Why People Want to see the Manifesto
Morbid curiosity and the motivations of murderers
Each time a mass shooting is covered by the news, the first question people ask is: why?
They don’t want to know why for legal culpability. There’s no legal loophole for a school shooter by which they can be found innocent. People also don’t want to know why for reasons of moral culpability. Nobody would find a reasonable excuse for someone who marched through a school and shot innocent children.
There is no motive that would justify behavior morally or legally. Yet, people still want to know why the killer did what they did. They want to know the mindset, the thoughts, and the beliefs that the killer possessed. This is clear from news stories as well. For example, NPR published an article about the recent Nashville school shooting entitled, “4 big questions about the Nashville school shooting.” The first big question? The killer’s motive.
If there’s a manifesto, most people are intrigued enough to read it, despite its moral irrelevance or the disgust they may feel while reading it. And it’s not just the public — the FBI also wants access to a manifesto if one is available. It’s considered an important piece of evidence, even when there’s no question about guilt.
I’m not going to make an argument about whether or not it’s good to release manifestos because I’m not sure. It’s possible that these inspire or motivate potential mass shooters, but I’m not aware of any real evidence behind this. Rather, I’m only aiming to shed light on why the manifesto is interesting to people and likely to be released.
The Nature of Aggression
All animals display aggression in one form or another. Even outside of predatory aggression, animals commonly display aggression toward members of their own species. Sometimes interspecies aggression is territorial, such as a wolf pack protecting its den. Other times it may be related to mating, like when two stags lock antlers for access to a female. Interspecies aggression can also occur over other resources. An alpha chimp will aggress a beta chimp if the beta takes resources that the alpha desires.
Although the context of aggression varies, one thing remains the same: animals display obvious cues of their formidability and likelihood of engaging in aggression. Across the animal kingdom, from cichlid fishes to gorillas, body size is the most obvious indicator of formidability, or “Resource Holding Potential.”
Because both parties typically incur costs during a fight, many animals will engage in something called ritualized aggression. Ritualized aggression refers to when two animals, typically males, size each other up (literally) and make predictions about who will win if it comes to a fight. During this sizing up, many males will try to inflate how large they are perceived to be by their contender. This is why gorillas stand up and beat their chest, why bears stand on their hind legs and roar, and why human males puff out their chests during a heated disagreement.
Ritualized aggression is a cost-effective way to decide access to food, land, and mates. If you’re likely to lose a fight, it’s best to avoid it; if you’re likely to win a fight, it’s still best to avoid it if you can. By doing so, you maintain the same resources while avoiding any potential injuries.
Although it is a clever trick of evolution, ritualized aggression only works when aggression is reactive. It doesn’t work well when there is an element of plotting or planning involved in the aggression. Instead, ritualized aggression only works when you can see the foe and know they want to aggress you. It only works when you can see how formidable the foe is.
When it comes to human aggression, however many acts of aggression involve planning and forethought that circumvent many of the benefits of physical formidability. Humans also possess a wide range of weaponry that instantly and powerfully increases formidability. Body size, then, is not always a reliable cue of propensity for aggression or who will win an aggressive conflict.
Proactive Aggression in Humans
Humans often engage in something called proactive aggression. This differs from the typical reactive aggression we see in other animals because it involves planning and doesn’t immediately occur in response to a transgression.
Humans are fairly unique in their propensity for proactive aggression. While reactive aggression has been around for hundreds of millions of years, proactive aggression has only been around for a few hundred thousand years. Prior to the advent of language, humans also relied largely on reactive aggression to settle disputes and respond to transgressions. Because reactive aggression is evolutionarily old and tied closely to size and strength, there are reliable signals that someone is more likely to be reactively aggressive.
In humans, reactively aggressive males have a short temper and lash out in response to fear or anger. They behave dominantly in social situations. You might even be able to picture what this type of male looks like in your mind. Try to picture his face. What do you see?
As it turns out, people are in some agreement about this. Males with higher facial width-to-height ratios (fWHR) are perceived by others to be more aggressive, and perhaps for good reason. Males with higher fWHR self-report being more aggressive and dominant in social situations. And their self-reports appear to be accurate. Studies show that males with higher fWHR do in fact compete more aggressively.
We’ve evolved to signal formidability to others and to understand those signals of formidability. This helps our species navigate violent interpersonal conflict in the most efficient way.
However, all of this was thrown out the window when proactive aggression entered the scene. With the advent of language and the expansion of the prefrontal cortex around 300,000 years ago, humans developed the ability to plan their aggression. While a more formidable foe wins in a fair and direct fight, getting the jump on someone is a massive advantage in conflict. The sudden appearance of proactive aggression in human conflict meant that a less formidable foe could prepare and catch their target off-guard. Instead of propensity for aggression being worn on the bone structure of the face, it was now hidden away in the mind, festering until the time was right to strike.
Morbid Curiosity and Motivations of Dangerous People
Proactive aggression set the stage for a new selection pressure to emerge. In order to predict when others would be aggressive, humans now needed to know something about the motivations that drive the aggressive behavior other people. We needed information about when and why someone might become aggressive. Much of this is locked away in the mind of the dangerous person, with a few clues to their true nature sometimes slipping through in their day-to-day actions.
Since proactively aggressive people aim for discrepancy, it’s difficult to learn the signals of who might be aggressive until after they’ve already acted on their aggression. We can really only learn about proactive aggression retroactively. This is why true crime is so popular. When we hear about someone who plotted a murder, we become curious about their motivations and their reasoning because it can help us collect clues for our rolodex of wariness. When the killer writes a manifesto that clearly lays out their motivation and reasoning, our mind sees this as a gold mine of critical information. The clues are coming straight from the source.
I’ve found in my research that curiosity about the minds of dangerous people is the most common form of morbid curiosity. This is true across countries, ages, and genders. In fact, I have even used a paragraph from a killer’s manifesto as an experimental stimulus. In the study, I asked people if they’d rather read an excerpt from a Nobel Prize winner’s speech or an excerpt from a serial killer’s manifesto. Unsurprisingly, the manifesto was chosen by many participants, particularly by those higher in trait levels of morbid curiosity.
This powerful hold over our curiosity is a key reason why we will always want to see a killer’s manifesto, despite how we feel about the killer. In fact, the more awful the scenario, the more interested we are likely to be — not because we think we will find exculpatory evidence, but because evolution has crafted our desire to understand the darker side of the human species that is hidden in the shadows of the mind.