A Biological Explanation of the Littleton Incident

Copyright ã 1999 James Michael Howard


I have listened to the usual list of explanations of the tragedy at Littleton, Colorado: gun control, video games and movies, lack of parental responsibility, etc, and now, the internet. These may contribute, but I do not think they "cause" this problem. I suggest biology may help explain these events.

Most people are aware of the changes in children known as the "secular trend." The secular trend is the increase in size, and earlier puberty, that most everyone sees. Some say the trend is due to better eating habits, but some groups known to eat less well than others exhibit the trend to a much greater degree than those who are well fed. I suggest the trend is due to increasing testosterone. People of higher testosterone are more aggressive and sexual. They will make more babies than those of low testosterone. Given time, society will increase in numbers of aggressive people. Aggressive people sometimes become bullies. I suggest people of high testosterone have more difficulty controlling their impulses; bullying is an aggressive impulse.

Bullies like targets. Often these targets are weaklings, that is, individuals of low testosterone. They are often slightly built, late-to-puberty, young males. They are easy targets. These targets are the archetypal gunmen of our outbreak of high school shooters.

My explanation of why these individuals become killers resides, ironically, in their testosterone. After the incident, one student at Columbine High of Littleton pointed out that the killers were often "picked on." Here is my explanation. Low testosterone boys become targets of bullies in elementary school. This continues throughout junior and senior high. Being low testosterone types, their puberty runs a little late. This increases the time in which their only retaliation has to be imaginary. They cannot fight back, so they find relief in reverie. If they become part of a group of similar nature, the dreams of revenge are shared and enjoyed, just as the thrill of bullying is shared and relished by groups of bullies.

When puberty, and its rise in testosterone, happens to individuals who have spent their lives in fear of, and dreamed-of-revenge towards, bullies, their testosterone increases their aggressiveness towards their tormentors. In a study of "hypogonadal" boys, that is boys who produce low testosterone, treatment with testosterone dramatically increased their aggression towards peers and adults (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 1997; 82: 2435). Black males produce significantly more testosterone than white males (Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1986; 76: 45). The shooters are white, slightly-built, males who arrive at puberty late, who actually experience bullying or some perception, thereof, due to their lack of being effectively integrated into their peer groups. They commit their "aggressions" when their testosterone finally increases.

As testosterone increases in a society, the level of aggression increases. In the past, aggression occurred with less frequency; bullying was more often punished because it was more noticeable. I suggest that far more bullying occurs now than thirty years ago. In the past few years, television documentaries have considered increases in juvenile bullying. By not stopping bullying at our schools, we may actually be creating these

Bully victims have certain characteristics in common. "In conclusion, victims of bullying have a very high proportion of health problems, poor well-being and low self-esteem." (Ugeskr Laeger 1999; 161: 2201). They have more health problems. "There was an association between children reporting being bullied sometimes or more often and reporting not sleep well, bed wetting, feeling sad, and experiencing more than occasional headaches and tummy aches. A significant trend for increasing risk of symptoms with increased frequency of bullying was shown for all reported health symptoms. CONCLUSIONS Health professionals seeing primary schoolchildren who present with headaches, tummy ache, feeling sad or very sad, bed wetting, and sleeping difficulties should consider bullying as a possible contributory factor." (British Medical Journal 1996; 313: 17). These physical symptoms are the result of fear. A study of Australian primary school children found that "Over one-third of the sample reported feeling unsafe from bullying at school and over half of the sample believed that the reason children did not ask for help from bullying was that they were too afraid. The findings indicated that victimization was associated with fear of negative evaluation amongst males and females and social avoidance amongst females." (Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 1994; 25: 97). Bullying pervades the lives of school children. "Besides being bullied in school, children also reported that this happened on the journey to/from school and in other places such as in the street near where they live." (Br J Educ Psychol 1992; 62: 73). While school children (between 6- and 16-years-old) declare they want help for these victims, they exhibit contradictory feelings that may surprise most adults. "Factor analyses of the children's responses yielded three interpretable factors: a tendency to despise the victims of bullies; general admiration for school bullies; and avowed support for intervention to assist the victim." (J Soc Psychol 1991; 131: 615).

Our bullies are always with us and they often are bosses. (Is this because, as children, bullies are admired and victims despised?) "1100 employees returned questionnaires - a response rate of 70%. 421 employees reported experiencing one or more types of bullying in the previous year. 460 had witnessed the bullying of others. When bullying occurred it was most often likely to be a manager. Two thirds of the victims of bullying had tried to take action when the bullying occurred, but most were dissatisfied with the outcome. Staff who had been bullied had significantly lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of job induced stress, depression, anxiety, and intention to leave the job." (British Medical Journal 1999; 318: 228). Bullying is a lifelong phenomena.

I suggest the Littleton killers were created. The Littleton killers were created by their bullies. Changes that are occurring in our nation are increasing the bullying and, now, the response to bullying. For reasons described in "A Biological Explanation of the Littleton Incident," I think these events will continue and increase. Perhaps there is hope; I sincerely hope our nation will follow the following admonition: "Bullying has serious long term consequences for all concerned. The cost of ignoring bullying is great, and it is no longer acceptable to view bullying as a normal part of everyday life that children have to learn to tolerate. Effective strategies exist to reduce the frequency of bullying and to make this type of aggressive behaviour less likely to occur." (Archives of Diseases of Children 1998; 79: 528).