Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Montreal massacre. Part II

In debating the causes of the Montreal Massacre, we must confront the psychological similarities between Marc Lépine and his father. Both seem to have had low thresholds for ideation and expression of violence. Was this quick temper passed down from father to son? Or are the similarities only fortuitous?

If these psychological characteristics had passed down from father to son, they could have done so in only one of two ways. The preferred explanation is some kind of role-model conditioning, i.e., Marc Lépine looked to his father as a model for future behavior. But this seems unlikely. Marc hated his father. He repeatedly said so and reproached his mother for not doing enough to protect him from his father’s rage. Nor did he try to renew contact with his father after his parents broke up.

We’re thus left with some kind of unconscious conditioning that occurred before the age of 7 (when his parents broke up) and then began to express itself after puberty. But this too seems unlikely. For one thing, it implies a kind of infancy determinism that is no longer widely accepted in child psychology (Harris, 1998; Kagan, 1996; Kagan, 1998). As Jerome Kagan (1996) points out:

If orphans who spent their first years in a Nazi concentration camp can become productive adults (Moskovitz, 1983) and if young children made homeless by war can learn adaptive strategies after being adopted by nurturing families (Rathbun, DeVirgilio, & Waldfogel, 1958; Winick, Meyer, & Harris, 1975), then one can question the belief that the majority of insecurely attached l-year-olds are at high risk for later psychological problems. Even the behavioral differences among animals in laboratory settings are not very stable from infancy to reproductive maturity: "The findings offer meager support for the idea that significant features of social interactions at maturity are fixed by experiences in early development" (Cairns & Hood, 1983, p. 353). This conclusion affirms a discovery, now more than 20 years old, that even the stereotyped, bizarre social behaviors of 6-month-old isolated macaques can be altered by placing them with younger female monkeys over a 26-week period (Suomi & Harlow, 1972). These facts are also in accord with data on humans. Werner and Smith (1982), who followed a large sample of children from infancy to early childhood, concluded, "As we watched these children grow from babyhood to adulthood, we could not help but respect the self-righting tendencies within them that produced normal development under all but the most persistently
adverse circumstances" (p. 159).

For another thing, children behaviorally resemble their parents even if removed from parental influence shortly after birth. When adopted children are compared with their biological parents, we see moderate to high heritability in transmission of male aggressiveness (Baker et al., 2007; Barker et al., 2009; Rhee and Waldman, 2002). Furthermore, the non-genetic factors seem largely unrelated to parental influence, being either peer pressure outside the home or developmental accidents before and after birth (Harris, 1998).

Thus, to explain the psychological similarities between Marc Lépine and his father, the likeliest cause is genetic transmission. Either that or the similarities are just fortuitous.

The latter possibility should not be ruled out. When Monique Lépine sued for divorce, Rachid Gharbi strenuously denied her claims that he had abused their son. So perhaps we’re hearing just one side of the story. Remember, these proceedings happened before the liberalization of Canada’s divorce laws. Monique had to provide evidence of abuse to get her divorce.

To find out Rachid Gharbi’s side of the story, I turned to an article by an Algerian author on the “Impact of parental upbringing on child development.” The author’s first point is that Algerian upbringing is sex-specific. In boys, violent behavior is accepted and even encouraged:

In Algerian society for example, children are raised according to their sex. A boy usually receives an authoritarian and severe type of upbringing that will prepare him to become aware of the responsibilities that await him in adulthood, notably responsibility for his family and for the elderly. This is why a mother will allow her son to fight in the street and will scarcely be alarmed if the boy has a fall or if she sees a bruise. The boy of an Algerian family is accustomed from an early age to being hit hard without whimpering too much. People orient him more toward combat sports and group games in order to arm him with courage and endurance—virtues deemed to be manly. (Assous, 2005)

The purpose of this upbringing is not to suppress male aggressiveness but rather to channel it in the right direction: loyalty to the family and to tradition:

It is true that, in Arab and Muslim culture, parents are encouraged to discipline a child and to teach him obedience and submission by first using methods of communication and patience, but in the case of rebellion and especially of non-respect of Islamic laws it is recommended to use corporal punishment (e.g., a child who does not practice prayer is reprimanded as early as 10 years of age). (Assous, 2005)

Parental control is especially problematic after puberty:

Thus, during adolescence for example, the child will become more and more difficult to control. This behavioral disorder evidently pushes the parents to display more ill treatment in their authority and the schoolteachers to be more severe. (Assous, 2005)

The author presents an analysis of this corporal punishment, on the basis of cases brought to the notice of hospital authorities:

