The Psychology of Elliot Rodger
I’m a bit scared to admit that I actually wasn’t shocked when I watched Elliot Rodger’s now-infamous YouTube video. I was horrified, to be sure, but not surprised.
You would think that it’s unnatural not to feel shock when watching a video of an intelligent, articulate young man relish describing his plan to “slaughter” all of the “girls” in the “hottest sorority.”
But these types of desperate, vengeful fantasies have become familiar to me in my line of work. I have, with some frequency, sat in my therapy office and listened to similar sentiments expressed by more than a few patients over the past several years. There are many more Elliot Rodgers in our country than we’d like to believe.
Rodger’s problem wasn’t a chemical imbalance. Nor will we ever be able to isolate the cause hidden away somewhere in his DNA. This isn’t a case of “mental illness” in the typical sense of the word (though he certainly was mentally ill).
But his problem wasn’t Asperger’s, bipolar, clinical depression or any other sort of brain disorder. His psychopathic episode, the “day of retribution” as he called it, in which he killed six innocent people with plans to “slay” many more, was driven by a less elusive problem. Because of the intimate, confessional videos he posted online, and the 137-page autobiographical “manifesto” he left for public viewing, Rodger provided a valuable opportunity to more deeply understand the forces that lead to such a tragedy.
The psychological profile revealed in Rodger’s confessionals is one that I see a lot in my practice. His case is more extreme than most, but the pattern is familiar. It typically begins with a child being born to well-meaning, loving parents. One or both of the parents are kind, gentle, sensitive, and devoted to doing the best they can to raise this newborn “angel” that has come into their life.
Often a bit anxious or insecure, the parents are dedicated to giving their child a different experience than they had when they were young. They aim to be highly attuned to their child’s needs, provide plenty of affirmation, and spare their child the types of pain and sorrow that plagued their own upbringing. They see the beauty and sacredness of their baby and they make an unconscious vow to themselves to always honor their child’s individuality, for they often didn’t receive the same from their parents.
As the baby becomes a toddler, these parents can be quick to console the child when he falls and hurts himself. This goal of minimizing the child’s suffering gradually becomes an ingrained habit. During dinner, when the parent spoons the child some pureed carrots and the child gags, spits them out, and makes a face of disgust, the parent finds something else to offer him rather than force him to eat something so intolerable.
Exploring the house, the toddler eventually wants to investigate a potted plant, first gently, then more ambitiously. The parent lovingly says, “Honey, please don’t pull on that plant, you’ll knock it over.” When the toddler ignores her, the parent cleans up the mess and moves the plant out of reach. Child-proofing the house or distracting the child with a toy or a cookie avoids upsetting the child. This is much easier for the parent aiming to minimize child displeasure.
As the toddler becomes a young child, placating his every need becomes a bit more difficult. Power struggles around what to eat, getting ready in the morning, or going to bed inevitably arise. When I worked as a nanny in college, I was surprised to see how often parents gave in to their children when the child resorted to intense displays of emotion.
One morning, when a mother I worked for was rushing to make breakfast for her 4-year-old son before she went to work, the son snapped at her that he didn’t want French toast for breakfast. He wanted ice cream. When she tried to stand firm, he raged.
This had become a tried-and-true technique he employed upon his kind and thoughtful mother. Intimidated by the intensity of her son’s displeasure, she altered her strategy. She decided to teach him a lesson about how two mutually respectful people can compromise and come to an agreement. She put two scoops of ice cream on top of his French toast with the understanding that he eat both the ice cream and the French toast.
He added a request for chocolate sauce. She complied. He then ate the ice cream and left the French toast sitting on the plate. She busied herself with other things and forgot about the compromise, conveniently avoiding any conflict. Needless to say, the lesson she taught him was different than the one she intended to.
This trend in parenting — which in my family counseling practice is extremely common — marks a significant departure from times past. In the stereotypical 1950s family (remember the Cleavers), kids deferred to adult authority. Adults assumed kids would do as they were told without question and both parties acted accordingly.
