Dramatic instances in the news lately may lead people to conclude that many people are out of control, or, at least, that some have given up on the whole idea of controlling one’s own behavior.
For example, last week’s shooting at a Birmingham United Parcel Service facility involved a UPS employee who, apparently angry about being fired, dressed in his uniform the next day, drove some distance from his home to the delivery company’s East Lake building, pulled out a gun, fatally shot two supervisors and then killed himself.
For some people that workplace shooting sparked another argument for — or just about — gun control. But what if the guy who owned the gun just chose to control himself?
Could Joe Tesney have controlled his reaction to the firing? Could he have decided anywhere between his home in Argo and the UPS facility to stop the car, to turn off the road, to just go somewhere else? Could he have decided, once he got to the facility, not to get out of the car? Once he walked in, could he have decided to turn and walk back out? Once he shot one man, could he have decided enough was enough?
Could exercising self-control, in that case, have changed the ultimate outcome? While you ponder that, think about this:
What about Timothy Ray Jones, the South Carolina man charged with murdering his five young children then dumping their bodies off an Alabama highway early last month? Or Don Spirit, the ex-con Florida grandfather who, for some reason, chose to murder his daughter, six of his grandchildren — including an infant — and then commit suicide?
Could those killers have chosen another way to deal with their problems, whatever they were?
Or for that matter, what about Hueytown’s own Jameis Winston? He’s currently cooperating with a Title IX investigation into allegations he sexually assaulted a woman two years ago — he did not face criminal charges and has claimed the only sex he had with the alleged victim was consensual. But in April Winston was hit with a civil citation for shoplifting, and more recently, he was suspended by Florida State — at least temporarily — for standing on a table and making sexually explicit remarks to a female student. Although he initially denied the act, Winston, confronted with the testimony of witnesses, admitted what he did, according to FSU officials.
Obviously, what Winston did, in this most recent demonstration of bad conduct, is nowhere near as serious as murder. All the cases cited represent a different set of facts, and backgrounds, and people. But could the solution to all this bad behavior — whether criminal, antisocial or just ill-advised — come down to the individuals behind it simply choosing to act differently?
The answer may not be simple. But that doesn’t mean the question of self-control can be completely dismissed.
Different, but similar
“Are all of these things an issue of self-control? On the one hand, absolutely,” said Dr. Josh Klapow, a psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “If you define self-control as the ability to prevent yourself from doing things that are awful, then it’s all self-control.”
But, Klapow said, a lack of self-control may be a moot point depending on motivation. “Some of the incidences that we’re seeing across the board,” he said, “may not necessarily be a self-control issue, if you define self-control as keeping yourself from engaging in a behavior that you would rather not or that you know would be the wrong thing to do, [e.g.] the premeditated shootings at UPS.
“On the one hand, you could say that’s a self-control issue. On the other hand, you could say that’s got nothing to do with self-control. Potentially, that was a thought-out, planned, executed act.”
When it comes to the UPS killings, or other similar workplace murders, premeditation seems to lead away from questions about low self-control, as much as other types of criminal acts tend to suggest it.
Sometimes, in some crimes, self-control is a piece more obviously missing.
“Typically, low self-control would be more linked with crimes of passion than it would be with premeditated crimes,” said Adam Lankford, a psychologist at the University of Alabama. “So I would typically say that low self-control would lead to or perhaps explain, for instance, matters where tempers explode — domestic violence, bar fight, road rage — those types of things.”
Lankford agreed that the murder-suicide at UPS is less of an issue of losing control than of planning. “So my sense is that [lack of self-control is] not a primary factor in the UPS shooting because it seems like this guy planned that for a long time, or perhaps just for a day or two. But I think he knew that his firing was coming down the pike, and just probably said, ‘If this happens, I’m going to get revenge and get out by suicide.’ …
“In a case of domestic violence or road rage, or something like that, potentially, you have that loss of self-control then afterward the person’s thinking, ‘Who hijacked my brain, body, and why did I do these things?’ You have that regret. Whereas in the UPS shooting, those are typically crimes where the perpetrator feels justified — you know, ‘This is violence that the victims deserved because they mistreated, persecuted me.’ That kind of thing. It’s perversely righteous, self-righteous violence.”
