Matt Olszewski

The Effects of Masculinity and Attachment Style on Perceptions of School Shooters and the Prevention of School Shootings

April 6, 2021   /  

Student Name: Matt Olszewski
Major: Psychology
Minor: Spanish
Advisor: Dr. Mike Casey; Second reader: Dr. Ashley Abraham

Attachment research has largely focused on the relationship between the child and its caregiver. However, more recent research has begun to focus on other areas of attachment as they relate to toxic masculinity and violence. For example, the concept of school connectedness has gained traction as being a key factor for how a student feels about their school, which can play into other possible risk factors of violence. As school shootings have been all too prevalent over the last few decades, prioritizing research in the realms of toxic masculinity and attachment style is critical. These two variables were what interested me in my project. Being able to analyze the effects they had on people’s perceptions towards school shootings and the prevention of those tragic events was fascinating. In this study, college students between the ages of 18-22, as well as individuals up to the age of 30, were recruited as participants and were evaluated for their adult attachment style and type/level of masculinity. Results indicated that insecure men—especially conservatives—were less likely to acknowledge specific traits and associations with school shooters, as a possible way to be more masculine, protect their image and not feel embarrassed. In addition, men were more likely to be in favor of guns in the classroom for defense. Results were discussed with regards to working models of attachment and the importance of a strong support system from childhood all through adulthood, as well as toxic levels of masculinity overtaking an individual’s ability to perceive issues in a fair way. This research is crucial for gaining a better sense of how we can shift the narrative away from guns and more to the actual issues that contribute to these tragic and unfortunate acts of violence.

Matt will be online to field comments on April 16: 10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST 6am-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon).

68 thoughts on “The Effects of Masculinity and Attachment Style on Perceptions of School Shooters and the Prevention of School Shootings”

  1. Wow, Matthew! After reading through your research paper I was impressed and now am all the more taken by all that you have done, learned and given as part of your IS experience. It truly is important research and you have much to be proud of! As you reflect back on your research and work, what would you do differently now that you have been through this process?

    1. Thanks, Mom! If I could choose one thing to do differently, I would have conducted in-person interviews with my subjects as another way of gathering data, but due to COVID that was more difficult. I feel as though in-person interviews would have been a very effective way to understand subjects and their perceptions on these important issues. However, for my IS during these uncertain times, I opted to use previously designed surveys, as well as my five open response questions, in order to gather my data.

      1. Fantastic though in terms of your response rate! And the open response questions can certainly help you get at some of what the in-person interviews may have garnered. What surprised you most about your findings?

        1. I was most surprised by how little men acknowledged mental illness and masculinity as factors associated with school shooters. It truly was fascinating. Lots more women acknowledged these as associations to school shooters.

  2. Very important research, Matt. Nice to “see” you again. Good luck in whatever the future brings!

      1. Me jubilé hace un año, lo cual me agrada muchísimo, gracias. ¿Qué piensas hacer en adelante? Espero que podamos seguir en contacto por email en el futuro.

  3. Nice job Matthew!!! Such an interesting integration of different theories and research methods to sort out how folks think about the role of masculinity in school shootings.

    As I was listening to you talk about your research I was wondering how you made sense of the January 6th events that involved a lot of white men. Do you think there is any link between toxic masculinity and race violence?

    Proud of you!!!!

    1. I was very far into my research when the insurrection on the US Capitol occurred on January 6th. Therefore, I was unable to gather data from participants regarding their perceptions of this tragic event and possibly incorporate some of that into my IS. But if I were to guess if there was a link between toxic masculinity and race violence present on that day, I would say yes. You are right that the overwhelming majority of the individuals that took part in that, were in fact white men.

