Public Release: 

Homicidal thoughts are common for teens, study says

Penn State

Philadelphia, Pa. -- April 20 marks the anniversary of the fateful day when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire at Columbine High School -- the deadliest school-shooting spree in the history of the United States. While their actions were extreme, a new study indicates that their murderous thoughts may not be.

Dr. Peter Crabb, associate professor of psychology at Penn State's Abington Campus near Philadelphia, recently conducted a study, "The Material Culture of Homicidal Fantasies," in which he examined the thoughts of approximately 300 undergraduate students. During his research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Aggressive Behavior, Crabb learned that nearly half of the participants, most of whom were 18-19 years of age, had fantasized recently about committing homicide.

"The purpose of the study was to explore impulsive aggressive fantasies in normal young people so that we might better understand the acts of violence that occur periodically in our schools and elsewhere," he says, "so that resources can be productively directed at reducing the likelihood of these tragic events.

"Laypeople and behavioral scientists, alike, typically associate homicidal thoughts with psychopathology," he says in the study, noting this includes substance abusers and schizophrenics, among others. "Recent theorizing and empirical evidence suggests, however, that homicidal fantasies may be a relatively normal phenomenon with roots in the evolutionary history of the species."

The professor hopes such research, as his study will help avert future tragedies such as the one at Columbine High School.

In the early days of the human species, for instance, those with more aggressive impulses were more likely to kill others in order to maintain food and shelter for survival. That survival kept those aggressive genes in play during future generations, says Crabb.

Unlike Klebold and Harris, of course, the vast majority of teens will not act on such fantasies. "It is likely that the social norm proscribing homicide effectively inhibits acting out aggressive fantasies to their ultimate conclusion," Crabb says.

Of those studied, 60 percent of males said they had had a recent homicidal fantasy, while the number dropped significantly among women, to 32 percent. The top reasons given for the homicidal fantasies were lovers' quarrels (21 percent), and trivial disputes, such as conflicts with friends, bosses and co-workers, acquaintances, businesses, and teachers (20 percent). Next to bare hands, the most popular weapons in these fantasies were firearms.

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