The Psychology of Workplace Shootings

Depression and Suicide Research UpdatesNasim Aghda was named the suspect responsible for the YouTube Headquarters shootings that left one man and two women injured with gunshot wounds. The attacker shot herself dead.

Police say they are still investigating a motive but can psychological research on this kind of mass shooting reveal clues as to possible motives?

It has been reported that Aghda became angry that YouTube had begun limiting her income from her online videos.

This mass shooting may yet have significant implications for the so-called ‘gig’ economy, where increasingly people earn a living when they are not regarded as formal employees by the company paying for their services.

In fact, what we know so far about the YouTube Headquarters shooting fits very closely the pattern of traditional workplace shootings.

That the profile resembles so closely what happens when a disgruntled employee returns to exact revenge on his or her boss or co-workers in an office could have implications for how employers in the gig economy consider their relationship with workers.

Gig Economy

Uber, a U.S. company, reportedly claims that the drivers found on their app are self-employed, and so is appealing a recent UK Employment Appeal Tribunal decision, that its drivers are, in fact, workers with minimum-wage rights.

Adam Lankford, an academic specialising in the study of mass killers based at The University of Alabama, has published an analysis of how mass shooters who attack at workplaces differ psychologically from suicide terrorists, school shooters and those described as ‘rampage’ killers who aim to kill many in a public space.

The study published in the academic journal, Homicide Studies, found that workplace shootings involving suicide attempts were twice as common as rampage and school shootings, but only about half as deadly.

This data all fits the pattern of what we know so far about the YouTube Headquarters attack.

Lankford also found that workplace shooters were more commonly linked to specific precipitating crisis events, which often involved being suspended, reprimanded, or fired by an employer.

And, they were less likely to pen a suicide note or other written explanation, which may indicate a shorter period of premeditation.

Lankford found that workplace shooters may be the most “normal” of the four types of attackers in his study, from a psychological standpoint.

They appeared far more likely than suicide terrorists, rampage shooters, or school shooters to kill individuals by whom they felt personally victimized. These targets were usually supervisors and bosses, although sometimes they were other hated co-workers.

In most of these cases, the perpetrators ended up shooting bystanders as well.

Desire for Fame?

The YouTube link in this incident of mass shooting may also have something to do with the desire for fame or infamy, which has been found to be a key motivator in a significant number of mass shootings.

Aghda ran a number of YouTube channels and a website where she apparently recently posted a video railing against YouTube. Her frustration may also have centered on YouTube preventing her from becoming famous, as well as depriving her of an income.

Lankford has also published a study entitled, “Fame-seeking rampage shooters: Initial findings and empirical predictions,” where he argues that recent notable examples of mass shooters who have sought fame include 1999 Columbine school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, 2007 Nebraska mall shooter Robert Hawkins, and 2007 Virginia Tech university shooter Seung Hui Cho.

He also argues in his study published in the journal, Aggression and Violent Behavior, that the United States seems to suffer a disproportionate number of these infamy seeking mass shooters. That may be partly because increasingly in America, perhaps more than in any other country on the globe, fame is revered as an end unto itself.

Surveys find 51 percent of Americans aged 18–25 say that “to be famous” is one of their generation’s most important goals in life.

Lankford finds that the United States has approximately 31 percent of the world’s mass killers, but approximately 75 percent of these offenders who explicitly seek fame.

He found that fame-seeking mass killers did not always leave behind suicide notes, manifestos, or videos, which seems odd. Why pass up an opportunity to communicate with a mass audience when your dreadful actions guarantee world attention?

Lankford argues that, in some cases, rampage shooters might have calculated that by declaring less, and so creating an enigma about their motives for the public and media to wrestle with, they would court greater celebrity.

For example, in an online post, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza apparently considered why some school shootings remain popular topics compared to others, concluding this factor was because of enhanced speculation that inevitably follows if the shooter doesn’t leave behind evidence of motives.

Lanza appears to have followed this same strategy for fame: he intentionally destroyed his computer and deleted many of his online posts, and then committed suicide after his attack.

As a result, Lankford contends, there has been much more public and media speculation about his motives ever since.


The Psychology of Workplace Shootings

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen are regular contributors to Psych Central Professional. Dr. Rajendra Persaud, also known as Raj Persaud, is a leading consultant psychiatrist, broadcaster and author of popular books about psychiatry. He is well known for raising public awareness of psychiatric and mental health issues in the general media. He has published five popular books and has received numerous awards. The Times recently placed him as one of the Top Twenty Mental Health Gurus in the world.

Dr. Peter Bruggen was part of the UK Royal College of Psychiatrist's Podcast Editor Team, with Dr. Persaud. From 1969 to 1994 he was a consultant psychiatrist at Hill End Adolescent Unit, St Albans. He was also a consultant psychiatrist from 1969-90 at the Tavistock Clinic. His work has featured family therapy at the death bed, working with families in the community rather than admitting adolescents to hospital, and staff relationships. Dr. Bruggen has also written three books, including Surviving Adolescence and Helping Families (both with Charles O'Brien), and Who Cares? True Stories of the NHS Reforms, for which he conducted face-to-face interviews with one-hundred people.


APA Reference
Dr. Peter Bruggen, D. (2019). The Psychology of Workplace Shootings. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Sep 2019
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