  4. Great work, Matt! Congratulations on this big project.

    A few questions:
    * I’m curious about what in your past experiences piqued your interest in school shootings and in attachment style. Did being a student in an era of so many (oof) shootings have an effect?
    * What meaning do you ascribe to your finding that suggests – if I’m understanding correctly – that conservative men with an insecure attachment style are more likely to attribute a school shooter’s motivation to “bad upbringing?” It’s interesting that there’s such a contrast between the 3 graphs in that “bad upbringing” area. It strikes me that upbringing is an external influence on a person, as opposed to something internal to themselves.
    * Knowing what you know now, what would you have changed about your original inquiries or approach, if anything?
    * If you could get a spot on a major news network to focus on this topic, what information would you want them to share?

    So proud of you, Matt!

    1. Thank you!!!
      I definitely would attribute my interest in this topic to the time frame in which I have grown up. As mentioned in my IS, there have been way too many mass shootings and school shootings in the past several decades. I wanted to conduct my IS on something very relevant to current times, and this was the topic that I came up with and started doing research in. I got to a certain point where I was convinced this is what I wanted to conduct my IS on.

      You are right: conservative insecure men were most likely to attribute bad upbringing to a school shooter (compared to my other three groups of participants). Possibly some of these individuals could have had a more positive upbringing than they did, and so this is something they are familiar with and thus attribute it to school shooters? That was definitely a very interesting trend I noticed in my data and I definitely was fascinated by that, too!

      Knowing what I know, I would have conducted in person interviews if possible. The surveys and my open response questions definitely sufficed though. In person interviews would have given me more data and I could have met with participants and gauged their perceptions a little better.

      If a major news network could cover my topic and focus on something specifically, I would want them to talk about how having a strong support system from friends, family and social relationships greatly benefits individuals. I think a lot of us take for granted the importance of support systems and a positive/secure attachment style in life. As I found in my IS, attachment style can affect masculinity which can affect perceptions towards critical issues. It is basically a domino effect.

      1. Super fascinating. Thanks so much for your response and for sharing your research!

  5. Excellent work, Matt! It is really helping to shed light on such a critical problem, one that is unfortunately becoming more and more common.

    It really seems scary what the effects of this male insecurity might be. How would you relate it to the notion of “othering” (seeing people in a group different from one’s own as fundamentally different or less human?)

    If you were “King of the World,” what 3 actions would you take, based on your findings, to reduce the threat of mass killings?

    1. Thanks so much!!

      The effects of attachment style on important issues like this really are troubling. I would say that “othering” definitely affects why males perceive other individuals so differently, compared to women, especially insecure women. Insecure attachment certainly can have detrimental effects on people’s perceptions towards critical issues. As I discussed in my IS, insecure attachment and masculinity can hinder an individual’s ability to perceive others fairly and appropriately.

      If I could take 3 actions to reduce the threat of mass killings, I would implement school-based interventions such as greater mental health help access (more therapists, psychiatrists). In addition, I would hire speakers with experience in the mental health field to go talk at schools about the importance of displaying your emotions and being honest with your feelings. As my IS points to, many individuals, especially men, have a tendency sometimes to repress their emotions, especially if they are seen as weak. This is not a healthy habit and can lead to problems down the line. And of course, I would limit gun rights and access significantly, and increase background checks. These three steps are only a portion of how we could combat this huge problem in our country and world, but certainly would be beneficial actions to take.

      1. Good ideas! Is there evidence that attachment style can be changed?

        And your results also make me wonder, what exactly is it about shooting someone that becomes attractive to a person with the kind of psychological profile that you have observed?

        And would it be feasible to use your results to influence who gets to buy and get a permit for a gun?

        1. Most evidence points to infancy and early childhood as being the most important times in which attachment style develops. After that, it becomes more and more challenging to change attachment style or reverse it. This is why internal working models of attachment, maternal responsiveness, and other factors relating to attachment are so critical in the early stages of life for an individual. However, there are definitely ways to cope with an insecure attachment style and help those who have not been raised well by their parent.

          In terms of your second question, I am honestly not sure. Usually, there is some aspect of retribution involved or it is seen as away to take out anger and inflict emotion on someone else. It may not make complete sense to us why it happens, but the specific individual rationalizes it and it normally makes sense to them.

          Using my results to influence who gets to purchase a gun and use it, is definitely feasible!! I would have to decide how to present my research to the appropriate groups of people, though.

