Grudge, Vengeance, and Boredom
One troubling aspect of the final police report on the October 1 Las Vegas mass killing is that no precise motive has been found for the killer, Stephen Paddock. The report, released on Friday by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, concludes:
Nothing was found to indicate motive on the part of Paddock.
The investigators’ interviews with Paddock’s brother Eric may reveal something:
Eric believed [Stephen] Paddock may have conducted the attack because he had done everything in the world he wanted to do and was bored with everything. If so, Paddock would have planned the attack to kill a large amount of people because he would want to be known as having the largest casualty count.
Paddock seems to have been disgruntled about life. Perhaps he carried a grudge against people in general.
A different story published in Gizmodo on July 26 suggests that it is not uncommon for people to hold a grudge and take revenge against strangers. An Alabama real estate agent, Monika Glennon, had been involved in an innocuous but heated online discussion with a stranger, Molly Rosenblum. The latter developed a grudge and, to exact vengeance, posted elaborate but totally fabricated allegations about Ms. Glennon on a website specialized in airing personal grudges—yes, such sites apparently exist. Gizmodo reports:
It was the online version of road rage; instead of pulling a gun on another driver, Rosenblum decided to drop a bomb on Glennon’s reputation.
The accuser claimed, with vivid details, that her husband and Ms. Glennon (who is also married) had had sex while visiting a house listed for sale by the latter. The post spread in cyberspace and became the top Google search result for Ms. Glennon’s name. All this caused her considerable trouble and distress. She had to spend $100,000 in legal fees to unmask her accuser and partly restore her reputation.
Psychologists have been interested in grudges and revenge (see for exemple Worthington and Sotoohi in the International Journal of Psychology Research, 2010). To my knowledge, economists have not.
We can certainly say that the cost of many forms of revenge has decreased in rich societies characterized by much individual autonomy—and dramatically so for ordinary people compared to higher-class individuals, who always had affordable revenge options. I suppose that ordinary people can also wreak vengeance in less advanced societies, for example by accusing somebody of witchcraft or of violating some tribal rule. In our societies, accusations of sexual harassment may be the equivalent. With the internet, anonymous revenge like Rosenblum’s have certainly become much less costly.
Other things being equal, when the price of exacting vengeance for a grudge decreases, there will be more demand for vengeance. Nursing grudges will also become more common since the benefit of forgiveness from the forgiver’s viewpoint (which includes the avoided cost of vengeance for him) is lower.
Another factor to consider is boredom. In a rich society, ordinary people have enough time to get bored. In a poor society, survival leaves little time for boredom. Both Paddock and Rosenblum (a poor single mother) may have been bored and disgruntled, although in different ways. Hobbies are a means to combat boredom, and their cost has also decreased, although obviously gambling did not work like this for Paddock. Culture—learned culture—can prevent boredom, but it has not necessarily increased in tandem with wealth.
Aug 5 2018 at 12:16pm
Wouldn’t a more logical interpretation be that Paddock’s motive is known but has been deemed not suitable for public consumption? Doesn’t that make a lot more sense than, “He was bored with life so decided to randomly shoot dozens of people?”
Aug 5 2018 at 3:27pm
I would agree that there may be times when publishing the facts may not be a wise move. JFK exaggerated a missile gap that didn’t exist at the time to further his campaign for president. A refutation couldn’t be put out there without exposing the extent of American intelligence on the matter. The facts would have damaged military intelligence in a way that could have put America at risk.
I would like to think that facts would always be the way to go, while understanding that sometimes they must be withheld. OTOH, that leaves the door to misinformation and unfounded speculation wide open. And conspiracy theories.
For those that believe all the facts should be available all the time, consider this scenario. This is a scenario with no basis in fact purely as a thought experiment. What if the actual assassin of JFK were black and caught in the act well off camera? Considering the racial turmoil of the times, wouldn’t it have made sense to keep that absolutely quiet to avoid a civil war? Or a proven Soviet operative that if publicized could lead to a nuclear exchange?
Aug 5 2018 at 3:23pm
“Other things being equal, when the price of exacting vengeance for a grudge decreases, there will be more demand for vengeance.”
No, there will be a greater quantity demanded of vengeance.
