This Week in Research: Why School Shooters Shoot; When Picky Eaters Grow Up

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“Why did he do it?” is the refrain that echoes across the media whenever a school shooting (like the one last week at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County) occurs. The very fact that the shootings keep prompting the same question (and that the shootings keep happening at all) indicates that, on some level, we have no idea what’s going through these kids’ minds. But Katherine Newman, a dean at Johns Hopkins and a co-author of a book on school shootings, has some insight:

“Sadly, the shooter is usually trying to solve what he (and it is virtually always a he) sees as a serious problem: social acceptance. Rampage shootings are generally the last act, not the first, in a series of attempts to change a damaged reputation. The shooter is rarely a loner. He is, rather, a “failed joiner,” someone who has tried, time and again, to find a niche, a clique, a social group that will accept him, but his daily experience is one of rejection, friction and marginality,” Newman wrote in the Baltimore Sun.

She also points out that it’s important to distinguish between a rampage shooting and a targeted attack. When a shooter goes on a rampage, he (and it’s usually a he) often doesn’t even know who he’s hurt until long after the bullets have stopped flying. In part, that’s because the shooter doesn’t see just one enemy who needs to be eliminated. Instead, as Newman puts it, “It is the institution or the group that is under assault: the school, the community, teens as a whole.”

Contrary to popular belief, Newman and her colleagues also found that anger was rarely the motive for a shooting; instead, more often the gunman was using violence as a way to change his social status from “loser” to “anti-hero.” They want attention, and respect; they’re not thinking much about who they’ll have to hurt in order to get it.

In the end, it may be impossible to profile or predict who’ll become a school shooter. “The only real hope for preventing rampage shootings,” she writes, “is to increase the likelihood that kids who are witness to these hints of what is to come are able to come forward and tell someone.”
We expect small children to be picky, refusing to eat anything green or strictly limiting their diet to chicken fingers and plain pasta. But for adults with  food neophobia (also known as selective eating), picky eating can cause problems in their social lives, careers, families, and health.

Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Angela Guarda, who directs the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program, notes that pathologically picky-eating adults often had similar habits as children. But whereas most people outgrow such selective food habits, these adults continue to eat only particular foods — often the kinds of bland “kid” foods that tend to be high in fat, sodium, and/or sugar, such as pizza, french fries, or chicken fingers. As a consequence, grown-up selective eaters are at a higher risk for anemia, diabetes, or even scurvy.

Eating new foods can provoke a physical reaction (gagging, vomiting, or stomach pain) in food neophobes. Explanations for the roots of these problematic eating habits run the gamut from extreme food sensitivity (perhaps related to autism or obsessive compulsive disorder) to the theory that picky-eating adults may actually have more taste buds than the rest of us. Part of the reason research is relatively scarce is because these picky eaters are themselves relatively rare. According to Guarda, the best treatment involves behavioral modification that’s similar to methods used to treat anorexics. “You don’t work on trying to understand why they like french fries,” she says. “You help them eat other foods.”

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