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Does fear of shootings keep people from public events? Local psych experts weigh in

As the victims of Sunday's mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas begin to come to terms with life after terror, even those who were safe miles away will have to face what another in a long list of shootings means for themselves, as they go about their own lives.

More than 50 people were killed and 500 injured late Sunday night when Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his room at the Mandalay Bay Resort, firing at concertgoers below at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.

For some hearing about the news from the safety of their home, an attack at a concert will keep them away from public events for months, maybe longer. Others will be ready to go to a concert the following weekend. Tragedies affect different people in different ways, the reactions as varied as the people who have them, experts say.

"It affects them strictly according to their personality," said Brik McDill, a retired psychologist. "Some people will start avoiding venues where there is a concentration of people; others will think, 'Nuts to that, I want to go!'"

McDill boiled down the different reactions by first explaining the "Big Five" personality traits of the OCEAN theory: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Those who are predominately open to experience, for example, are much less likely to be stopped from going to a concert out of fear than those with a more neurotic personality.

"The high Ns (neurotics) will be more fearful, timid," he said. "The O person is the one who says, 'They're not going to scare me.' They'll go right on with their lives. The C person will (think) 'I want to be careful, let's be cautious.'"

Luis Vega, a professor of social psychology at Cal State Bakersfield, said if people are so afraid of a potential terror attack that they are staying home and not going out to events that would otherwise interest them, it's time for some help, either from supportive family and friends, faith leaders in their church or mental health professionals. 

"I don't foresee that people will stop going to venues," Vega said. "That would be considered maladjustment."

"Virtual bystanders," as Vega calls those who hear about the event on the news or online, can encounter general anxiety. They can also be susceptible to misinformation out of a desperate need to make sense of the event, and they might blame a scapegoat to make them feel more in control. 

Getting past the fear of shootings and other acts of terrorism is not unlike the stages of grief, Vega said, where on the way to acceptance or normalcy, one often has to work through anger, depression or denial. Ultimately, it's human nature to trust in other people, he said, a part of tribal mentality and social support.

"Healing takes place when we accept that life is risky and engage in positive bias," Vega said, explaining that positive bias is the feeling that tragedies can happen to other people but not to oneself. Is that somewhat naive belief a good or bad thing? "That's normal; otherwise you can't function ... you would be paralyzed (by fear)."

Allison Evans, a psychology lecturer at CSUB, said tragedies like the shooting in Las Vegas do affect people who were not there, especially if one knows someone who was there who was possibly injured or killed. In an email, Evans wrote how the attacks can stop people from going to events, and that because of the 24-hour news cycle, it can be hard to avoid seeing the photos and stories of such tragedies.

"This event is what is most available in their memory (as other shootings like at Pulse Nightclub), and they use that as a reference for the 'commonality' of shootings," she wrote. "It’s normal and common to do this; however, statistically speaking, shootings at concerts versus overall concerts in America is extremely small. However, the power of the moment and the human suffering weighs more heavily on decision making, and often people will feel fearful to go out to public events."

That fear eventually wears off, Evans wrote, as people become desensitized to the violence and the violence becomes commonplace.

Even as shootings become more frequent, or seem to through non-stop news coverage, the probability is still low. So should people be scared to go and enjoy themselves at a concert?

"Absolutely not," McDill said. "They should get on with life. It's such a rare anomaly. A person's practical life should not be affected by it. The odds are so low, it should not affect a person's movement."

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.


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