Adam Lanza and Elliot Rodgers

Insane, Criminal, and Suicidal


These cases refer to two young people who killed innocent people and immediately afterward committed suicide. These seem to be implausible since, unlike the aforementioned cases, they seemingly did not reap any benefit. The first case, Adam Peter Lanza, a 20-year old man, on December 14, 2012, fatally shot his mother, twenty children and six adult staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut (Derossett, 2013). Although Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of five (e.g., Lysiak, 2013), this cannot account for his bizarre criminal behavior. As noted by Lysiak "Most in the medical community believe there is no linkage between autism and acts of violence...Autism did not commit this horrible act" (pp. 212-213). "The aggression that Adam displayed during this rampage is not typical of someone who has autism" (Derossett, 2013, p. 153). The autopsy did not reveal abnormality or tumors in his brain that might have triggered his behaviors (Derossett, 2013, p, 167). Similar to the Unabomber and Nash, Lanza was highly intelligent, achieved exceptional academic successes and lacked social skills. A fellow classmate, who sat next to Lanza in the back of their sophomore-year honors math class, said Lanza barely spoke a word all year but earned high marks. He was shy, introverted and lacked any close friends (Derossett, 2013). Lanza's mother removed him from the Newtown public school system because she was unhappy with the school district's plans for her son. He did not have any social interactions at home, since his mother was reluctant to let others into her house. A group of neighbors with whom Lanza’s mother played a weekly dice game said she always managed to avoid hosting the get-togethers, despite having been an active participant for over fifteen years (Derossett, 2013). As noted by Lysiak (2013):

"Adam was nineteen, he had withdrawn almost completely and become a virtual shut-in, spending hours playing the first-person shooter game Call of Duty. In the months that preceded the shooting, Adam began to isolate himself in his bedroom, surrounded in all day and night by violent images" (p. 211).

   Lanza was also at the late adolescent age at which he assumedly had an intense sexual drive that he could not satisfy.

    The second case is Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people and wounded 13, on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California (Wikepedia, 2014). Like the above cases, Rodger (2014) was highly intelligent, as evidenced in his cleverly written manifesto, with very poor social skills. He repeatedly mentioned his loneliness, and, particularly, his desperate and unsuccessful efforts to establish relationships with women. He described himself as shy, quiet and incapable of making friends. Experiencing loneliness, social rejection and strong feelings of inferiority, Rodger began:

"To act weird and annoying to people just to get attention…people started to make fun of me, but I don't care…. I was extremely unpopular, widely disliked, and viewed as the weirdest kid in the school… I never knew how to gain positive attention, only negative…I told everyone that I wanted to commit suicide… I sank into major depression. My feelings of inferiority were intensified…  I realized how hopeless everything in my life was … The loneliness was torturing me so intensely… I sank into one of worst depressions of my life…" (Rodger, 2014, pp. 41, 42, 54, 57, 93, 105).


The aggression and suicides of both Lanza and Rodger are consistent with numerous studies indicating that depression, particularly when accompanied with social isolation, is a risk factor for general aggression, intimate partner aggression, and suicide (e.g., see review by Dutton & Karakanta, 2013; Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). In addition, both sought revenge: Lanza because the school offended him (see Lysiak, 2013, p. 212), and Rodger for his social rejection, particularly by women.

"They treated me like an insignificant little mouse, but on the Day of Retribution, I would be a God to them. They will be the mice, and I will be the predator… All of the suffering, loneliness, rejection, and humiliation I had to experience… "(Rodger, 2014, p. 32).


   Although revenge was an important motive in triggering Lanza and Rodger's criminal behaviors, it seems this factor alone is insufficient in explaining their unusual criminal acts. It appears that, like all aforementioned cases, the major factor behind their insane behaviors was severe damage to their self-esteem. Both Lanza and Rodger suffered an intense level of self-loathing, as they could only blame themselves for their social rejection. This similarity in social and personal backgrounds raises the question regarding the variability of their deviant behaviors. Why the Unabomber and Cullen both became methodological serial killers, while Nash was afflicted with a non-violent type of schizophrenia, and both Lanza and Elliot became brutal mass murderers and committed suicide? Which benefit could they get from their criminal acts, if immediately afterward they ended their life? 

   Lanza "researched mass shooting extensively, he had a 7 by 4-foot spreadsheet that had the names of shooters, the weapons they used, the number of killed or injured and more… Lanza researched more than 500 shootings in all" (Derossett, 2013, p. 17-18). Neither depression nor the desire to take revenge can explain why Lanza invested so much time and energy researching previous acts of murder. It seems likely that Lanza searched for an unusual and criminal act, manifested by no one before, because he wanted to immortalize himself, a goal that raised his self-esteem during the planning stages. As noted by Haggerty (2009), in his analytic article of the etiology of modern serial killers, while attention seeking is a major motivating factor for these behaviors, "Fame also offers citizens the prospect of surviving beyond death" (p. 174). The motive of self-enhancement can also explain the fact that Rodger invested a significant amount of energy and time in writing his 140 pages manifesto. In the absence of this motive, it would be difficult to understand why an extremely depressed person who intended to commit suicide would invest so much energy in writing such a long and detailed manifesto. Rodger formulated a clear expression of this need in the following statement:

"I would be a God to them…In order to completely abolish sex, women themselves would have to be abolished… In order carry this out, there must exist a new and powerful type of government, under the control of one divine ruler, such as myself" (Rodger, 2014, pp. 110, 136).


         Thus, despite the fundamental differences in the aforementioned cases, each was motivated by a profound sense of incompetence and desire to inflate self-esteem, even after death.

