Skip to content

OpenLearn Live: 2nd August 2016

Updated Tuesday, 2nd August 2016

The mass killing that changed America, fifty years on. Then more free learning through the day.

OpenLearn Live makes the connection between the world you live in, and the world of learning and research. This page will be updated during the day

Yesterday, we caught up with the post-Convention world of US politics, and enjoyed some spurious correlations

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

78 Authors in search of a theory

Here's a question for fans of Only Connect: what links the actor Colin Firth, the Dalai Lama, the Parents Music Resource Center founder Tipper Gore and drug advocate Timothy Leary?

Does it make it any easier if we thrown in Harry Connick Senior (father of the more famous Harry Connick Jr), Friends alum Lisa Kudrow and Star Wars' Natalie Portman?

They've all authored (or co-authored) psychology publications. 

Scott O. Lilienfeld of Emory University and Steven Jay Lynn of Binghamton University have spent some time trawling through the archives and have contributed a paper, You’ll Never Guess Who Wrote That 78 Surprising Authors of Psychological Publications to Perspectives On Psychological Science. (Sadly, they missed the opportunity to invite a Kardashian to co-author.)

One of the small and nonguilty pleasures of life is to discover tidbits of information that enlighten, intrigue, and amuse as well as provide a bit of the unexpected. We suspect that many readers who share our fascination with psychological trivia will be surprised and delighted to discover that several celebrities, noteworthy historical and political figures, and individuals who otherwise have achieved visibility in one field or another have published scholarly works that have enriched our collective understanding of psychology. For example, many readers may not have supposed that British actor Colin Firth coauthored an article on the structural brain correlates of political orientation or that American writer Gertrude Stein penned articles on attention and motor automatism that eventually drew the attention of B.F. Skinner.

[Subscribers only] The full paper, with references

An open abstract

Free course: language and creativity

We've just launched something new in our collection of course extracts - an exploration of the soft interplay between language and creativity. For example, how words can be used in visual art. Like this:

John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright:

Here text acts as the main element of the composition. The work is by the Californian artist John Baldessari, who has been one of the leading figures in the development of conceptual art since the mid 1960s. The painting consists entirely of the one sentence, ‘I will not make any more boring art’, written out in cursive handwriting, down the length of a piece of paper. The design clearly mimics a school punishment – the repetitive writing out of a commitment not to engage in a particular act of bad behaviour in the future – and in his notes about the origin of the work, Baldessari explicitly refers to it as a ‘punishment piece’ (Curator Chrissie Iles on John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 2010). The genre of the written text is thus very familiar. However, the fact that it is on display in a gallery, plus the way the content of the statement references the act of creating works of art (rather than, for example, failing to hand one’s homework in on time), combine to produce its creative effect. Here, then, in terms of both the content of what is written and, crucially, the form in which it is written (the cursive handwriting, the repetition, etc.), text is being used as the primary resource for the work of art.

Try our free course extract Language and creativity

Fifty years on: The Texas University shootings

This week, we're exploring the world at the start of August 1966 - the week that England won the World Cup. We're looking at the other events that happened that week. Yesterday, it was the Beatles 'bigger than Jesus' comments. Today, we're staying in America, and one of the incidents which could be seen as a grisly markerpost on the route to the world we live in now: the campus shootings at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Tower, University of Texas at Austin in c.1980 Creative commons image Icon Larry D Moore under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

This wasn't the first mass random killing of civilians in America; not even the first in post-war, urban America. In 1949, Howard Unruh had shot 13 people as he wandered around Camden County, New Jersey. But there is something about the method of murder that Charles Whitman chose which makes it seem like it was the first of a type of crime which would become - which still feels - horribly common.

The Guardian of fifty years ago today included a short report on the killings:

A sniper climbed to the top of the 27-storey tower of Texas University here today and killed 10 people with rifle and pistol fire before police shot him dead. He was identified as Charles Whitman, 24, a student from Florida.

Police said that Whitman's wife and mother were later found dead. The wife was stabbed at their home and the mother died in her flat here.

At least 33 people were wounded in an 80-minute fusilade of shors fired by the sniper. Perched high above the campise main hall, her fired during the noon-hour rush until police overwhelmed him.

The actual total of those killed by Whitman was seventeen - his two relatives; fourteen during his time on the campus; and a further death in 2001 attributed to injuries received at the time.