In cases of so-called “family annihilators,” like those of the Florida grandfather or the South Carolina father who killed children and grandchildren, Lankford sees self-control issues playing more of a role.
“Sometimes in these family killings that end in mass murder, it potentially starts as domestic violence,” he said, “an argument between, most commonly, a man in the family and his spouse or significant other. He kills her in a crime of passion, of lack of self-control, an excess of temper, and then starts killing other people, in some cases just as a continuation of that rage, and in other cases, it can be rationalized as ‘Now that this terrible thing has happened, and they’ve witnessed it, I need to put them out of their misery.’
“So it can almost be a perverse type of perceived mercy killing — ‘I just killed my kids’ mother in front of them. Now I’m going to kill them, too so they don’t have to suffer and I don’t have to see their faces anymore.’”
Still, when people demonstrate a general lack of self-control, it is a red flag, pointing to the likelihood that they will not handle adverse situations, such as losing a job, well. In that way, it is possible to see a link even between end results as disparate as violence and self-destructive or offensive behaviors.
“Certainly nonviolent behavior and violent behavior deserve to be put in different boxes,” Lankford said. “But if we’re talking about low self-control, low self-control when it comes to violence and low self-control when it comes to blurting things out verbally, taking what you want, in terms of grabbing something in a store, or something like that, I think those things are conceptually linked.
“And, in fact, in cases where you have someone who engages in violence from low self-control, you often see other traces of low self-control throughout their life. So the thing about low self-control is it’s hard to conceal,” Lankford said. “It’s verbal. It’s temper. It’s violence. Obviously, on the more extreme end, that could be mass murder and things like that. But it doesn’t have to get to that point.”
There have been numerous scientific studies touching on questions surrounding self-control and the role it plays in governing human behavior. And there have been more than a few researchers who suggest that self-control can be lessened by environmental factors and others who suggest that people can learn to control their behavior more successfully.
Perhaps ironically, some of the science around the topic indicates that self-control may not be like a muscle which gets stronger when it’s exercised more, but just the opposite.
“There’s research which suggests that self-control is potentially a finite resource,” Lankford said. “In other words, everybody has x amount of self-control that they can exercise in a given day, would be a simplified way of saying it. So what that means is — if you think about it as a bank account or something — different people have different sizes of accounts. But it also means that everything you do during the day which causes you to extend self-control draws from that resource.”
Lankford referred to controlled experiments where the subjects were forced to do things that taxed their self-control. The result? “If you’re forcing someone to exercise a tremendous self-control about their diet, that’s going to make it harder for them to exercise self-control later in the day,” Lankford said.
“When you think about people who appear to exercise the best self-control, sometimes it’s a combination of things. One is they have more of it overall, as I said — a larger bank account of it, so to speak. But the other thing is, I think there are some studies which suggest that they set up systems which require their self-control to be tested less often. … They don’t put themselves in tempting situations or situations that provoke them in the same way.”
But why exactly do some people have more self-control than others? “I think that’s hard to say,” Lankford said. Scientists have developed various, sometimes conflicting theories, particularly when considering criminality.
“Initially, the idea was, it’s nature, biological or something like that. There’s a big push back on that to say it’s culture and society and nurture that influences who engages in crime. And now there’s been kind of a push back again, which is looking more at biological and brain scans and all that kind of stuff.
“So I would suspect that a large part of it is inherent in the person, kind of in the same way when you say it seems like some people have more of a temper than other people — even members of the same family, raised by the same parents in the same general social context. I would say more than anything, you do have kind of a baseline, but various people evolve or grow better than others.
“The jury’s still out, but I think it’s pretty clear that biology plays a significant role.”
Is it possible for people who, biologically speaking, begin with lower self-control, to develop more control over their behavior? Lankford says yes, especially if you consider losing self-control as being not like a switch you can turn on and off, but more of a buildup of what he called “unhealthy momentum.”
