Experts: Psychological motivation of teens hard to pinpoint

Jan 27 2012 - 4:06pm

ROY -- With the arrest of two Roy High School students suspected of plotting to set off a bomb at school, experts say it's hard to pinpoint psychological motivations for such behavior, but there are some common factors.

Police said Dallin Morgan, 18, and Joshua Hoggan, 16, planned to detonate explosives during a school assembly. The two were arrested Wednesday afternoon.

Leigh Shaw, an associate professor of psychology at Weber State University, said while individual cases vary and anyone involved in such a plan likely have their own very unique set of prerogatives, common factors do emerge when it comes to acts of mass violence at schools.

Shaw said the common social teen hierarchy -- where certain groups of teens are rejected, taunted, teased and bullied -- can lead to violent and aggressive behavior.

"The pain of social rejection is the most poignant during the teen years," Shaw said. "Obviously, this is not meant to condone the behavior, but it helps explain why some of these kids might act this way."

Shaw said some teens, especially males, deal with the shame of social rejection by acting out violently.

"There is a feeling of pride that comes from revenge," she said.

Molly Sween, an assistant professor in WSU's Criminal Justice Department, said a clear-cut answer is difficult to find, but many teens involved in such acts of violence simply haven't developed proper coping mechanisms to deal with life's stressors.

"What could cause a person to crack to that level?" Sween said. "A lot of times it's just an inability to deal cognitively, behaviorally and emotionally with sources of strain."

Shaw said when it comes to such events, society tends to wonder why the perpetrators weren't identified as risks earlier and given the proper psychological help.

Shaw said identifying individuals who might be capable of such actions can be very difficult.

"There is a hindsight bias," she said. "The warning signs always glow brighter after the fact than beforehand."

Sween said while warning signs can be apparent in some cases, in others they are non-existent.

"In some cases, you might not have any red flags," she said. "And if there are no outward signs of aggression, what are spectators supposed to do?"

Shaw also said that while violent events at schools receive a lot of attention, they are still extremely rare.

"The good thing is that these sorts of acts are incredibly rare," Shaw said. "They tend to get tons of media attention, so we can sometimes overestimate how common they are, but in fact they are very rare."

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