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Playing Armchair Psychologist with Matthew Murray and Online Community

Everyday, I read probably a half-dozen articles written on the topics of self-improvement, behavior, psychology, and other things that psychologists and other researchers spend entire careers studying and writing about. There’s nothing wrong with writing about these topics from your own personal perspective, or bringing your unique bent on an existing theory or what-not.

But I tire of the armchair psychologists, who think they have an answer for every deviant behavior.

So when Karoli, aka DrumsNWhistles, writes about the motivations and behaviors she observed after-the-fact in Matthew Murray, my warning bells start to sound. She discovered that Matthew Murray, the man who killed four people at a church and a missionary training center in Colorado earlier this month, was posting to a community forum (ex-Pentecostals) for people who left a particular religious group.

One of the limitations and dangers of communities like this is that there will be that one person who is determined not to get help and is actually triggered by participation in discussions about their past experiences, bitterness, and even abuse. Matthew was one of these.

Yes, that is the beautiful chaos that is the Internet. It’s not a limitation or danger of an online community in particular, however — it’s a danger of any community of people who come together for a common purpose. Take a look into social psychology to better understand the dynamics of group behavior. The writer is simply wrong to suggest this is something unique or strange about online communities.

There are many more posts documenting his deteriorating mental state. […] By mid-summer, he was admitting to cutting himself and his poetry was growing darker, with one particularly dark post quoting Marilyn Manson lyrics on Halloween.

Without question, his posts were painting a picture of someone contemplating a dark and violent end, and I’m certain that the leadership of this forum had done everything they knew how to do to help him. Still, even as he felt free to express himself in the safety of online interaction, the members were limited by the barriers erected by that same free space. Some members, trying to be kind and engage him, complimented him on his poetry, which encouraged him to write much more, and the more he wrote, the darker it became.

And yet, he had sought help (as the entry noted earlier), but it wasn’t helping him.

So I’m left wondering… How can someone with no background or professional training in mental health or psychology suggest that a series of posts to an online community documents someone’s “deteriorating mental state?” I’d love to know how she knows that. Because even professionals refrain from diagnosing people online, yet here’s a person who apparently has Matthew Murray all figured out, at least retrospectively.

So for everyone who’s ever written more and more “dark” things on a community, Karoli believes you’re a likely danger to yourself or others.

People’s moods are not these static, unchanging things. They fluctuate. They go up, they go down. Sometimes in the course of a day, a week, or even a year. And just because someone is on the downward slope doesn’t mean that when they reach rock-bottom, they’ll do something violent (even if they write violently — there is absolutely zero research connecting violent writings with actual violence).

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen situations like this online, but it is the first time that I’ve seen it come to this kind of an end. I hope it’s the last, but I am getting concerned about the possibility that participating (and venting) in a venue like the one Matthew used actually inadvertently contributed and gave him the outlet he needed to NOT seek help.

I’ve seen many violent ends online, most of them having to do with people taking their own lives. But do I blame it on the communications medium in which they’re choosing to express themselves and their pain? That would be like blaming the newspaper for bringing me bad news. Or an A.A. group for not helping someone stop drinking.

Or do I blame it on the actual disorder that many people experience, such as depression, or in the case of Matthew Murray, perhaps some sort of psychotic disorder (or depression with psychotic features, or a number of other possible diagnoses, which I’m sure the mental health professionals who were trying to help him have a better grasp of than I do). It’s not the online medium we should be pointing fingers at, but rather the possible mental illness Matthew Murray had. Or simply his act of criminal behavior.

* * *

And of course, I always appreciate the typical dig at therapists and others who work in the mental helping profession:

Here was a typical response from [Matthew Murray]:

    “I’ve already been working with counselors. I have a point to make with all this talk about psychologists and counselors “helping people with their pain”…….”

    it’s so funny how many people want to help you and love you and counsel you and “work with you through your pain” when there’s money involved……

That entire quote was from Matthew Murray, and it was originally misattributed in the blog entry due to a misplaced HTML quote. My apologies for this error.

Read the full entry: Matthew Murray: Toxicity, Online Community, and Religion with a Twist via Poynter Online.

Playing Armchair Psychologist with Matthew Murray and Online Community

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Playing Armchair Psychologist with Matthew Murray and Online Community. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Dec 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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