        To some extent, this may also explain Lubitz's horrible criminal behavior. He grew up in Germany, dreaming of one day becoming a pilot, and was extremely proud when he went on to gain his pilot's license (YEAR NEEDED). However, he became convinced that his eyesight was declining, apparently following a car crash in which he was involved the year before. Consequently, the fear of losing his life dream caused a sense of incompetence, which severely damaged his self-esteem. He was then motivated to relieve his unbearable depression and simultaneously inflate his self-esteem by an unusual criminal act. This may explain his extremely unusual and terrifying suicide act and his statement to his ex-girlfriend: "One day I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it" (The Irish Times, 2015).

        An additional factor which affected Lanza, Rodger and Lubitz is the principle of availability. Lanza's choice of bizarre criminal behavior was affected by the following three factors: 1) The availability of weapons in his home; 2) His intensive training in shooting administrated by his mother (e.g., often she took her sons to the range to target shoot with various firearms, Derossett, 2013); and 3) His exposure to a variety of cases of mass killings in the media. As noted by Derossett (2013), Lanza extensively researched mass shooting and even composed a 7 by 4-foot spreadsheet that contained the names of shooters, the weapons they used, the number of people they killed or injured, and more. "Lanza researched more than 500 shootings in all" (Derossett, 2013, p. 17). He comprehensively studied the 2001 Norway shooting and the 2006 Amish school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Police also found a gun safe in one of the bedrooms of the house containing 1,400 more rounds of ammunition along with other firearms, such as a 45 caliber Henry rifle (Derossett, 2013). Additionally, he spent a significant amount of time playing an aggressive video game named Call of Duty.

        Availability is also demonstrated in Rodger's (2014) criminal acts:  1) In line with studies demonstrating that aggression is directed toward the frustrating objects (e.g., see Berkowitz, 1993; see also Blair, 2010; and Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000), Rodger harbored extreme anger toward females to whom he attributed his chronic sexual deprivation (see Rodger, 1914). One example that illustrates this effect is when Rodger saw a young couple behaving intimately in public, about which he noted:

"I was absolutely livid with envious hatred…I wanted to do horrible things to that couple. I wanted to inflict pain on all young couples. …I was capable of killing them…I wanted to kill them slowly, to strip the skins off their flesh…. The males deserve it for taking the females away from me, and the females deserve it for choosing those males instead of me" (p. 87).

       2) Rodger (2014) was continuously exposed to video games containing high levels of aggression. One such game, with which he was intensively preoccupied from the age of 13 to the age of 19 was World of Warcraft (WoW). The following statements illustrate his addiction to this game:

"I only saw school as something that took time away from WoW"… I planned to spend the whole time on WoW, leveling up my character and forgetting about my horrible school life… I fully indulged myself in my addiction to WoW… I just couldn’t handle the anguish in my life anymore, and I needed a break, no matter how unhealthy and time-consuming WoW would be for me…The loneliness was torturing me so intensely that I even started up my WoW account and played constantly for the month of September…"(pp. 41, 42, 49, 71, 93).


          Although Rodger's obsession with this game temporarily distracted him from his stressful-thoughts, it ultimately increased his aggressive thoughts, hostile attitude, and violent behavior (e.g., see meta-analysis study by Anderson, Shibuya, Ihori, Swing et al., 2010; Huesmann, 2010). Additionally, Rodger was the sun of the British filmmaker, Peter Rodger, the assistant director of The Hunger Games, a notably violent film. The film contains gratuitous scenes of teenagers killing one another for sport. Rodger saw the film with his father at the red carpet premier. Further, Rodger's grandfather was a famed British photojournalist who took photos of Jewish survivors and mass graves at the liberated concentration camps in the final weeks of World War II. Thus, Rodger was continuously exposed to violent scenes that must have affected his decision to take aggressive measures in response to his intolerable emotional distress. 

      3) Rodger (2014) underwent training in shooting (p. 109) and saved $5,000 to purchase various weapons for the "Day of Retribution" (pp. 116, 113). Easy access to weapons gave him greater opportunity to violently express his frustration, which would have been less possible in countries where there is higher gun control.

      Availability apparently affected Lubitz's horrible criminal act as well. Just like Charles Cullen who used medications that were available in his work place for killing purposes, and Vanunu who took photographs of the nuclear site in his work place, Lubitz utilized his position as a co-pilot to commit murder-suicide. An additional source of availability is the car crash in which he was involved in the year prior to his deliberate air crash.

     One may argue that the fact that all three murderers committed suicide is incompatible with PBT's cost-benefit principle. However, research indicates that when individuals are confronted with an extreme level of emotional distress, cost-benefit considerations are determined by the individual's immediate needs to relive tension (Shiv & Fedorikhin, 1999, 2002). Additionally, rationality is defined in terms of optimum solution, within the boundaries determined by information available to individuals at the decision-making stage, together with psycho-physiological and environmental constraints (e.g., Aumann, 2006; March 1978; Simon, 1955, 1956). Thus, while others may view suicide as an irrational decision, this can be seen from the standpoint of the individual's judgment as rational choice. This is consistent with Lester's (1988a, 1997, Lester & Yang, 1996) rational choice theory of suicide.

    All three, Lanza, Rodger and Lubitz, meet PBT's five criteria of madness. All were intensively preoccupied with their killing and suicide intentions and this severely disrupted their daily life (criterion 1); There was no specific event that was exclusively associated with their unusual criminal act that can explain these behaviors (criterion 2); Although it is not possible to assess their level of awareness, it seems plausible that they were unaware of the underlying motive of their actions, which according to PBT is the need to enhance their self-esteem (criterion 3); Their unusual criminal actions were extremely rare (criterion 4); It seems obvious that their behaviors would be stigmatized as crazy, mad and reflection of illness (criterion 5). Further, all cases three meet PBT's two secondary criteria of stress and depression.