- it is directed much more at boys than at girls, by a ratio of almost 3 to 1

- it is inflicted (in order of importance) by schoolteachers, parents, neighbors, and other relatives

- it usually involves the use of blunt, non-cutting objects: a belt, a pipe, or a wire

- it is directed (in order of importance) at the head, arms or legs, belly, and chest

- the injuries (in order of importance) are multiple fractures, bruises, burns, scratches, and bites

The author goes on to note:

In Algerian society, even today, the absolute authority of parents over their children is seldom called into question by adults if it is exercised judiciously and without apparent adverse effects, and even though it often happens that more or less serious incidents cannot be avoided by parents in the grip of an intense anger that they cannot manage to control. (Assous, 2005)

Clearly, Rachid Gharbi and Monique Lépine had different notions of how young boys should be brought up. Monique came from a cultural background where corporal punishment is a last resort and usually takes the form of spanking. The preferred form of punishment is shaming: the boy is made to realize that he has done something wrong. At that point, his sense of shame will do the rest. If the boy has no sense of shame, he is considered to be abnormal, if not mentally ill.

In contrast, Algerian parents use shaming mainly to control girls. For boys, it seems to be at best a secondary or even tertiary means of control, the main ones being the threat and use of corporal punishment.

Why is child discipline so different in Algeria? The reason seems to be that violence is much more omnipresent. The average Algerian male is more ready and willing to use violence preemptively or in self-defense. Social peace is maintained largely by an implicit balance of terror: violence is deterred by the threat of retaliation—if not by the victim, then by a male relative. Evidently, the balance cannot always be maintained...

This aspect of Algerian life is described by Frantz Fanon in Les damnés de la terre:

It’s a fact, the magistrates will tell you, that four fifths of the cases heard involve assault and battery. The crime rate in Algeria is one of the highest in the world, they claim. There are no petty delinquents. When the Algerian, and this applies to all North Africans, puts himself on the wrong side of the law, he always goes to extremes (Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

The act of violence itself shows less restraint and the precipitating causes seem banal:

Autopsies undeniably establish this fact: the killer gives the impression he wanted to kill an incalculable number of times given the equal deadliness of the wounds inflicted.

… Very often the magistrates and police officers are stunned by the motives for the murder: a gesture, an allusion, an ambiguous remark, a quarrel over the ownership of an olive tree or an animal that has strayed a few feet. The search for the cause, which is expected to justify and pin down the murder, in some cases a double or triple murder, turns up a hopelessly trivial motive. Hence the frequent impression that the community is hiding the real motives.
(Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

The reason for this state of affairs ultimately goes back to the recentness of central authority in Algeria. Before the French conquest in the 19th century, each family depended on its male members to defend its interests. There were law courts, but they had no power to enforce their rulings. It was up to the aggrieved party to do the enforcement.

This situation was not unique. In fact, it was typical of all human societies and remains so in many parts of the world today. It changed only with the rise of central authority and its monopoly on the use of violence. With this change, the State put an end to the worst sort of tyranny: the daily fear of being assaulted or even killed, not by a foreign invader but by someone in your own town or village. The violent male went from hero to zero.

Initially, people complied with the new order by changing their behavior within the limits of phenotypic plasticity. The result was a more peaceful society where violent males were less often imitated, celebrated, and accommodated. This shift in the mean phenotype then contributed to a slower but similar shift in the mean genotype, by creating an environment that favored the reproduction of certain individuals at the expense of others. There was thus Baldwinian selection for individuals less predisposed to violence and more predisposed to submissiveness.

This process is described by the historical economist Gregory Clark with respect to England. Once central authority had become established, male homicide fell steadily from the twelfth century to the early nineteenth. Meanwhile, there was a parallel decline in blood sports and other forms of exhibitionist violence (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions) that nonetheless remained legal throughout this period. Clark ascribes this behavioral change to the reproductive success of upper- and middle-class individuals who differed statistically in their predispositions from the much larger lower class, including predispositions to violence. Although initially a small minority in medieval England, such individuals grew in number and their descendants gradually replaced the lower class through downward mobility. By the nineteenth century, their lineages accounted for most of the English population (Clark, 2007, pp. 124-129, 182-183; Clark, 2009).


Assous, A. (2005). L’impact de l’éducation parentale sur le développement de l’enfant, Hawwa, 3(3), 354-369.

Baker, L.A., K.C. Jacobson, A. Raine, D.I. Lozano, and S. Bezdjian. (2007). Genetic and environmental bases of childhood antisocial behavior: a multi-informant twin study, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 219-235.