“You notice you have a momentum that seems to be going in the wrong direction and you stop it before the velocity gets too high,” Lankford said. “Or you could also think of it as trigger points or vulnerabilities, sore spots. … You can potentially stop that process or recognize the signs early on.
“So in terms of losing their temper, people can recognize their own weakness and behavioral patterns and say, ‘Look, this kind of thing sets me off. … We’re getting into that hot zone, I need to turn and walk away right now.’”
Walking away from situations where loss of control is imminent is a skill that can be learned, Lankford said. And people can often choose to avoid whatever causes them to lose some measure of control. People who tend to become argumentative or combative when they drink, for instance, can avoid alcohol, loud bars, or any other situation that might provoke, he said.
People can conserve their overall resources of self-control even in some cases where their self-control is already under pressure, Lankford said. He used the example of those trying to control what they eat.
Dieting takes a lot of self-control, he noted, “but it takes less self-control if you, for instance, keep whatever your food of temptation is out of the house. … It cuts down on, essentially, the consumption of the self-control resources.”
So does that mean that people with normal self-control can always stop themselves from doing something wrong?
“I don’t think people normally get to the point of governing their behavior that effectively without outside help, a counselor or something like that,” Lankford said. “I think it’s possible, but you have to really be self-aware and motivated to change to do it on your own.”
And not everybody is so motivated, he said. Some people enjoy losing control.
“Just to be kind of frank about things like temper and being out of control, that can be exhilarating, so people don’t always want to change,” Lankford said. “You know, someone who loses their temper — that’s a rush of emotion that, in some sense, makes you feel alive, right? So there’s a kind of a dangerous lure there.”
Just as it is possible for people to know that they’re prone to lose control and to understand what triggers the behavior, research indicates that it is possible for an employer to foresee that an employee may react poorly to stress on the job, or to losing a job.
Klapow cited several factors as red flags, such as having past or current psychiatric problems, a family history of mental problems, previous brain injuries, money problems, marital problems, a weak or nonexistent social support network and frequent or recurring conflicts with others on the job. All of those things can suggest that an employee may respond badly to adverse news — although not necessarily by resorting to violence, he said. “We can say that this individual is at a greater risk of reacting poorly, but ‘poorly’ cannot be defined as murder-suicide, necessarily,” Klapow said.
Many people with exactly those warning signs will react to a stressor like losing a job by simply becoming depressed, or even by being glad for the change — in short, a whole spectrum of ways short of committing violence.
Klapow also said that another red flag for problems in the workplace is poor impulse control — or demonstrated lack of self-control in certain circumstances.
“An employee who’s demonstrating, on a lower level, poor impulse control — he’s an employee who needs to be watched,” Klapow said. “Not because they’re necessarily going to commit murder, but poor impulse control or lack of self-control can lead to all kinds of bad behaviors at work that are not necessarily murder. …
“Being able to pinpoint the person who is going to snap and kill himself and others is extremely difficult. But being able to pinpoint lack of self-control risks, that may put you at risk for the heinous crime, is not as difficult,” Klapow said. But people who typically have trouble managing stress and stressful situations, including conflict at work, are likely to handle other stress-filled situations — including getting fired — poorly.
In the case of Joe Tesney, “”His fellow employees seemed to think that this was a guy who was brooding and capable of this,” Lankford said, referring to news reports where unnamed UPS workers said Tesney made people uncomfortable and that people who knew him were not surprised at his murderous reaction to his dismissal.
Self-control issues among adolescents
At times the red flags start flying early in a person’s life.
In a number of recent instances, for example, teenagers and young adults have conspired to film their friends committing acts of violence for broadcast on YouTube or other social media platforms. Is self-control a factor in that? Yes, according to Klapow.
“If you want to talk about red flags for probability of future equal or greater heinous behaviors — that’s a red flag,” Klapow said. “Those kinds of behaviors may be risk-taking, but it’s safe to consider them risk factors for future heinous behavior,” he said. “Mass murder? Not necessarily. But we should be worried about things that are not just mass murder.”
