The 2012 shooting of 12 innocent people at a Colorado movie theater by a lone gunman attracted widespread condemnation not only in the United States but also globally. The assailant, identified in the mainstream media as 24-year old James Eagan Holmes, is said to have gained access to the theater during the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises”, set off two devices that produced an irritant to confuse the moviegoers, and proceeded to use an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a 40-caliber Glock pistol to kill 12 people and wounded 58 (“Aurora Shooting” para 1-4). Although these killings were unprecedented in the U.S. town of Aurora, the action itself bore the hallmarks of a psychologically disturbed person, particularly considering the fact that the young adult had no prior criminal record except for speeding tickets. This paper attempts to use the social learning theory and related aggression concepts to shed light on this incidence.
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Available scholarship demonstrates that there are many subtypes of aggression, with the two most dominant being reactive (aggressive behavior ignited by provocation or aggravation) and proactive (aggressive behavior ignited by an urge to achieve a particular goal) (Fite et al. 194). It is clear from the case that the assailant had not been aggravated by the moviegoers prior to opening fire, and hence it is only plausible to assume that his aggression was calculated to achieve a particular goal. Although the objective of the assailant is yet to be known, it is possible that he wanted to achieve popularity by killing people.
As indicated in the literature, the social learning theory (Bandura 1973) provides a firm basis for explaining goal-oriented and calculated aggression, as it postulates that “the perpetration of an aggressive act is contingent upon a learned expectancy for reinforcement” (Fite et al. 194). Bandura (1973, 1986), comprehensively cited in most aggression-related research studies, argues that people learn aggressive behavior through direct experience (operant conditioning) and vicarious experience (imitating a particular behavior from adults), and that people must develop the capacity to form an image of aggressive behavior and the rewards or punishments associated with such a behavior for them to succeed in perpetuating proactive aggression (Gilbert & Daffern 169; Prati 415). Consequently, it can be interpreted that the assailant may have developed the capacity to form an image of aggressive behavior through constant exposure to violent movies, not mentioning that he expected to gain a misconceived perception of popularity in the mainstream media or among his peers for the mass killings.
In their initial report, the police noted that the gunman had no previous criminal record that could be used as a reference point to the incidence. Such an assertion implies that the gunman may have had normal social relationships with his peers and neighbors, making it extremely difficult for people around him to realize his psychological challenges. Such an orientation is consistent with proactive aggression, as scholars are in agreement that this type of aggression is uniquely associated with low levels of peer rejection, high levels of peer acceptance, and high levels of verbal intelligence (Fite et al. 195). It is important to note that the mentioned characteristics of proactive aggression have made it increasingly impossible for professionals to intervene, as the individual knowingly plans to commit aggression due to the learned expectancy for reinforcement.
The available social psychology literature underscores the need for stakeholders to deal with the behavior reinforcing variables if they are to succeed in preventing proactive aggression (Gilbert & Daffern 178; Prati 425). Consequently, it would be plausible for the mainstream media to desist from idolizing incidences, where gunmen or terrorists are comprehensively covered in the news once they commit their heinous crimes. The in-depth coverage of such events in the media only makes the perpetrators to attain the popularity they so much desire. For example, it can be convincingly argued that the comprehensive media coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks only provided the perpetrators with an avenue to attract global attention. It is also possible that the perpetrator of the Colorado movie theater killings gained more reputation than he ever imagined due to comprehensive media coverage of the heinous act, thus reinforcing the behaviors of other potential attention seekers to do the same. In the future, the mainstream media should desist from popularizing perpetrators of violence in the hope of spreading the news.
Lastly, available social psychology literature has established a relationship between repeated exposure to violent scenes in films and the inhibitions of emotional reactions over time (Ivory & Kalyanaraman 532-533). This means that adolescents and young adults are likely to become less sensitive to violent acts and more likely to commit aggressive acts in line with the social learning theory and the behavior reinforcement paradigm. Consequently, though it may have been impossible to prevent the Colorado movie theater killings, such an incident can be prevented in the future by ensuring that adolescents and young adults are not repeatedly exposed to violent scenes in films, television, and video games.
“Aurora Shooting: Suspect Opens Fire at Colorado Movie Theater, Killing 12.” The Huffington. 2012. Web.
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Gilbert, Flora and Michael Daffern. “Integrating Contemporary Aggression Theory with Violent Offender Treatment: How Thoroughly do Interventions Target Violent Behavior?” Aggression & Violent Behavior. 15.3 (2010): 167-180. Academic Search Premier. Web.
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