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How Science May Prevent School Shootings - Dr. James Kimmel Jr.

Dr. James Kimmel Jr., lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, founder and co-creator of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies, and the developer of the behavioral addiction model of violence joins Dr. Phil on the Phil in the Blanks podcast to discuss how science may prevent school shootings. “The human brain on revenge looks almost identical to the human brain on drugs,” Dr. Kimmel says. Hear what Dr. Kimmel says he believes transforms a good person into a killer and how his research has been able to provide a missing piece to the puzzle when it comes to mass shootings.


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Dr. James Kimmel Jr., who researches violence prevention, motive, and revenge cravings, joins Dr. Phil to discuss how science may prevent school shootings.


  • "I think more important is what the FBI and Secret Service are missing. That is the piece of the puzzle that we've been able to provide, which is "what happens when somebody has a grievance." Dr. James Kimmel Jr.

  • "What neuroscience, brain imaging fMRI studies are showing is that a grievance triggers a craving in the brain for retaliation for justice in the form of revenge." Dr. James Kimmel Jr.

  • "This new insight that science is bringing to the picture that is showing that grievance, triggering retaliation triggers a desire for revenge, for pleasure. In other words, the human brain on revenge looks almost identical to the human brain on drugs." Dr. Phil

  • "Ultimately, the only thing that resolves a grievance and restores peace, happiness and health is a decision to forgive." Dr. James Kimmel Jr.

  • "It's tragic to me that so many people don't have those built-in resources, whatever they are, or that sense of spirituality that's critical to be able to stop. But I'll say, even people that have all those resources, they sometimes go right through the red light and they commit that act of violence." Dr. James Kimmel Jr.

  • "Most of the violence is being perpetrated by good people who have a grievance and get caught up in this addictive process of revenge-seeking." Dr. James Kimmel Jr.

  • "There is a power in forgiveness. " Dr.Phil

  • "If I can forgive them, I set myself free. That cell I'm in, locks from the inside. I can let myself out if I choose if I decide to forgive and move on. " Dr. Phil

  • "That's the miracle of letting the past go and setting yourself free that can be performed by anybody, anywhere." Dr. Phil

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Podcast Page: DrPhilintheBlanks

Twitter: @jameskimmeljr


More About James Kimmel, Jr., J.D.

James Kimmel, Jr., J.D., is a psychiatry lecturer, violence researcher, lawyer, social theorist, and novelist who focuses on the intersections of law, neuroscience, psychology, spirituality, violence, and addiction. He received his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Pennsylvania and his B.S. degree summa cum laude from the Schreyer Honors College of the Pennsylvania State University. He is the founder and a Co-Director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies; developer of the Behavioral Addiction Model of Grievance, Revenge, and Violence; developer of the nonjustice construct of grievance resolution and violence prevention; and developer of the Nonjustice System ("Miracle Court") virtual courthouse and mock trial role play intervention for healing from victimization and controlling revenge cravings. He is a leader in expanding local, state, and national gun violence threat risk and reduction initiatives to include public behavioral health motive control strategies -- new prevention and treatment approaches for reducing the desire to abuse guns by controlling the revenge cravings that arise out of grievances and perceived victimization. He created the Revenge Attack Warning Signs and First Aid, Violence Risk Identification and Disruption (V-RID), and Violence Interruption Court (VIC) models for violence threat identification and disruption using motive control strategies, and the Teen Court motive control model for bullying prevention in schools. He created, the first-of-it’s-kind website suicide prevention style website aimed at preventing murders and mass shootings. He co-founded and directed an evidence-based forensic peer support program in Pennsylvania utilizing, in part, the Nonjustice System for criminal justice-involved individuals with serious mental illnesses in Pennsylvania jails and prisons. He is the author of Suing for Peace: A Guide for Resolving Life's Conflicts (Hampton Roads, 2005), which first identified violence as a form of behavioral addiction, and The Trial of Fallen Angels, a novel, about a lawyer of souls in the afterlife (New York: Penguin Random House/Putnam 2012). He was featured with Bob Costas and Franco Harris in the motion picture documentary 365 Days: A Year in the Life of Happy Valley(2014) about the Penn State University Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. He was also featured in the book Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith (Little, Brown, 2018).

SAVINGCAIN.ORG Research scientists have discovered that when we have been hurt or wronged, the desire to harm others activates the same pleasure centers of the brain activated by narcotics.

