The Bulletproof Mind Pt.2 “the good, the bad, and the ugly”


Bullet anatomy (numbered)
Bullet anatomy (numbered) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well…I spent the day listening to Lt. Col. (Ret) David Grossman’s “The Bulletproof Mind” presentation at a nearby state university. For those not familiar with Grossman’s work, he is a career soldier and former Psych professor from West Point who appeared on the radar after publishing a book titled “On Killing:The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”, which was nominated for a Pulitzer. In a nutshell the book states that humans have an innate aversion to killing and will avoid it at all costs unless one is a sociopath, that this aversion can be overcome through training but at a psychological cost, and finally that the reasons for increased school/mass shootings is due to the operant conditioning of our children via violent imagery in media and video games. He has leveraged the success of this book into other books as well as becoming a topic expert and motivational speaker on the issue of killing and the mental preparation and training of “warriors”. The “Bulletproof Mind” speaking series is intended for LE officers/Military Personnel  and deals with “active shooter” incidents and how “sheepdogs” can deal with death and killing.

A brief synopsis of the presentation:

  • A listing and narrative of multiple mass homicides. With critique of school and LE preparation (or lack thereof) and responses.
  • Overcoming denial – The “It wont happen here” thing. (almost to the point of inducing paranoia IMO..but more later on that)
  • A speech about measures and techniques that can be taken to deal with/prepare for  mass homicides.
  • How violent media and video games play a role in the increase of violence and mass homicide shooters.
  • How the Police and armed citizenry are the first line of defense. The Sheep/Sheepdog speech.
  • The physiological/psychological reaction to combat, combat breathing and dealing with PTSD.
  • The “You are our Warriors..go out and fight for all that is good in our world” hooyah! Send off.

This was a day long presentation and I am not going to rehash his entire speech. I have seen his entire work offered on youtube for those looking. What I will say is that he does a good job of taking a few basic principles with valid implications and making his point with them and that is part of my criticism of his stuff as well. I think that sometimes he takes valid points and stretches them a bit too thin in order to cover a large issue.

I think that in “On Killing” Grossman points to some anecdotal evidence and uses it to support his theory regarding mans inhibition against killing his fellow man. One instance is the “multiple loading” of Civil War era weapons. He states that many rifles/muskets were found double or triple loaded (which there were) and that this is evidence that soldiers loaded and aimed their weapons to please their peers/leaders but wouldn’t pull the trigger, so they just loaded another round on top of the old one. Perhaps…but it avoids another more likely scenario that Civil War soldiers were scared shitless facing off at spitting distance, forgot to put a cap on the nipple and pulled the trigger thinking they did fire in all the fear, noise, smoke and confusion. This is just one lone example, but there is a thread of this sort of thing that I found in some of his work.

The same thing can be said about the video game issue. I have no doubt that the media DOES play a role in school violence, but life is not so simple that one thing can take all the blame. Where are the parents in the equation while Junior is spending all day watching Saw and playing Grand Theft Auto after setting the cat on fire?

So as a general critique of Grossman’s work, I detect a hint of using “evidence” to support a preconceived concept vs. forming an opinion based on evidence. There was also a hint of fear mongering. While I accept and agree with the premise of preparation and not falling into the “It won’t happen here” trap, there was a large chunk of overstatement of the “IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN!!!” type going on. School shootings and terrorist attacks ARE statistically rare. The odds of any one of us being affected by one IS slim. That does NOT mean that it could never happen to us. The people of Columbine could have rightfully thought the same thing up till 1110hrs on April 20th. The question is how much of our life, freedom and stomach lining should we sacrifice to that possibility? Mr. Grossman referenced Gavin DeBecker’s book the “Gift of Fear” as being seminal, but he seems to have missed explaining DeBeckers point about being prepared but not “living in unwarranted fear”.

That is not to say that much more of what the man had to say wasn’t dead on. We DO have to get our heads out of our asses and look at public safety and security as being as vital as fire safety. Mr. Grossman repeatedly makes reference to all of the fire safety measures we have in place; fire drills, alarms, sprinklers, fire codes, signs, hoses, extinguishers, etc. and how we accept them and their added costs even though the odds of dying in a fire are minuscule. Conversely, when we talk about taking safety precautions like, lockdown drills, locking doors and having armed security in schools/malls we are accused of being paranoid. I agree that trained and armed citizens and off-duty officers are the best and probably only chance to stop these crazies before they can kill the next record amount of victims. He states that we rise and fall to our level of training and that “force on force” training with simunitions and airsoft is perhaps the best tactical advancement of our generation…right on! He’s also a big proponent of hunting as instilling warrior traits, much as I have stated previously in this blog.

