The Unabomber, Columbine, and 9-11: Exploring the Dynamics of Social Isolation

Tom W. Cadwallader, California State University - Hayward

Many theorists point to the importance of social interactions in the development of deviant behavior (Akers, 1998; Burgess & Akers, 1966; Hirschi, 1969; Kanel, 1978; Patterson, 1995; Sutherland, 1947). Less attention has been paid to social isolation as a pathway to antisocial attitudes and violent behavior. Isolation is difficult to manipulate experimentally, and is often confounded with other variables (e.g., child abuse, mental illness, incarceration). Drawing on the literature in comparative and developmental psychology, this paper discusses social isolation at the individual and group level as a significant factor in some forms of antisocial and aggressive conduct. Socially isolated individuals may exhibit hyper-activity, inflated self-esteem, grandiose and megalomaniacal thinking, paranoia and other cognitive and behavioral features associated with non-conformist and criminal acts. At the group level, isolation may have a "lord of the Flies" effect, wherein groups outside the social mainstream forge strong interpersonal bonds based on solidarity against a real or hypothetical enemy. Two causes of isolationa re considered; voluntary withdrawl from social interaction and involuntary isolation based on rejection by the broader social community. Specific examples of criminal, cult and terrorst behavior are offered in support of the isolation thesis.

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Updated 05/20/2006