Let’s address the issue of #ViolencePrevention, Part 4: Probability versus Predictability

Our greatest threat as citizens of any society is the perpetrator of murder/suicide, whether a “Lone Wolf” terrorist or simply an individual who decides to shoot his estranged partner in a public place with a lot of innocent bystanders whose only error was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and then the assailant turns the weapon on himself. The Lone Wolf is trying to create terror in the hearts and minds of his victims, so the more spectacular the incident the greater the effects on those who survive.  Terror to this individual is not in those who are murdered; instead it is in those whose lives are changed forever by the heinous act of violence. Remember 10 years ago in Montgomery County, Maryland 13 people were shot as two snipers terrorized an entire community. 

What makes this aggressor so lethal?  We know that it is not instinctual for one human to attack another human; you must disconnect, depersonalize, turns the person (victim) into an object in order to attack them.  A perpetrator of murder/suicide further disconnects from his own wellbeing, to the point where he finds a profound calm.  This person (man or woman) is so very lethal because his goal is to give up his life for a cause.  They won’t take all the usual precautions, they will simply open fire without regard for age or gender (Example: Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary).  These most lethal aggressors, acts of murder/suicide, are on the rise; we get Google Alerts on incidents of murder/suicides and in the past few years, we have been getting these alerts on a daily basis.  In Parts 1-3, we have written about how Mental Health Assessments, Profiling and Threat Assessment fall short of telling us who is our next shooter, whether murderer or perpetrator of murder/suicide. We need a more reliable way of identifying and preventing the next shooting. To better understand these methods shortcomings and how to more reliable identify a future shooter, we must examine the difference between “Probability” and “Predictability.”  Before we start, we must admit there is no “absolute” Predictability; it does not exist. However, there is a far more reliable means of predictability and it far exceeds the use of probabilities.

Mental Health Assessments, Profiling and Threat Assessment fall under the use of “probabilities.”  These methods tell us that within a certain group of people, there is a higher probability of a murderer or perpetrator of murder/suicide.  It does not tell us who the next perpetrator is!  As illustrated in Part One of this series, Schizophrenia is one of the more scary forms of mental illness and we know that only 0.02% of those with Schizophrenia have actually murdered another human being; the probability that someone with Schizophrenia will murder you is so very low there is no reliable means of predicting that a person with Schizophrenia will be your next shooter. We are certainly not going to put all individuals with Schizophrenia in asylums, so when we place our focus on Mental Illness and illnesses like Schizophrenia as a predictor of who the next shooter will be, it comes up short of being an effective solution.  As illustrated in Part Three of this series, Threat Assessment is an assessment of a threat that already exists; the hope is to identify a “lesser” threat and thereby prevent a “greater” threat but there is no assurance that the “lesser” threat will not be a threat to life or limb.  When did the Navy learn that Aaron Alexis was a threat; when he started shooting people! Threat Assessment is often evaluated on the basis of probabilities; this person may be a threat because of a mental illness, where they came from, what culture they are, etc.

There is a solution and it can be found within a very thorough study conducted by the U.S. Secret Service & U.S. Department of Education, called the “Safe School Initiative.”  It declared that, “There is no accurate or useful profile (probability) of the school shooter, nor for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence.” In other words, someone’s proclivities or probabilities to act aggressively are not reliable predictors as to who the next murderer or perpetrator of murder/suicide will be. But the study goes on to say, “An inquiry should focus instead on the student’s behaviors and communication to determine if the student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack.”  “The ultimate question to answer …. is whether a student is on a path to an violent attack, and if so, to determine how fast they are moving and where intervention may be possible.”  If we are to be predictive as to who will be the next murderer or perpetrator of murder/suicide, we must focus, not only on one’s probability to commit these heinous crimes but we must focus on the “emerging aggression” (someone on a path to an violent attack) of someone planning or preparing for an attack.

Understanding the notion of emerging aggression, or identifying someone “on a path to a violent attack:” the most lethal form of aggressor is the perpetrator of “murder/suicide,” or as we at the Center for Aggression Management, would describe this aggressor as a 9th Phase/Level Cognitive Aggressor; someone whose goal it is to give up their life for a cause and their body language and behavior reflect this intention. Subsequent to this level of aggression is the 8th Phase Cognitive Aggressor, the “murder” or in a military sense, “a combatant;” who is prepared to give up their life for a cause but intends to survive; and their body language and behavior reflect their intentions.  Preceded by the 7th Phase Cognitive Aggression, the “Complicit Tactician,” who is complicit with the 9th and 8th Phase Cognitive Aggressor.  Like the 9th and 8th Phase Cognitive Aggressors, the Complicit Tactician wants people to die but will not kill them nor die for their cause; they will inspire others to do so (like the late-Osama bin Laden), a terrorist handler, a logistics person or, in a domestic sense, an accomplice.

Although “probability versus predictability” are not mutually exclusive, too often, we are using only probabilities, which fall short of the most important key component: Who will be our next murderer or perpetrator of murder/suicide (terrorist)!

In Part five, we will define the solution.


  1. I have a question. If I might, I would like to use an example for you to help me better understand the difference between predictability and probability. A student overhears a another student planning an attack on their school. The student finds this discussion abnormal, particularly because it escalates (predictability as you have described it), and decides to report it to the Principal because he believes this student will commit this act (Probability as you defined it). So, why do these two concepts have to be in opposition. It seems they are complementary. I tend to use both of them in threat assessments based on interviews with friends, neighbors, associates, the potential victim, and the subject. The predictable levels along the aggression line you mention, tend to increase the probability odds. If we assume both predictability and probability are not 100% scientifically verifiable as found in the Secret Service report, we can only move on what appears to be increased predictability that supports the probability of an act occurring. The scenario I mentioned was a real event. The boy contacted the Principal, the Principal contacted the police which initiated an investigation that found enough computer data, and weapons materials to convict the boy of the threat. Seems in the scenario predictability and probability complimented each other and probably saved lives. If I am wrong please help me understand why there is a contrast. Great article and thought provoking, thanks.

  2. You are absolutely right, Vic! 

    As I state in my last sentence, “Although ‘probability versus predictability’ are not mutually exclusive, too often, we are using only probabilities, which fall short of the most important key component: Who will be our next murderer or perpetrator of murder/suicide (terrorist)!”  You did, in the case of the student, exactly what you should have done.  Predictability, according to my reading of the Safe School Initiative, is identifying “objective” observables that reflect aggressive behavior that is “emerging” toward violence or “on the path to a violent attack.”  Your student, by your description, is doing just that.  Well done!

    I titled this “Probability versus Predictability” to be a little provocative because too often we are only using probabilities and that comes up short of prevention.  By placing them juxtaposed to each other in the title, I get more people to read it.

    If we are to prevent the next shooting, it is essential that we start incorporating “predictability” into our equations.  In the Part Five, I will begin describing our solution and I look forward to your continued thoughtful questions and comments.

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