Perhaps the most interesting thing he said as it relates to the topic of this blog was the following… “Screw Golf!!!”

If I heard him correctly, Col. Grossman stated that he was publishing a work of science fiction and a line from it was “Screw Golf…a golf course is a waste of a good rifle range.” His point was that Warriors…people asked and expected to move towards the sound of the guns and deal with the wolf at the gate…should not waste their free time doing frivolous activities. If a “warrior” wants to have a “fun time” hobby to unwind it should be something like shooting, hunting, fitness training, martial arts, weapons training and other “warrior hobbies”…or at least reading or writing about them. Perhaps a bit overdramatized for effect, but I get his point…as anybody who reads the stuff here can tell.

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22 thoughts on “The Bulletproof Mind Pt.2 “the good, the bad, and the ugly””

  1. I agree with you that Grossman is quite the exaggeration. I’ve heard about his speech before and the descriptions and I pretty much agree with your post, especially of his paranoia of terrible things will certainly happen.

    In research in general, we call his “proof” of his theories using anecdotal evidence as selection bias.

    I’m skeptical about his book being nominated for a pulitzer prize as the pulitzer website did not list his name or book anywhere. So it’s likely someone submitted his nomination, but is not nominated by the Pulitzer jury.

    1. Yes,

      I dont want to seem to be coming down too hard on the man. I respect his work and accomplishments. As I stated he has much that I solidly agree with and he is garnering some solid success with all of this, its hard to argue against success…but after looking at his vitae on his web site, I cant help but feel that a substantial part of his success comes from resting on his military record and being a hooya supporter of LE/MIL types vs. a really solid-peer reviewed- scientific basis to his theories.

  2. I just read this story and with all the concern about school shootings I wanted to pass on something I bought not only for myself who travels but I also bought one for my niece and nephew. A company in Boston called MJ Safety Solutions makes a bullet proof backpack called the my Childs pack. I originally wasn’t sold on the idea but with all the stories I have been reading about with swat teams practicing in schools this is obviously a real problem these days and decided to take a proactive measure with my sisters kids. I don’t know if anyone has had to use one of these bullet proof backpacks yet but if it saves one person the guys in Boston did a good thing. Their website is http://www.bulletblocker.com

    1. Not meaning to be judgmental..if buying a bulletproof backpack makes one feel better and relieves some worry/anxiety, then go right ahead.

      IMO..I see many companies taking advantage of peoples media driven anxiety over a statistically rare possibility to make a healthy buck. You would be better prepared by teaching your children WHAT to do during school violence than you would be covering them in body armor. One is a quicker and easier fix though…

  3. I hit your blog from a Google News Alert on “school violence”. I have presented at the same conference with Lt. Grossman. He is an excellent presenter and the audience of officers and superintendents gained some real insight with his information. Without his background or research, it is hard for me to judge much of what he says. Technologically and tactically, we do need to be prepared, but can we also make a positive impact with the family and community.

    The family is a critical component to any child’s life. When it comes to education, no greater statistic stands truer today than the achievement gap between students whose parents are involved in their education process and those who do not have that support. Personal responsibility, safety and education are key elements to bringing up the next generation.

    After 10 years of experience leading a volunteer program in my children’s elementary and middle schools, Schools And Families Engaged (the S.A.F.E. TEAM on Campus) was launched in 2008 to meet the needs of schools and families. Many of the school’s families do not know where to begin in school. Many parents today never had an example of their parents supporting the school let alone they may not have enjoyed their personal schooling experience. Why would they have a desire to serve? You only know what you have experienced.

    Make time to check out our site http://www.thesafeteam.com . On the About SAFE page, click on the 40 Developmental Assets link. This will tie in all the benefits of families and communities supporting their students both in school and out of school.

    1. Absolutely. This issue is far too large to expect a change in one single aspect to make ALL the difference. I respect the efforts of people such as yourself. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  4. Let’s face it, he’s a military man with a degree. In approach, I think what Grossman has done is called Inductive reasoning. He ‘introduced’ information that supports a theory/idea. THerefore, it is assumptive and not clinical. He sought research that supported his idea. And, as mentioned it is primarily anecdotal.

    What his work lacks is deductive reasoning. Spreading all the information out on a table (so to speak) and letting the data lead you to meaningful conclusions.

