Two shooting incidents on Monday at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia have left over thirty victims dead and a number of wounded. The earlier incident appeared to be eesentially a domestic dispute taken to a fatal ending, with two people killed in a dormitory. The second incident had a well-prepared shooter methodically killing people in two or more classrooms in another building on campus, taking such precautions as chaining doors shut behind him. The shooter in the second incident eventually shot himself before police could confront him.
There is going to be all sorts of discussion of this event in the days ahead, with various talking points applied. Antievolution groups are already claiming the event could be due to a decline in morals because of acceptance of evolution. But that’s not of immediate interest to me.
My talking point here is that aberrant behaviors, such as that seen in the shootings at VT, fit quite well into studies of behavior and stress coupled with an appreciation of large population sizes. We know that dense populations increase stress on individuals. We know that large populations have numerically more people who fall into extremes of distributions. Combine those two pieces of information and you have increased stress on some people who were already way out of the normal concerning aggressive tendencies as a potential source of spectacular headlines. Trying to decrease stress is at least a broachable topic: you can engage people on the subject and perhaps even have some discussion. Discussing human population size, though, is not a topic some people want to have discussed. The two issues are linked, though, since the mere fact of high population density is associated with higher levels of stress. It’s not so simple as saying that decreasing total population would help, since people don’t distribute themselves uniformly. You would have to address some other issues, like why urbanization is still a key component of our economic operating model, in order to get at lowering the population density at places where that density is currently highest. This is still uncomfortable territory. It calls into question our continuing fascination with convenience and near-complete abandonment of planning in favor of just letting things develop.
So just keep this idea in the back of your mind as the commentary on the VT massacre progresses. Try classifying suggested policy changes into categories of those that somehow address and stress and population density considerations, and those that suggest things that are orthogonal to those considerations. I think that you might see a pattern there.