      2. Indeed the notion and affiliated negative stigma of accessing mental health supports needs to change! We can start that early in school by helping kids learn that it is okay to talk about emotions, feelings, wants, needs, etc. It’s all part of healthy habits as you’ve said, Matthew! Wonderful points to keep believing in!

        1. Exactly right! Although repressing some emotions may temporarily make a person happier, in the long term this is not what they should be doing and is unhealthy. By reducing the stigma of mental health illnesses and seeking out help/talking about emotions, the world will be a safer place.

  6. Really interesting work, Matt! I enjoyed your video. What an important topic.

  7. Congratulations, Matt! Well Done! It was a real pleasure working with you this year on your IS. I know you will go on to do many more important things in life.

    1. Dr. Casey, thank you so much for your dedication to helping me throughout my whole IS journey. I greatly appreciate it!

  8. Great work Matthew! First of all, I’m so glad that you attended College of Wooster and were able to design, conduct and defend your IS as part of the graduation requirements. To understand the process of how to put together a research proposal is a foundation of your learning as a student and something you’ll be able to carry with you into your life outside of COW. Bravo!!

    One question, how could you extrapolate your data to help understand the effect of toxic masculinity of mass shootings beyond just inside schools? Can differences/similarities be drawn in shootings at a supermarket, a postal center or even a fast food restaurant?

    1. Yah! I remember you all were attracted to that part of COW’s offerings when Matt was considering his college choice. Such a great experience to have!!!! And Matt – you sure brought it home! 🙂

    2. Scott,
      I second your comment, wholeheartedly! I think the opportunity for undergraduates to be able to have the experience of conducting independent research is incredibly valuable! As you say, the value goes way beyond the specifics of the topic and the methodology, but into all of the skills of learning how to learn in an independent, self-directed way. I wish more colleges would do it.

      What a great capstone for the last four years!

    3. Thank you, Dad!! It has been a very rewarding process, especially since this topic is so relevant nowadays.

      I think I could definitely extrapolate my data to understand mass shootings outside of schools. One way to do so would be conducting interviews with certain employees at different stores, restaurants, and work environments. I could also examine different mass shootings at various locations outside of schools, as well as the the known facts about them. I think there would be a mix of similarities and differences in different mass shooting settings. In my IS I talked about the suspects of the Sandy Hook and Columbine shootings who were all pretty young; however, there are many more instances in which mass shootings and school shootings have occurred.

      I think one of the differences might be that mass shootings outside of schools normally involve older individuals–someone not of school age. But the masculinity, race, attachment style, political orientation, might all still be similar. That would be a very interesting further study to conduct!

  9. Matt, Left you a comment on your presentation site. As you know, I read your thesis earlier, but your presentation today brought out your intellectual curiosity as you discussed the findings you chased that you had not anticipated. I am so interested in how political orientation enters into your findings. A great job that illustrates your amazing work ethic and never-ending curiosity. I see all good things ahead for you. Love, Gigi (Fran Hall)

    1. Thank you!!

      I decided to insert political orientation as another variable because I was pretty sure I would be able to discover some fascinating trends regarding that too and then connect it with masculinity and attachment style.

      And yes, the hard work certainly did pay off and I am so glad that you and many others can see my presentation and research, among others’ projects too!

  10. If you were to go more researach in this area, what relationships would you want to study?

    1. I would want to study the relationship between school shootings and expand to mass shootings outside of schools to be able to compare the two. In addition, comparing different states in the US in terms of gun rights/gun access, and mental health resources might be very interesting too!

  11. Congratulations Matt, what a great and important project and I enjoyed your presentation!

  12. One last thought, Matt…..what are your thoughts on sharing your research and findings beyond this Symposium and the College of Wooster? Do you have any plans for ways to disseminate your findings more broadly? Again, wonderful work and so proud of you!

    1. I haven’t thought much about that, but I would welcome the opportunity to speak with anyone about it or to present it at a conference. It is definitely very important to disseminate my findings if possible! Hopefully my findings and project help make schools a safer place.