Back in those days, kids were “seen but not heard;” they politely asked to be excused from the dinner table after they had eaten all their broccoli; and they didn’t bother Father when he was reading his newspaper. Nowadays, in privileged, upper-middle class America, kids bear little resemblance to this portrait of the 1950s, which now seems distant and foreign.
Though many attribute this change to television, the internet, and smartphones, in my work with kids, teens, and families, I’ve discovered that “the media” is a red herring. Although it is true that there are more temptations and distractions these days, and parenting is perhaps more complex, it is not kids who have changed over the decades, but parenting practices.
Before the mid-20th century, parenting emphasized teaching children self-discipline, obedience to authority, and service to family and community. Increasingly through the second half of the 20th century, parenting practices made a dramatic shift away from obedience, toward child affirmation. Over the past few decades, the majority of educated, privileged families have eschewed the boot camp-esque parenting practices of their parents. They remember being scared of their fathers, who were angry and never played with them or did anything much other than tell them what to do. It doesn’t take a brilliant child psychologist to see that this isn’t the ideal model for parenting.
Since the cultural revolution of the ’60s, self-help, psychological, and parenting resources have taught the importance of cultivating our individuality, building self-esteem, and being in touch with our emotional, creative, and spiritual needs. Naturally, enlightened parents want to nurture these qualities in their children. And so the pendulum swings from the stereotypical parent of yore who whipped his kids into shape with strict discipline and hard work, to the parent of today who aims to foster self-confidence, individuality, and creative self-expression.
Researchers have dubbed these two extremes “authoritarian” and “indulgent” parenting styles, respectively. Research has shown that either style, taken to an extreme, is damaging to a child’s mental health. Interestingly, the results of the research suggest that overly authoritarian parenting can lead to insecure self-worth, timidity, depression, or anger problems. Overly indulgent parenting leads to significantly worse outcomes. (Think Elliot Rodger.)
Indulgent parents who minimize their child’s unhappiness deprive their child of the experience of suppressing their own impulses in consideration of others. Without this ability to suppress one’s own needs in favor of another, a person grows into an egocentric monster.
When I was in college on a study-abroad, I spent lots of time with my small group of classmates and we got to know each other intimately. On our long bus rides and nights out at the bar, we would share stories of our lives.
One of my group members had been overly indulged by his mother. All of us in the group were frequently disturbed by his extremely self-centered behavior.
One evening we went out dancing and a few of us had the harrowing experience of watching his behavior on the dance floor. He would approach an unsuspecting woman from behind and “grind” on her. At first she would try to politely move away, but he would persist. Eventually we observed him actually trying to hold one woman against her will so his grinding wouldn’t be interrupted. (At that point we had to intervene.)
It struck me in that moment that he was utterly oblivious to the presence of another human subjectivity. The woman existed only as an object for his gratification. His overly-gratifying mother had unwittingly set the stage for this sexual assault. By treating her son like a prince, while she was his ever-dutiful servant who unconditionally accepted all his selfish impulses and tantrums, she denied him the opportunity to learn that others have needs too. He was never experientially taught that sometimes one must to let go of one’s own desires and be considerate of another’s.
Cognitive researchers have shown that during our formative years, our brains are constantly at work creating a mental model of the world. We use this mental model to help us navigate the world; it aids us in anticipating and adapting to the world. In cases of extreme parenting, rather than aiding the individual in adapting to the world, it sabotages them.
The worldview created in cases of overly indulged children is a sense that “I can do no wrong” and that others will do their bidding. As long as these children remain in the mini Garden of Eden their parents have constructed for them, their mental model is in relative harmony with the world and all is well. However, as the child gets a bit older and goes off to school, things get ugly.