Barker, E.D., H. Larson, E. Viding, B. Maughan, F. Rijsdijk, N. Fontaine, and R. Plomin. (2009). Common genetic but specific environmental influences for aggressive and deceitful behaviors in preadolescent males, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 31, 299-308.

Clark, G. (2009). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England,

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Fanon, F. (2004). The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do, Free Press.

Kagan, J. (1998). Three Seductive Ideas, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Kagan, J. (1996). Three pleasing ideas, American Psychologist, 51, 901-908.

Rhee, S.H., and I.D. Waldman. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies, Psychological Bulletin, 128, 490-529.


Tod said...

Mark Steyn: “The defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is ..the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate—an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The ‘men’ stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing."

Peter Frost said...

Yes, and meanwhile the police waited outside until it was safe for them to enter the building.

Marc Lépine had to recharge his gun several times. At that point, he could have been rushed by several students. There were also opportunities to attack him from behind, such as when he was walking from one desktop to another (to check for girls hiding under their desks). People could have thrown books at his head, to make him drop his gun.

Anonymous said...

Training in combat sports should be mandatory for males at about age 10. Powerlifting(training to lift heavy in the Bench, Squat and Deadlift) builds confidence and combat effectiveness and should begin around 15.

I can imagine the feminist-and other leftist- opposition to such a proposal. Nevertheless, stalwarts should run for school boards and show how The Montreal Massacre and appalling behavior of the men on the scene indicates a need for the reform.

Do they have elected school boards in Canada? Not that the same kind of school reform isn't needed in much of the US.

Tod said...

In a review of 'Freakonomics', John D. Mueller advances a hypothesis that has some bearing on psychological similarities between Marc Lépine and his father.

"But nearly all violent crime is committed by men (women are equal only in nonviolent crime) precisely the ages of the fathers of aborted children. In short, the missing variable is "economic fatherhood." ("Economic" fatherhood is defined not by residency with but by provision for one's children.) Including this variable not only invalidates Levitt's claim but reverses it. One can see this in a comparison of homicide rates and economic fatherhood, the latter defined by the Total Fertility Rate for the same demographic mix as prisoners (though measured for women, it's almost exactly the same for men) minus men in prison (who cannot provide for children) and children on welfare (who aren't supported by fathers). Though strong for all categories of crime, the trade-off with economic fatherhood strengthens with the crime's violence, and is strongest for the most violent of all, homicide.

As far back as data exist, rates of economic fatherhood and homicide have been strongly, inversely "cointegrated"—a stringent statistical test characterizing inherently related events, like the number of cars entering and leaving the Lincoln Tunnel. Legalizing abortion didn't lower homicide rates 15-20 years later by eliminating infants who might, if they survived, have become murderers: it raised the homicide rate almost at once by turning their fathers back into men without dependent children—a small but steady share of whom do murder. The homicide rate rose sharply in the 1960s and '70s when expanding welfare and legal abortion sharply reduced economic fatherhood, and it dropped sharply in the '90s partly due to a recovering birth rate, but mostly because welfare reform and incarceration raised the share of men outside prison who were supporting children."

Peter Frost said...


Yes, we have elected school boards in Canada, but the turnout is very low (less than 20%). Personally, I think school boards should be scrapped. Each school should be self-governing. That would encourage more community involvement.

Canada is a society where violence had almost been abolished. So we have a very weak tradition of self-defence (unlike the U.S.).


Roe vs Wade liberalized abortion in 1973, so I don't see how it could be blamed for the rise in violent crime that began in the 1960s. I think a far stronger factor was the fall-off in religious practice, especially among black Americans (who used to attend fundamentalist churches that discouraged anti-social behavior through community supervision, 'self-policing', and other forms of social control).

Also, correlation isn't always causation. Young unmarried men are more likely to commit violent crime, yes. But many of them would still be violent even if they were married (like Marc's father). The line of causation might run in the opposite direction: violent males may be less likely to settle down and marry (they also might be repulsive to many women).

Tod said...

There are enough women attracted to violent men for the average man-with-a-criminal-lifestyle to father quite a lot of children.

"A sample of 104 British parents with criminal convictions had an average fertility of 3·91 children as compared with 2·21 for the general population" Fertility for criminal behaviour

Lépine was in the wrong milieu to meet the kind of women who are attracted to arrogant violent men, (eg a biker gang). I still think that - in addition to being temperamentally primed for violence - he lacked social skills to an extent that suggests a disorder such as Asperger's (he scored 100% in a test, Asperger's is said to be more common in intellectually gifted families).