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Objective: To better understand the implications of applying different labels to perpetrators of mass violence.

Method: Two experiments (Study 1 N= 307 college students, Study 2 N= 696 community sample recruited through Prolific Academic) were conducted to examine U.S. public perceptions of “terrorist”, “lone wolf”, and “mass shooter” (only in Study 2) labels. In both studies, participants were randomly assigned to consider one of the terms and respond to prompts about the assumed demographic characteristics and traits of the perpetrator. In Study 2, participants also responded to prompts about the appropriate consequences for the perpetrator and the best policies to address violence committed by that type of perpetrator.

Results: Participants displayed much overlap in their characterizations and responses to the labels, but important distinctions emerged, particularly with the terrorist label. Across studies, the terrorist was perceived as more religious while lone wolf and mass shooter were perceived as more likely White and U.S. citizens. The terrorist was characterized by group and ideological characteristics and more highly associated with several demonizing traits, while the lone wolf and mass shooter were characterized as more depressed, sad, and lonely. The terrorist label evoked less support for mental health treatment, and more support for tracking associates of the perpetrator and increasing military involvement.

Conclusions: Awareness of the different associations evoked by perpetrator labels will help to avoid biases in their application and can shape how mass violence and its consequences are conceptualized by the public.


Note: This is the preprint version. The final published version of the article can be found here: Campbell-Obaid, M. & Lacasse, K. (2023). A perpetrator by any other name: Unpacking the characterizations and consequences of the “terrorist”, “lone wolf”, and “mass shooter” labels for perpetrators of mass violence. Psychology of Violence, 13(5), 425–435.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.