This suggests that the desire to kill is a biological craving created inside the brain. If you are thinking about killing, you are not "evil." Justice-Seeking as Root Cause of Violence:

Kimmel, J., Jr., Rowe, M., A Behavioral Addiction Model of Revenge, Violence, and Gun Abuse, Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 48 S2 (2020): 172-178 (explaining how neuroscience and behavioral studies are beginning to reveal that the desire for revenge in response to grievances activates the same neural reward-processing circuitry as that of substance addiction and that a behavioral addiction framework may be appropriate for understanding and addressing violent behavior, including significant benefits from leveraging scientific and public health-oriented drug abuse prevention and treatment strategies that target drug cravings to prevent and treat violent behavior) Rowe, M., Kimmel, Jr., J., et al, A Pilot Study of Motive Control to Reduce Vengeance Cravings, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and The Law 46(4) 2018, Dec. 18 (compiling multiple studies, CDC and FBI data demonstrating that the desire for justice in the form of revenge or retaliation is the primary motive behind most acts of violence)

James Gilligan, M.D., Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (New York: Putnam 1996) 11-12 (“The first lesson that tragedy teaches…is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, for himself or for whomever it is on whose behalf he is violent…. Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.”)

Justice-Seeking as Craving/Addiction:

Kimmel, J., Jr., Rowe, M., A Behavioral Addiction Model of Revenge, Violence, and Gun Abuse, Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 48 S2 (2020): (NOTE: SAME AS ABOVE)

Rowe, M., Kimmel, Jr., J., et al, A Pilot Study of Motive Control to Reduce Vengeance Cravings, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and The Law 46(4) 2018, Dec. 18 (compiling multiple studies demonstrating that the desire for revenge (justice) is a powerful craving that activates the same neural circuitry in the brain as the desire for narcotics; also demonstrating the effectiveness of the Nonjustice System method in reducing revenge cravings)

Dominique Quervain et al, The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment, Science 27 August 2004, 305; 1254-58 (In 2004, Swiss researchers discover that the dorsal striatum—the part of the human brain that processes rewards such as the pleasure derived from desserts, desire, and narcotics—is also activated when humans inflict punishments upon wrongdoers. Using positron emission tomography, the scientists were able to observe the brains of human subjects during games in which they could use money units needed to win a game to punish other players who violated their trust. Study subjects who believed they were administering effective (as opposed to symbolic) punishment experienced increased activation in the caudate nucleus portion of the dorsal striatum and willingly expended a greater portion of their money units on punishment. In other words, they were willing to pay to get justice even if it might cost them the game because in getting even they experienced the same pleasure they received from eating a rich dessert, having sex or taking narcotics).

Tania Singer, et al., Empathic Neural Responses Are Modulated By The Perceived Fairness Of Others, Nature 2006 January 26; 439, 466-69 (In 2006, British researchers using brain imaging techniques confirm the findings of the Swiss researchers that the pleasure centers of the brain that control reward processing are activated when a punishment deemed to be just is meted out—but learn further that this phenomenon is more pronounced in males than females—and that, for males, the empathy centers of the brain, which allow humans to empathize with others, remained dull. Here we begin to see a reason why males are far more involved than females in justice-seeking activities (fighting, criminal justice, warfare, etc.), and are far more willing to risk everything, including their own lives, to experience these activities. Biologically speaking, men derive more pleasure from it and have a greatly reduced ability to empathize with the wrongdoer. The researchers also concluded that their study supports “the hyphothesis that humans derive satisfaction simply from seeing justice administered.”)

Strobel, A., et al, Beyond Revenge: Neural and Genetic Bases of Altruistic Punishment, NeuroImage, 54(1), 671-680 (2011) (In 2011, German researchers using both brain imaging and genetic testing techniques find that human subjects in an economic exchange game willingly punished wrongdoers who had cheated other players just as harshly as they if they had been cheated-on themselves. The researchers leading this study also observed activation of the nucleus accumbens—the region of the brain strongly implicated in narcotics addiction—when study subjects were personally involved in the administration of punishment. They also found that a genetic variation between study subjects of dopamine processing impacted nucleus accumbens activation, suggesting that people with different genetic makeups may experience the pleasure of justice-seeking differently. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Dreber, A, et al, Winners Don’t Punish, Nature 452: 348-50 (2008) (In 2008, researchers at Harvard University performed a study in which groups of human subjects were given the option of choosing cooperation, defection, or costly punishment as strategies to maximize their average payoff during economic cooperation games. After multiple rounds of the game with both the study subjects and a control group that had only the option of cooperation or defection, the researchers found that the groups that utilized the option of costly punishment increased the amount of cooperation within the game—but not the average payoff for utilizing the punishment option. The groups that obtained the highest total payoff during the game—the winners of the game—did not engage in costly punishment at all. This led the researchers to conclude that: “winners don’t punish” and that punishment is maladaptive in such situations.)