Aug 5 2018 at 4:45pm
You are totally right, Mark. I made an unforgivable basic error. Thanks for pointing it out. I console myself by thinking that I warned against my future error in a previous EconLog post! Should I correct it or add a Post Scriptum? At any rate your post will remain here forever as a testimony of your sharp economic eye.
Aug 5 2018 at 5:30pm
For whatever it may be worth, I forgive you!
Aug 5 2018 at 6:27pm
Thank you, Father!
Aug 5 2018 at 7:43pm
Re: “Psychologists have been interested in grudges and revenge …. To my knowledge, economists have not.”
Here are two classics by economists:
Robert Sugden, The Economics of Rights, Cooperation, and Welfare (Blackwell, 1986), passim.
Jack Hirschleifer, The Dark Side of the Force: Economic Foundations of Conflict Theory (Cambridge U. Press, 2001), Chapter 10.
Aug 5 2018 at 9:44pm
The police report clearly establishes long, systematic premeditation (p. 127). The shooter was highly motivated, but his specific motivation isn’t discernible.
We find deeply puzzling the combination of careful planning and inscrutability, but also find it hard to imagine any sufficient motive for such a crime.
Vengeance and grudge motives don’t fit. There isn’t any evidence that the shooter believed that concert-goers somehow had injured or insulted him. And it’s hard to imagine how he might form such a belief. Moreover, the shooter doesn’t fit the blogpost’s idea that revenge has become less costly. The shooter’s plan required substantial effort and resources — and surely would end in his own death or arrest.
The shooter’s brother conjectures that the shooter was motivated by boredom (a push motive) and by a desire for glory (a pull motive). Although intelligible, these motives seem way too abstract.
Had the police apprehended the shooter before he committed suicide, would the utter lack of discernible motive constitute grounds for an insanity defense at trial?
Aug 7 2018 at 5:29pm
All good questions, John. As for your other comment, I don’t remember reading this in Sugden’s very interesting book. I’ll check that, as well as Hirschleifer.
Aug 7 2018 at 10:52pm
My intuition, for what it’s worth, is that economics has little insight to offer about highly idiosyncratic “0ne-off” instances of behavior, such as Stephen Paddock’s mass shooting.
Economics does analyze revenge in strategic contexts. Game theorists build complex mathematical models of rational revenge (tit-for-tat) with equilibrium solutions. The psychological realism of these models is open to question.
But there are common-sense insights about revenge in strategic contexts: 1) Individuals who cultivate a reputation for irrational revenge increase their chances of getting their way in any given interaction. 2) Individuals who cultivate a reputation for irrational revenge reduce their opportunities for future productive interactions because people avoid dealing with them.
Aug 9 2018 at 2:29pm
Another way to think of this might be that there were insufficient incentives (economic or otherwise) for the investigators to identify a motive. There is no beneficial outcome to solve for in a case like this. There were no stolen goods to recover, no wrong that can be made right, no competition for superiority between groups, no glory or honor to be obtained for the investigators and no opportunity to dole out punishment based on whether Paddock’s actions were right or wrong.
The only clear incentives in this situation was the clerical mandate based on the job description of the investigator as one who investigates and the potential for the investigators themselves to become to target of the public’s anger (as they have become). Identifying a motive in a case like this does not discernibly help the families of the victims move on with their lives nor does it produce any tangible benefit. In other words, knowing functionally HOW Paddock was able to do what he did may provide opportunities to prevent this type of thing from occurring in the future. However, knowing WHY Paddock did what he did is highly unlikely to.
It’s possible that this is just another example of one of Nassim Taleb’s big points – Humans in general are poorly equipped to deal with randomness and uncertainty. The extremely tragic consequences of Paddock’s act make the lack of answers all the more painful and raise the volume of our demand for a motive. However, the scale of the consequences does not touch the core issue. It just means we collide with an immovable object with greater force.
Purpose and meaning (whether we’re referring to our own overall purpose or the purpose and meaning of someone else’s actions) are questions that materially-bound fields of study are not designed to address. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail to produce satisfactory results.
There are rarely simple answers to questions of human motives, purpose or intent. It’s unlikely that Paddock himself could give a satisfactory answer as to why he did what he did if he were still around to be interviewed. Acknowledging the limitations of our ability to discern meaning and accepting the reality of randomness as a cause in itself may be the most fruitful starting place for healing.
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