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The Insanity of Christopher Dorner?

Feb 13

Questions regarding Christopher Dorner’s mental status and motivation are presently being debated from the water cooler, all the way to CNN.  What do you think?  Was he insane?  How could such a seemingly All-American young man allegedly have committed such murderous acts?  Was he inherently evil?  These important and interesting questions regarding human behaviour have been the object of study for social psychologists (e.g. Albert Bandura) for several decades.

From a social learning perspective, the answer to these questions comes from an understanding of our moral development.  As we traverse the socialization process we develop a set of guides and deterrents for our behaviour.  Once we are old enough to have developed internal controls we attempt to regulate our behaviour.  We prefer to engage in actions that are consistent with our morals, as this type of behaviour is satisfying and enhancing of self esteem.  We would rather not behave in ways that violate our moral standards, as this would open us to self criticism and self devaluation.  Thus, it is our ability to sanction our own behaviour that keeps our actions in line with our morals.

So far, so good.  You might be thinking, based upon the foregoing, that Christopher Dorner’s socialization process went awry and he ended up with a different set of morals than those of pro-social individuals, who would never do what he is alleged to have done.  But there’s a catch – our moral standards do not run constantly, on automatic pilot.  In order for our self-regulatory mechanisms to function we must activate them; and the flip side of that coin is that humans have several psychological tactics they can use to interfere with that process and disengage their morals from their behaviour.  This means that people who share the same moral standards can behave in polar opposite ways.  Those who behave prosocially have activated their morals and those who don’t have not.   Moreover, this suggests that Christopher Dorner could have held pro-social morals and acted in an antisocial manner; all he would have needed to do is disengage his morals from his behaviour.  We have several mechanisms of moral disengagement that we use routinely to break the linkage between what we value (or believe) and what we do.  There are several of these mechanisms that we humans deploy whenever we behave in ways that further our own ends but injure others; they include moral justifications, displacing responsibility, disregarding, minimizing, or misrepresenting the damage we have done, or blaming the victim.

In the interest of being brief, I have chosen only two of these mechanisms to examine, that may have been at play in Christopher Dorner’s alleged behaviour.  The first involves our ability to reconstrue the moral value of the reprehensible behaviour we commit.  People do not usually engage in antisocial, or egocentric, forms of behaviour unless they can justify the morality of their actions.  So if Christopher Dorner could find a moral purpose for his alleged murderous behaviour, he could have convinced himself that what was previously culpable had now become honourable.  His alleged behaviour would have become more personally and socially acceptable because it was committed under the influence of a moral imperative.  Was it not made clear in Christopher Dorner’s “Last Resort”, written to “America”, that he saw himself as following a code of honour in opposition to the LAPD that he believed had ruined his good name and his life?  In his writing he revealed to us his self image – an African American, an “honest officer”, a conscientious worker, a veteran – all in juxtaposition to what he saw as a corrupt and abusive organization.  Do you think Christopher Dorner disengaged his morals from his behaviour by providing a moral imperative?  In other words, had he convinced himself that under the circumstances he was justified in doing what he did?

The second mechanism of moral disengagement that Christopher Dorner appeared to use repeatedly was to dehumanize his alleged victims.  Whereas the previous mechanism focused on our view of our injurious behaviour, this one involves our view of the target of our actions.  If we view others as similar to ourselves it is much easier to identify with their joys and sufferings and more difficult to treat them in reprehensible ways.  However, we are able to decrease similarity by making others sub-human and thus easier to victimize.  (The most obvious example of this is the use of racial slurs).  When we have reduced others to something less than human it only makes sense that they would be insensitive to the cruelest of behaviours.  In removing others’ human qualities Christopher Dorner would have been able to avoid self condemnation for his alleged violent acts, and even more so been able to rationalize them based upon his victims’ lesser status.  Throughout his “Last Resort” Christopher Dorner refers to his alleged victims as “enemy combatants” rather than members of the LAPD, or the law enforcement community.  He made a list of various victims, and added:  “You are a high value target”.  Finally he cautions the residents of Los Angeles, “…don’t honour these fallen…dirtbags”.  Do you think Christopher Dorner disengaged his morals from his behaviour by dehumanizing his alleged victims?  In other words, he convinced himself under the circumstances his alleged victims deserved to be killed?

I asked you at the outset of this brief piece what you thought of Christopher Dorner’s mental status and motivation.  Knowing what you now know, about how we humans can be equipped with pro-social morals but override them in certain circumstances, was he evil, was he insane?  Or was he a rational human being who simply justified his violent behaviour based upon what he believed had been done to him?  Before you answer, consider something Christopher Dorner said in his letter to “America”:

“Ask yourselves what would cause somebody to take these drastic measures like I did.  That’s what is important”.

What do you think Mr. Paulson?  Mr. Toews?  Mr. Harper?

Dr. Mike Webster, R. Psych.

One Comment
  1. Hi Mike
    I just read your blog from Feb 13 regarding the motivation of Chris Dorner. I thought your comments were highly insightful and an intelligent explanation of the process underlying the acts. Job well done. It rings true and reflects the “manifesto”. I felt there was a touch of Narcissism in him as well.
    Jim Van Allen (OPP Retired)


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