  13. Thanks for thinking about such an important topic Matt and sharing it here today. I see that you mom kind of touched on this, but I hope that data like yours can help teachers, school counselors, SROs and others recognize their own bias in identifying “likely” suspects and instead be more open to simply help.

    1. Hi Dr. Stav,
      Yes I agree! Simply helping is a large part of this solution. Not sweeping things under the rug, but rather figuring out ways to help those who are struggling is important beyond belief. Thank you for all your support during my time here at Wooster!

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Garcia! You have had a very positive impact on my experience here at Woo.

  14. Amazing work Matt! So proud of you and all of your accomplishments. Love you bud

  15. Congratulations Matt! Your results are so interesting, and I think your topic is so important and relevant. Can’t wait to celebrate with you!

    1. Thanks so much Abby!! Hopefully more research similar to my project will be conducted in the near future!

  16. Great work Oatt!! Definitely (and unfortunately) timely with the shootings that’ve been taking place and I hope your research leads to ways to reduce gun violence in the U.S.

  17. Matt,

    Your work is so incredibly important for our current moment. I’m so proud of you.

    How much do you think age played a role in your results. You mention that college students, as well as individuals up to 30 took place in your research. Do you think that by including participants of older ages (over 30) would have had a large impact on your results?

    1. Thanks for your kind comment and question! I do think that older subjects would have influenced my results. My participants were mainly between the ages of 18-22 and most of them were Wooster students. I think that by having older subjects, they would have been part of a different generation and thus have differing views about the issues addressed in my IS, compared to the 18-22 year old subjects in my study. I chose to use participants between 18-30 for my study because they are more familiar with the toxic masculinity ideals as well as recent school shooting events they have lived through.

  18. Wow, this is so so important and really well-researched. Do you plan on researching more about this in the future? Great job and congrats!

    1. Hi Kath,

      Thanks for your kind words! I plan on entering the Public Health field and possibly going into healthcare policy. My study could certainly be replicated and expanded, as well as applied to policy work in the real world!

  19. What a timely topic! I enjoyed your presentation and would like to read your paper as well, Matt. It’s great that you used different methods to understand your data, and that you were able to examine unexpected results. Do you have a sense of what “bad upbringing” means to the participants who read it?

    1. Hi Michele,
      Thank you so much!! In my IS, bad upbringing as an association to school shooters refers to the individual being poorly raised by their parents or their primary caregiver. This was only one of many possible associations to school shooters outlined in my IS, that my participants had the option of choosing between.

  20. Congratulations Matt on your I.S. research! The topic is so relevant today! I found it very interesting that you incorporated political ideology into your research. Your use of open-ended questions too is unique to gain further insight into your participants. As it appears your finding that insecure conservative men are unable to see other causes which contribute to a school shooter’s mental state, is there some suggestion you would have to reach those who have attachment issues which result in such toxic masculinity, given that you indicate attachment occurs in early childhood? Keep on tackling a very complicated issue in our schools today!

  21. Hi Gloria,
    Thanks for your kind comment and question! I think interventions and honest conversations are very important in terms of limiting the repression of emotions and diminishing toxic masculinity and the negative ideals related to it. If we can encourage insecure individuals and individuals exhibiting toxic masculinity to be honest about their feelings, the schools will be a safer place. School psychologists and psychiatrists will be important in terms of facilitating these critical conversations with specific individuals, not only parents.

  22. Congrats Matt! It was great to finally read and see what you’ve been researching!

    1. Thanks so much Bella! Thank you for being a great friend throughout our time at Wooster. See you in Boston!

  23. Matt,
    What an interesting and timely topic! As I’ve had to deal with recent Colorado shootings in-depth, I’ve really been thinking about what drives these types of tragedies. As Chip and I listened to your presentation, we certainly learned a lot about some causes. Your research also drove us to think about attachment styles. What a difference parents can make!
    Thanks for inviting us to be a part of this. I agree with your mom that you should share this work further. Perhaps as an article via LinkedIn?
    Great work,
    Christina & Chip

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