    There’s just enough science in his work to be convincing to the ‘average joe’ … especially when he packages ‘simple’ ideas as the roots of evil such as video games or lack of sports and so on…

  5. Outstanding critique of Grossman’s pitch. You should’ve called the post “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
    BTW, hey prmartin, what the hell does “Let’s face it, he’s a military man with a degree” mean?

  6. BTW, hey prmartin, what the hell does “Let’s face it, he’s a military man with a degree” mean?

    Well, it means that he’s trained to follow BAMCIS and that is obviously how he approaches his research as well.

    Begin the planning
    Arrange Recon
    Make Recon
    Complete the planning
    Issue Orders
    Supervise activities

    BAMCIS.

    This approach gets missions accomplished but it is NOT scientific even if it is systematic.

    The general criticism of Grossman says the same thing: His proof/evidence is self validating and a bit thin in the substantive department. Good ideas, big leaps.

    If we were to do an Author’s Biographic critique, I’m pretty sure that his degree in Counseling Psych is also going to create a ‘diagnostic’ approach to Psychology as opposed to an observational approach.

    If his lack of a combat record (as evidenced by the lack of Expeditionary medals and such) and his extensive Counsellor training is any indication of how and why he is an expert on the topic of Killology, then it makes sense that most of his “research” is interview based.

  7. Okay, Devil Dog, got it. Although as an Army guy he’d’ve probably called it the 8-step TLP.
    And though I’d agree with your assessment of Grossman’s approach, I would also posit that most military guys would use their training in organizing their decision making skills in an academic environment to apply it to the process rather than the product, ie, using a BAMCIS-type template to strengthen the research and scientific method rather than undercut it to reach the end product sooner (and via an easier path).
    I do know that Grossman relied heavily on SLA Marshall’s research for his first book. Military historians with a statistical bent claim that Marshall’s numbers and methodology are highly suspect, but Grossman has always refused to entertain arguments that the research that serves as his findings’ foundation might be in any way flawed.
    Didn’t mean to misconstrue your remark, just seen too many cases where “military guy with a degree” = he’s still a booger eating moron despite the paper training, and maybe took it a little personally.
    Hey, I’m not just another beautiful body–I’ve got a mind, too, y’know.

  8. No problem Boss M, I get it. Marines are either the guys who dressed nice so the Navy had someone to dance with on the ships OR unscrewed the top of their heads for the Brain Removal process. Everyone seems to forget how smart servicemen/women have to be to navigate the caste system of the military as well as gain professional proficiency.

    You bring up a good point that Grossman won’t even address the critical analysis of his research (or Marshall’s research that he is piggy backing on). That choice could lead people to interpret it as an insecurity in his foundation. If you make yourself a public figure, you have to accept the fact that you won’t be defending your thesis once ( as in his Master’s Thesis) but every time you thrust an idea as ‘the’ idea worth listening to more than others.

  9. If we were to do an Author’s Biographic critique, I’m pretty sure that his degree in Counseling Psych is also going to create a ‘diagnostic’ approach to Psychology as opposed to an observational approach.

  10. Grossman is simply a superb marketer. He attempts to cherry-pick some data that appears to support his conclusions.

    At one step of remove it is clear that his premise of humans having an aversion to killing, is patently false as the genocidal campaigns of the last half-century will attest. You need a whole lot of psychopaths pull off a Cambodia, Serbia, Rwanda, or Darfur.

  11. Boss Mongo brought up SLA Marshall…I just read “The Biggest Brother”. Maj. Dick Winters’ biography.

    After Winters’ operation at Brecourt Manor, Marshall showed up to interview Winters. Winters complained that Marshall completely misrepresented the operation in his book “Night Drop” and didnt even seem to really care for Winters’ description while he was giving it. Almost as if Marshall already had a preconcieved opinion.

    Personally. I think that Grossman relying so heavily of Marshalls “Men Under Fire” for his “On Killing Theory” was a mistake.

  12. I’ve thought about attending a Grossman presentation to see for myself. I read *On Killing* last year, and was so disgusted that I wrote a 17-page review. I’ve seen him as a pundit on television a few times, and have read the short essay he wrote before *Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill*; between those things and the book, he definetely has the demeanor of a popular authority.

    I have to give the guy due credit for making himself into a celebrity of sorts. But the public made it happen by an uncritical adoration for his earliest books. Who would be motivated to follow a scientific methodology when the appeal to pathos is so lucrative?

  13. His post-911 ‘warriors, hell yeah!’ brand is fine if uninspired. I’m sure he could write a good Hallmark card to sell to LEOs and soldier’s families on Sept 11th anniversaries.

    But as I go through more and more of his writings I find myself saying ‘so?’ Marketing alone does not a thesis make.

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