Social development theory as it relates to Seung-Hui Cho

Mass indiscriminate shootings like that which happened in the Virginia Tech campus in 2007 are lurking nightmares in society. 32 people were killed and scores others were injured as a disgruntled and mentally disturbed student Seung-Hui Cho let loose his two guns in the sociology department building. When the police had rounded up the site of massacre, Seung-Hui turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Starting with the Columbine school shootout of 1999 the Virginia Tech incident is just one among a spate of high school shootouts. In the immediate aftermath, social commentators and public officials expressed utter shock and pain at what has happened. The catch phrases that came into circulation were ‘violence in video games’, ‘violence in films/music videos’, ‘rise of gang culture in urban America’, ‘dysfunctional family set up and upbringing’, ‘mentally deranged youth’, etc. All of these explanations are true to an extent. But they don’t account for the inevitability of what had transpired. (Jacobs & Asokan, 1999, p.51)

It is true that Seung-Hui Cho was highly emotionally distressed and had previously exhibited symptoms of selective mutism, extreme anxiety and depression. But it does not follow that it should lead to a mindless massacre. This is where social development theories of psychotherapy come into the picture. The social development analytic framework takes a holistic view of psychopathology. Most importantly, the solutions for an individual’s problem are sought in the community and institutions. Under this view, a troubled young man like Seung-Hui Cho will not be treated as the problem per se. Instead, his anti-social tendencies would be treated as symptoms of erroneous external social factors. So, psychotherapeutic intervention at an early stage is a key aspect of social development theory. (Jacobs & Asokan, 1999, p.51) Already there is evidence that Cho was on the anti-depressant Prozac in the months prior to the shootout. It is an established fact that teenagers exposed to Prozac can get suicidal or turn delirious. Yet, though Cho was only in his early 20s, he was prescribed medication without ascribing his parents to supervise his regular intake. It appears that there is poor or inadequate patient-parent-counselor interaction in the case of Cho.

Validating the relevance of social development theory to the maddening outbreak of Seung-Hui Cho is his long history of psycho-emotional difficulties. In the ensuing media frenzy after the event, many relatives of Cho were interviewed. Some of the elders in his extended family have noted how Cho was a very cold and silent kid growing up. They worried that something was wrong with him deep inside, although could not identify what the exact nature of the malaise was. But by the time Cho was a teenager his behavior was becoming deviant enough to call for psychiatric attention. The main drawback with current mental health intervention practices is its emphasis on ‘curing’ the individual patient at the exclusion of the social factors impinging on the patient. This is where social development theory is of much help, as it equally and adequately addresses shortcomings at both individual and social levels. (MacLay, 1990, p.32) It is an academic discussion to speculate after the fact whether intervention based on the social development theory would have prevented the Virginia Tech massacre. But it is reasonable to infer that adopting such an approach will reduce or minimize the frequency and scale of violent outbursts in the future. Since social development theory considers society as a key unit of analysis, it espouses social changes for issues confronting the individual. In this view, the tragic case of Seung-Hui Cho is as much a failure of the society at large as it is of the individual and his immediate family. Such being the case, the theory demands fundamental changes in people’s perception and attitude towards mental illnesses. It also apportions a collective responsibility for lapses in social harmony as witnessed during the Virginia Tech shootout.


Jacobs, Garry and Asokan, N. (1999). “Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Social Development”. Human Choice, World Academy of Art & Science, USA, p. 51
MacLay, George R. (1990). The Social Organism: A Short History of the Idea That a Human Society May Be Regarded As a Gigantic Living Creature. North River Press. ISBN 0-88427-078-5