As the shooting started, those on the campus didn't know what was happening. Campus shootings weren't a class of event that happened. Elizabeth Crook's book Terror At Noon records how people tried to fit the sudden crumpling of bodies, and the sudden spread of fear, into a framework that would make sense in a university context:

He looked up as the sound repeated. It reminded him of deer hunting and the concussion of rifle shots in a canyon. A student with a crew cut who was near the window stood up and looked out over the crown of an oak tree, and the professor paused from his lecture.

“There’s something happening on the mall,” the student said. 

A girl got up and looked out. “I think it’s something to do with the drama department.”


“Someone in the Tower’s shooting people on the plaza,” Wyatt called over his shoulder as he started for the professor’s office.

“Is this the experiment in psychology?” the girl called after him. “The one where they see if we’ll go help?”

“Don’t go outside!” he shouted back.

Nevertheless, as captured by Texas Monthly's oral history of the shooting, 96 Minutes, people quickly realised that this was a pivotal moment:

GAYLE ROSS was a junior [student at the time]. She is [now] records supervisor at the Plano Police Department. 
I knew this was no ordinary day. It had that same feeling of time isolated, of before and after, that the Kennedy assassination had. My reaction was “Oh, no, not again.” You knew that after this day, this moment, nothing would ever be quite the same again. There was a quality of suspended animation. Normal life had stopped, and for this little space of time, everything revolved around the Tower and that man.

Even fifty years ago, even as the sniper was still shooting, the question of gun control was being threaded through the events:

A crowd had gathered a few blocks away at Scholz Garten. Harper Scott Clark, who was there, described the scene for Colloff. Among the college students, Clark said, was a businessman in starched jeans and boots.

“Well, I hope they get him off that Tower pretty quick,” the businessman said, “because the anti-gun people are going to go crazy over this.”

Both gun control advocates and gun rights advocates quickly saw support for their causes in the killings. In 2015, Whitman was invoked both by those who proposed, and opposed, laws allowing the carrying of guns on Texan university campuses.

Although members of the public had been shooting back at Whitman, it was the police who eventually stopped the spree. One of the officers, Houston McCoy,  told the FBI in 2008 how ill-prepared he and his colleagues had been to respond to a mass shooting:

“The training was, you’re a policeman,” McCoy says, in a raspy twang. “You’re required to enforce all federal and state laws and city ordinances and keep the peace and that was our sworn oath.”

He pauses.

“But no, we didn’t have any training for anything like that. Nobody had even thought about anything like that ever happening.” He was 26 — one year older than the gunman.

When he went out on the observation deck to confront Whitman, was he wearing a bulletproof vest?

“No,” he says. “I’d never heard of one.”

Was there a plan?

“There was no plan,” he says.

McCoy struggled to cope with what had happened; he retired from the police two years later.

The killings made it clear that campuses needed to adapt to a changing world. Two years later, the University of Texas founded its own police department. Other police departments around the country started to form and train their own Special Weapons And Tactics [SWAT] teams. Police responses to future events would be better prepared. As prepared as you can be for events so out of the ordinary.

But not all the responses to the murders were about taking up arms. The 1966 Connally Commission was established to try and make sense of how a former Marine had brought so much destruction to so many lives. Amongst the responses to the report, Stuart Brown's was notable. He sought to bring play into children's lives:

His investigation of Whitman later led Brown to study others with violent behavior, and he eventually focused on the importance of play.

Play is something done for its own sake, Brown said, seemingly purposeless activity that’s just fun. It must be voluntary and without the anxiety about outcomes that typify competitive sports. While it’s difficult to define, Brown said, play arises from deep centers in the brain and is one of the brain’s best forms of exercise. Play also gives the brain courage to develop ideas, he said.

Play is never just one thing; each person plays differently, with temperament, gender and culture influencing the pattern. Its origins are pre-verbal. Babies are at play when they coo and giggle at their smiling mothers. More complex play builds on this base, Brown said.

Play opens the brain to new ideas, and it promotes resiliency, flexibility, adaptability, tolerance and empathy. It very much molds who a child is and who he becomes, Brown said. “It’s absolutely crucial for normal development.”

But if there is serious early play deprivation, there are social and emotional deficits, including a lack of trust, empathy, altruism and ability to sustain intimacy, Brown said.

“The toxic effects of play deprivation kill off our society,” he said.

Brown's National Institute for Play studies play from a scientific angle, and encourages the use of freeform play as an aspect healthy of child development.

Children joyfully playing might seem a long way from the darkness of a sniper up tower, taking lives. And Brown doesn't suggest it's the only answer to the question 'what makes a killer?'. But if encouraging play can help, that can't be a bad outcome, can it?

Making sense of sudden mass death

What happens in the mind of a witness?

See more from OpenLearn on Psychology





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?