Strain Theory Attempts to Explain Motives Behind Mass Shootings

A theory developed in the 1930s is resurfacing in American psychology in the wake of multiple mass shootings. “Strain theory” aims to explain the problem of mass shootings by tracing the source of the issue to social strains in American life. Robert Merton, a sociologist who championed the theory in the 1930s, asserts that some people who aim to achieve wealth and success may be denied because society doesn’t allow them the opportunity.

Dr. Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, said that mass shootings are an “exceptionally American problem” that can be understood better by using strain theory. According to the theory, society and “the American dream” often fail these people by offering false promises and then denying them the opportunity to have a legitimate career. As a consequence, often times these people turn to crime as a way of finding instant gratification.

While race, wealth, and location can often be a factor in crime, strain theory places more weight on the individual’s personality. A person with a criminal personality is probably going to feel like they are not achieving their success because they dwell in a world of entitlement and unrealistic expectations. These individuals tend to expect the world to deliver on any false promises they might have invented themselves, and may turn to violence, deception, or intimidation to attain their goals.

Dr. Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychologist and author of Inside the Criminal Mind, disagrees with Dr. Lankford and the premise of strain theory as an explanation. Dr. Samenow attributes the violence and aggression associated with a criminal personality to an individual’s ability to cope with failure. According to Dr. Samenow, “Professor Lankford makes an error in attributing mass shootings to social strains in the American culture rather than to the personality makeup of the individual offender who rejects society before it rejects him.”


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