The real world doesn’t operate according to the same rules that the indulged child has internalized. Others don’t treat him like a prince, and when he asserts his needs more aggressively, or attempts to bully others into getting his way, he gets rejected or even beat up. Such rejection is a radically foreign and painful experience for a child who has never learned to deal with hardship or disappointment, but has only been taught that he’s the most wonderful creature in the world. In Rodger’s words, “I don’t understand why you’re so repulsed by me. It’s ridiculous. …I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy. … It’s such an injustice, because I’m so magnificent.”
The constant rejection these types of kids receive away from home is genuinely incomprehensible to them. Their ingrained reaction — to bully others into getting their way — only elicits more rejection, and a vicious cycle develops. At home the world is their oyster, while in the outside world they are ostracized and humiliated. It’s a profoundly disorienting, disturbing experience, with only one way out — altering one’s view of the world.
Sadly, in the case of Rodger and many others, their reaction to the world’s rejection is not to humble themselves and learn to develop sensitivity to others, but instead to inflate their grandiosity even more. As Rodger declares, “I will not bow down and accept such a horrific fate. … I am better than all of them. I am a god. Exacting my Retribution is my way of proving my true worth to the world.”
In my work, I have witnessed how hateful fantasies of omnipotence are the end result of this collision between narcissism and a world that will not accommodate delusions of grandeur. One patient of mine that comes to mind was a man in his late 20s whose father was so terrified of his son’s anger that he gave into the son’s every demand. When the boy entered school, he learned to intimidate and manipulate the other kids to get his way. Though he often got his way, his peers came to hate him.
As an adult he was unable to sustain employment, never having learned to take orders or do anything he didn’t want. His chronic failure to find either social or vocational success led him increasingly deeper into hatred and resentment for the world and his father. Like Rodger, his extreme entitlement and inability to cope with disappointment resulted in violent crime. When I read these words of Elliot, they sounded eerily familiar: “If I cannot join them, I will rise above them; and if I cannot rise above them, I will destroy them. … Women must be punished for their crimes of rejecting such a magnificent gentleman as myself.”
Although the developmental influences I’m describing here can’t entirely account for Rodger’s sociopathic behavior, I’m convinced they were a prime factor. Throughout his autobiography he displays innumerable tell-tale signs of having been severely overindulged. This pattern — well-meaning parents who are trying to give their kid a pain-free childhood end up creating an entitled tyrant — results in a wide range of difficulties.
In the elementary school years, the pattern manifests in difficulty getting along with others, anger and behavior problems, and academic difficulties. As the child becomes a teenager the problems may manifest as depression (because of being alienated or bullied by others), substance abuse, isolation, or more serious behavior problems. In early adulthood, the pattern manifests in such things as the inability to hold down a job, substance dependence, depression, anger problems, and difficulty forming or sustaining a successful relationship. By adolescence or adulthood, the root cause of the problem is usually long out of sight, and patient and therapist struggle to understand why life seems so hard for this individual.
A recent patient of mine, a man in his early 50s, had been floundering for decades, struggling with failed relationships, loneliness, depression, and unstable employment. As we worked together, we slowly unraveled the source of his difficulties.
Hidden beneath his chronic difficulties was an upbringing that hadn’t taught him how to tolerate frustrations, how to defer to others, or how to roll with the punches. As a result, the world seemed a harsh and inhospitable place for him. He had lived most of his life in his parents’ house and was still largely dependent on them. He was angry with the world for giving him such a hard time, and had grown depressed by what he saw as his pathetic, joyless life.
A far cry from Elliot Rodger, but a good example of how this same syndrome is at the root of many more people’s struggles than is commonly known. From bratty kids to mass murderers, from egocentric tyrants to adults who can’t find and maintain a satisfying career — a large, rapidly growing sector of our country suffers from the consequences of parents who try to sidestep the hardest part of parenting: introducing our children to a world in which self-discipline, tolerating disappointment, and being able to consider the needs of others before one’s own are essential qualities for survival.
Thompson, D. (2014). The Psychology of Elliot Rodger. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/06/10/the-psychology-of-elliot-rodger/