When adolescents display their violent behavior on social media platforms, Lankford said, they may be demonstrating not a lack of self-control, but a lack of morals — “more of poor values and skewed priorities.”
Still, studies have demonstrated that lack of self-control is one of the factors which turns up in some cases where teenagers have engaged in large scale violence — specifically, school shootings.
A recent article by psychologist Peter Langman, Ph.D, called “Rampage School Shooters: A Typology” sought to “highlight important differences among school shooters.” Langman’s article relates to adolescent “classroom avengers.” But in looking at that population of mass killers (or would-be mass killers), Langman cites various studies where researchers found, among many other factors, that issues related to self-control — “poor anger management,” “poor impulse control,” “uncontrolled anger” — played roles in the school shooters who were studied.
Langman’s article does not focus on self-control per se; instead, he describes the various categories different specific shooters fall into: “traumatized, psychotic, and psychopathic.” But the subject of self-control does come up in his research.
Langman discusses several school shooters, including Andrew Golden, who committed a mass killing in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Golden is a psychopath who displayed, among other things, “poor anger management,” Langman said. His fellow shooter, Mitchell Johnson, said Andrew committed the shooting because he “was mad with a teacher…he was tired of their crap.” Langman’s commentary said, “Committing murder because he was angry with teachers indicates extremely poor anger control.”
A lack of self-control appears as a symptom of many disorders affecting children and adolescents. Most of the time, such behaviors can be trained away by parents.
“For many kids, self-control is a combination of innate and learned behavior,” Klapow said. “Again, think about young children throwing temper tantrums, biting and hitting. We teach our children how to regulate their emotions, right? That’s a normal part of the developmental process.”
But for some the impulse control issues are a sign of bad things to come. “Now, we also see in some kids — kids who have impulse control problems — they’re the ones who, despite the parent’s best effort to teach around that, these are the kids who are getting in trouble, these are the kids who are throwing things, or to take it a little bit more to the extreme, these are kids who get diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder,” Klapow said. “Self-control is a combination of a learned behavior with a sort of innate physiological predisposition. And in some people, it goes awry.
“So you will hear about the kids who at a young age are breaking things, are hitting, biting, hurting animals, those kinds of things, and doing those things despite being taught otherwise. The average child — three, four, five years old — kicks the dogs and the parents correct that. They learn pretty quickly that that’s not what you do. The child who then goes on to spray water at the dog, twirl the cat by its tail, kill animals, those are the kinds of precursor behaviors that absolutely are red flags for the child who’s then going to go on to do worse behaviors as they grow up. We worry about kids with oppositional defiant disorder,” he said.
He added that having ODD does not necessarily predict a criminal future, but it does predict that “you’re going get in trouble and do stupid things and have problems with violence.”
Most children and adults can learn better self-control, which can have obvious benefits to the individuals and the society around them, psychologists said. Lankford, for instance, said that since successful people use less of their finite self-control — because they set up their lives to avoid situations that strain their willpower — everyone could benefit from learning how to arrange their lives that way. Society as a whole would be healthier, he said.
“Otherwise, people feel like their willpower is failing. I think the culture is a little too obsessed with the idea that some people have stronger willpower and some people have weak willpower and that defines you as good or bad.”
Teaching people to exercise better self-control is hardly a new idea, Klapow said. “As psychologists we teach people self-control skills every day. And as parents, one of the most important things we can do for our kids is teach them how to control their thoughts and their feelings so that their actions are appropriate. It’s just an essential part of parenting.
“The sad part is for some individuals, they don’t get it, and for some individuals, despite that, it doesn’t work.”
Unfortunately, Klapow said, the factors that may provoke workplace violence are common, but the good news is that most people handle their own bad news much better than Tesney handled his.
“Every day, sadly, people are fired. Every day people go home with no job, and every day the majority of people do not do anything near this bad. That’s important to remember,” Klapow said. “For every person who doesn’t have self-control, there are millions and millions and millions of people who have enough control that they don’t do this kind of damage.”