see better what they are feeling. Persons in abusive relationships—especially the abuser—could use training in recognizing how their own emotional expressions are affecting their victims; and greater such sensitivity could head off violent escalations.

Facial expressions, like all emotions, are not just individual psychology but micro-sociology, because these are signs people send to each other. The age we live in, when images from real-life situations are readily available in photos and videos, has opened a new research tool. I have used it (in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory) to show that at the moment of face-to-face violence, expressions of anger on the part of the attacker turn into tension and fear; and this discovery leads to a new theory of what makes violence happen, or not.  On the positive side, micro-interactions that build mutual attunement among persons’ emotions are the key to group solidarity, and their lack is what produces indifference or antipathy. And we can read the emotions—a lot more plainly than the smile on Mona Lisa’s face.


 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon

Ekman, Paul. 1992. Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. NY: Norton.

Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen, 1984.  Unmasking the Face. Prentice-Hall.

Hochschild, Arlie. 1983.  The Managed Heart. University of California Press.

Sassoon, Donald. 2001.  Mona Lisa. The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting.  London: Harper-Collins.