stoneman shooting

The Psychological Explanation for Why We Become Desensitized to Mass Shootings

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On December 14, 2012, in the middle of reading a news report about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I threw up in my kitchen sink.

It was all so devastating — the victims so small and the act so heinous — and my reaction felt visceral, like a literal punch to the gut. I walked around in a stupor for days afterward. I could barely process what had happened, and my desire for an explanation I knew I likely wouldn’t get was haunting.

On Wednesday, when my iPhone buzzed with a report that dozens of young people and their teachers had been shot in a Parkland, Florida, school, I skimmed the news alert and then went out to dinner.

It’s not that I don’t care. Of course I do — I am deeply sorry for every parent who frantically waited to hear from their child yesterday, and I cannot possibly imagine the agony of the ones who never did, or the way Parkland’s students will feel when they return to classrooms full of conspicuously empty desks.

It’s just that I’ve heard this story so many times that I’ve begun to block it out. There have been at least 239 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and the sheer frequency of this kind of violence tends to desensitize even the most empathetic among us.

So my response yesterday, according to Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute and a professor of social work at Tulane University, was just exceedingly normal.

“Much of being a human being is just bumbling around and maintaining our lives and trying to be happy and feel safe,” Figley says. “When an event like this takes place, we ask ourselves, ‘Right now, am I safe? Are my children safe?’ And if the answer is yes, then we ignore it, or compartmentalize, or get tunnel vision.”

Figley, who has worked directly in school shooting interventions, says growing accustomed to repeated violent acts is a form of adaptation, and most people do it without even realizing it.

“People adapt, they adjust, they try to look on the bright side,” he says. “There are two primary methods of dealing with a traumatic event: to respond, or to put it out of your mind. That’s what’s happening now. We’re still shocked, but we watch the people in the communities where this has happened, and we see their shock, their unpreparedness. We think, ‘There is nothing they could have done.’ The more frequently this happens, the more it reminds people there’s nothing they can do, so they put it out of their minds.”

In other words, the more this happens, the more we expect it to happen, and the less surprised we are when it does. A number of studies indicate that repeated exposure to violence makes us desensitized to it, and a quick Google search makes it obvious this has been happening for a long time: For more than a decade, newspapers have been running op-eds with headlines like, “Coping with more school shootings in a desensitized environment.”

It also may explain why many have been surprised to learn that shots have been fired at 17 other schools across the country so far in 2018 (a number of those incidents did not result in injuries or deaths).

“They don’t all capture national attention, not anymore,” Figley says.

So why do some shootings, like this one, trigger a national media frenzy, while others don’t? “It’s about media saturation — that part of Florida is very media-saturated compared to rural Kentucky — and about what kind of images and interviews are being put out there. People are still fascinated by accounts of what took place,” he says.

Traci M. Kennedy, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, examines the effects of prolonged or repeated violence on adolescents and teenagers who witness it in their communities.

“We’ve looked at emotional desensitization,” she says. “We might assume that the more an adolescent is exposed to violent acts, the more depressed or the worse off they’ll be. That’s true to a point, but once they’ve been exposed for a long time, that levels out and actually starts to decrease as they become more desensitized to it.”

And the worse things get, the quicker we tend to grow numb. Kennedy points to a study that measured desensitization in people who were shown high and low levels of media violence in a lab setting. Perhaps more depressingly, research suggests that repeated instances of school gun violence might be creating a self-perpetuating cycle: Kennedy has seen that as emotional sensitivity decreases, a tendency toward committing acts of violence goes up.

“Those who are assigned to view higher levels of violence do show signs of desensitization, even within a few hours,” she says. “They become habituated to the violence, they’re less scared or just less responsive, and show lower levels of empathy toward the victims.”

Back to me vomiting in the kitchen sink: Though it still seems like an appropriate response, that was not a good feeling, and Figley says my subconscious may be determined to help me avoid a repeat performance.

“That high-stress feeling is unsustainable,” he says. “We subconsciously are able to figure out a way to lessen that pain, lessen our emotionality and compartmentalize, and that’s part of our instinctive way of surviving.”

While it’s often a subconscious defense mechanism, and an effective one at that, Figley says the most obvious downside to desensitization is the lack of response.

“Hopefully, we’re shaking it off and compartmentalizing it, but in a healthy way that just helps us put some of the emotion aside and do something to change the situation,” he says. “We’ve decreased our trust in institutions, and even in the people we’re standing next to as we wait to board an aircraft. These fissures have been growing, and we have two choices: come together in a collective, coordinated response, or put it out of our minds, keep our heads down, and wait for it to happen again.”

Why We Become Desensitized to Mass Shootings