Chester, D.S., DeWall, C.N., The Pleasure of Revenge: Retaliatory Aggressions Arises from a Neural Imbalance toward Reward, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11, no. 7 (2016): 1173-1182, at 1178-80 (In 2016, US researchers show through fMRI activation of neural reward circuitry of addiction (nucleus accumbens) after provocative grievances administered to study subjects and conclude: "“These findings have clear implications for treatments and interventions that target reducing aggression…. [I]f aggression is motivated by reward then such treatments should adopt practices from addiction treatment models that often seek to mitigate the role of cravings and anticipated reward.”)

Conclusion: Overlaying the above studies, one can begin to see that even though “winners don’t punish” (and, conversely, that “only losers punish”), many individuals, particularly males, seek justice in the form of revenge against perceived wrongdoers despite the high personal cost because of the narcotics-like brain-biological pleasure that is derived from punishing perceived wrongdoers. One can also begin to see that for certain individuals who may have genetic variations in dopamine processing, the pleasure (and compulsion) to punish may be greater. This leads to the hypothesis of a “vulnerable brain” — a brain that is vulnerable both to substance abuse and justice-seeking, leading to enhanced antisocial/violent/criminal behavior.



These unprecedented levels of grievance are increasing the risk for revenge attacks in homes and communities across the United States, including homicide, domestic terrorism, intimate partner violence, and street and gang violence. Like heart attacks, revenge attacks should be treated as life-threatening medical emergencies.

A revenge attack occurs when: the desire to punish, retaliate, or seek revenge for real or imagined grievances or victimization overwhelms the brain’s ability to control violent behavior.

Data and studies from the FBI, US Secret Service, CDC, and researchers around the world show that retaliation in response to grievances is the single most important cause of human aggression and violence and the primary motive for intimate partner violence, youth violence and bullying, street and gang violence, lone-actor attacks, police brutality and abuse of force, and terrorism.

Recent neuroscience research reveals that harboring a grievance (a feeling of injustice or ill treatment) activates the same neural reward circuitry in the brain as narcotics.

Grievances appear to trigger powerful cravings, like drug cravings, to inflict suffering upon perpetrators of perceived wrongs or their proxies to relieve the pain of the grievance and make us feel better through retaliation (as opposed to intoxication).


FBI and US Secret Service studies have identified the following pre-attack behaviors of people who have perpetrated retaliatory violence:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with a grievance or injustice (real or imagined)

  • Expressions of anger or rage over a grievance or injustice that get worse or do not go away

  • Talking or writing about getting revenge or payback

  • Threats to hurt or kill others, especially the perceived source of the grievance or injustice

  • Acquiring or seeking access to weapons

  • Identifying targets to hurt or kill, especially the source of the grievance or injustice (targets may include individuals, groups or types of people, such as by race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, families/friends, and gangs)

  • Preparations to hurt or kill (training/practicing with weapons; acquiring or stockpiling ammunition, body armor, tactical gear; conducting surveillance of targets or locations)

  • Planning to hurt or kill, especially the perceived source of the grievance or injustice, including date, time, location, transportation, and site access


  • Act quickly; do not hesitate. Treat the warning signs of a revenge attack as a life-threatening emergency

  • Remove weapons and guns if it is safe to do so

  • If you may be the target of a revenge attack, go to a safe location immediately; if others may be at risk, warn them to seek safe shelter

  • Call for help – dial 911, the National Crisis Hotline (1-800-273-8255), or the FBI tip line (1-800-255-5324); or go to the nearest hospital emergency room or police station

  • If violence is not imminent, seek support or resources to help control revenge desires by accessing the resources on this website or consulting a trusted friend, counselor, or mental health professional


Mass Shootings in the United States

  • There is no standard definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, and different data sources—such as media outlets, academic researchers, and law enforcement agencies—frequently use different definitions when discussing and analyzing mass shootings.

  • For instance, when various organizations measure and report on mass shootings, the criteria they use in counting such events might differ by the minimum threshold for the number of victims, whether the victim count includes those who were not fatally injured, where the shooting occurred, whether the shooting occurred in connection to another crime, and the relationship between the shooter and the victims.

  • These inconsistencies lead to different assessments of how frequently mass shootings occur and whether they are more common now than they were a decade or two ago.

  • Data show that, regardless of how one defines mass shootings, perpetrators are likely to be men.

  • But several other characteristics that are statistically predictive of perpetration are still uncommon among offenders on an absolute level.

  • The rare nature of mass shootings creates challenges for accurately identifying salient predictors of risk and limits statistical power for detecting which policies may be effective in reducing mass shooting incidence or lethality.

  • Implementing broader violence prevention strategies rather than focusing specifically on the most-extreme forms of such violence may be effective at reducing the occurrence and lethality of mass shootings.


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