Oklahoma killing fits 'shared misunderstanding'

James Alan Fox

August 22, 2013


The senseless killing of Christopher Lane, a 22-year-old Australian senior attending college in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship, has sent shock waves around the world. While out for a run on Aug. 16, Lane was shot in the back during an unprovoked attack.

It isn’t just the randomness that has Australian officials calling for a boycott on travel to the United States, but also the apparent motive. Allegedly, the three teens arrested in connection to the crime were bored and seeking something fun to do. Armed with a revolver and with free time, the trio trolled the neighborhood looking for trouble.

This would hardly be the first time that a group of youngsters has committed awful acts of violence purely for entertainment. But the motivation typically goes deeper than a temporary thrill at the expense of some ill-fated target.

One of the distinguishing features to juvenile murder is the dominant role of group dynamics. Based on an analysis of FBI data for 2006-11, 35 percent of homicides implicating a juvenile offender included multiple perpetrators, more than twice as high as the percentage for adults.

In “group-kill” scenarios, the inspiration for violence is more about concern for peer approval than a lack of concern for the prey. In such cases, the real purpose for participating in the crime is to prove one’s toughness and allegiance to the group, be it an organized gang or just a band of wannabes, as the Oklahoma teens have been described.

Pointless crimes such as the Lane slaying often fit a pattern that criminologists characterize as “shared misunderstanding.” In this dynamic, each group member wrongfully believes that everyone else wants to follow through with some vicious act.

No one protests the spontaneous plan for fear of being rejected as weak. For adolescents, ostracism and losing respect represent a more immediate and powerful sanction than any doled out by the authorities. Lacking in brain development, adolescents are more responsive to immediate rewards and punishments. Teenagers are often willing to take risks just to impress their peers.

With encouragement from peers, adolescents will engage in behaviors they might find abhorrent on their own. With the all-important need for social acceptance and respect, many youngsters allow the expectations of significant others to supersede their own moral code of conduct.

In concert with others, individuals not only act more brazenly, they feel less responsible. After all, when others are behaving in a similar fashion, even criminal acts can seem like the right thing to do.

The group effect can help to explain seemingly senseless juvenile crimes, but it does not excuse or justify them. Although good judgment might be sacrificed to group demands, young killers remain legally culpable, but just not to the same extent as adults.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors..