Psychology of a Serial Killer Essay

Throughout history there have been many infamous serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy. Many psychologists have tried to determine what exactly these killers have suffered from. There are psychologists who believe that just psychological disorders are the reason, while others believe that it is the environment. There is some merit to both of these cases, but only a few who are diagnosed with these disorders and the environment they reside in cause the damage. However, seeking help when young can reduce the factors of becoming a serial killer.

It is hard to determine what makes a serial killer since the most successful serial killers are the ones who blend into society, possibly your coworker with a loving wife and three children. In this paper there will be a look at psychological disorders that serial killers suffer from (i. e. antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy). There is also the idea of nature and nurture, and what roles they play in the creation of a serial killer. Also being discussed is a look at the psychology of a kill and what goes into a killer’s modus operandi and the signature.

Finally, there will be a look at consistency in behavior, from the general public down to serial killers, and behavioral change. PSYCOPATHY AND ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER Psychopath is a term that is used quite frequently today. Psychopathy is not just about the bad things that people do, but it is a specific set of personality traits that include emotional shallowness, superficial charm, impulsivity, deceitfulness, unreliability, manipulation, and lack of empathy. Most often psychopathy is associated with criminal behavior; however, not all criminal behavior can be related to psychopathy.

A husband who murders his wife in a jealous rage does not lack the remorsefulness or emotional emptiness of someone with psychopathy. The most contemporary definition of psychopathy relies heavily on the work of Cleckley (1941), who is credited with the first comprehensive description. He created sixteen criteria for diagnosing psychopathy. The Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003) was designed from Cleckey’s criteria and appears to be the most commonly used classification system for diagnosing psychopathy.

The PCL-R is based on a criteria that include aggressive narcissism, socially deviant lifestyles, criminal versatility, and having many marital relationships; basically identifying a form of pathology that is associated with high levels of anti-social behaviors and specific forms of emotional impairment. Across a variety of samples, two stable, correlated factors have emerged. Factor 1 consists of items that assess interpersonal and affective traits of psychopathy. Factor 2 consists of the chronically unstable and socially deviant lifestyle that is correlated with the criteria for antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

The APA defines antisocial personality disorder as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and the violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood. ” (APA, 2000). Basically, those diagnosed with ASPD, who are commonly referred to as a sociopath or psychopath, have little to no ability to feel empathy. Those with ASPD are known to lie and steal, and often have problems controlling their behavior and emotions. They most often tend to display superficial charm.

DSM-IV (APA, 2000) and PCL-R overlap considerably and most of the PCL-R criteria is represented within the DSM-IV criteria for ASPD. Thus, those diagnosed with psychopathy will meet criteria for ASPD, but there is only a small number of those diagnosed with ASPD that will be diagnosed with psychopathy. However, differences do arise in the two sets of criteria. PCL-R criteria of lack of empathy, glibness, superficial charm, and grandiose of self-worth are absent from DSM-IV criteria for ASPD. Factor 1 negatively corresponds to measures of anxiety and neuroticism, while Factor 2 directly corresponds to these measures.

Factor 2 directly corresponds to impulsivity, sensation seeking, and anger. ASPD criteria is strongly associated with Factor 2 but weakly associated with Factor 1. Most often those diagnosed with ASPD tend to be exceptionally charming. In 1970, crime writer Ann Rule began work in a police department on a series, of then unsolved, murders of young women in Washington State. She was later shocked to learn that the man arrested in 1975 of the crimes was Ted Bundy, someone she had later become friends with while working alongside him for years on the same crisis hotline.

Also, Eric Harris happily charmed his coworkers in his juvenile rehabilitation center into believing he was repentant for a minor theft while at the same time collecting bombs and guns for a planned murder spree at Columbine High School. NATURE AND NURTURE The debate of nature versus nurture is of modern origin. After the Renaissance, the movement toward empiricism brought philosophers who proposed that our ideas come from our experiences. The concept of nurture was born, and it was so strong that late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was believed that all behavior could be explained entirely by environmental influence.

Personality was considered to be a person’s conditioned response to a given environment. Around the same time, the understanding of genetics provided evidence of hereditary traits, giving the argument that our traits and identity is predetermined. Thus, the debate of nature versus nurture was born. Today, it is the understanding that it is neither nurture nor nature that contributes solely to one’s identity, but it is a combination of both of them that influence us. Who we become is the collection of genetic and environmental influences.

Some of our identity is easy to distinguish between nature and nurture (i. e. nature determines our blood type, while nurture determines the language we speak). However, not all components are easily distinguishable. We inherit a set of traits, but or environment determines how those traits are expressed. Two inherited personality traits are strongly associated with psychopathy: callousunemotional and fearlessness. Inheriting a callous-unemotional trait puts the individual at a high risk of developing antisocial behavior.

Children with normal levels of fear may hesitate before engaging in situations that cause punishment, but in fearless children they engage in the situation even knowing they could be punished for their actions. Although psychopaths inherit several traits that push them toward antisocial behavior, possessing these traits alone does not predict psychopathy. Hereditary traits only increase an individual’s vulnerability to conduct problems if they are exposed to certain situations (i. e. childhood abuse or neglect).

Distressing situations in childhood, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can lead to a lifetime of behavioral problems. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF A KILL Victimology The first element of a crime scene is victimology. It is simply the characteristics of the killer’s victims. Victimology can range widely from the victim’s age, race, gender, occupation, physical appearance, relationship status, or perceived vulnerability. In some cases there is an identifiable likeness to the victims (e. g. hair color, facial structure, etc. ).

While in other cases, no identifiable likeness can be found. In many cases, understanding a serial killer’s victimology can give a better understanding of the killer’s psychological traits. For example, John Wayne Gacy’s victims were young men in their late teens and early twenties. Modus Operandi The Modus Operandi, often referred to as the MO, is the specific steps in which a serial homicide killer takes in order to complete their crime. It describes a set of voluntarily learned behaviors that evolve as a result of the consequences created by the situation.

The MO consists of the way the killer approaches the victim, how they set up their kill, how they hold their victim, and how they dispose of the body. As most killers attempt to improve their skills and become more efficient, we can expect their MO to change as well. Ted Bundy often broke into the homes of his victims, young women, to abduct them. He had his own set of burglary tools and a mask and handcuffs for the victim. The Signature The signature, or calling card, is the final and most important part of the crime scene.

This is the criminal behavior that entails all aspects of the killer’s behavior that go beyond those that are necessary to commit the crime (MO). The signature tends to be the most unique part of the killing process. An analysis of a killer’s signature can reveal psychological traits (i. e. because it involves parts of the crime that are not necessary for its completion). This may in fact point toward the personality and unique desires of the killer. Experts believe that an analysis of the signature can reveal the killer’s fantasies. This is important because fantasies are the driving force behind the offences committed.

When the killer strikes again, the fantasy will be repeated, thus becoming his/her signature. Jeffrey Dahmer kept photographs in his apartment of his victims. He also kept the head and genitalia of his victims. He had biceps and other muscles kept in his freezer, which he later consumed. BEHAVIORAL CONSISTENCY Consistency of general human behavior It has been proposed that in order to utilize crime scene behaviors as a way of linking crimes to one individual, it must be established that there is some identifiable pattern of a criminal’s behavior that remains stable across crimes (Grubin et al. 2001). However, in order to better understand the consistency in criminal behavior it is necessary to understand the behavioral patterns in general (i. e. had there been no consistency in human behavior, as humans do not behave randomly, it is reasonable to assume there will be patterns that will emerge in a criminal’s behavior as well). Mischel and Shoda (1995) proposed that each individual has a cognitive affective personality system that directly influences the behavior of an individual in a given situation. Shoda et al. 1994) proposed that it is neither the personal nor situational variables alone that account for an individual’s behavior, but instead a combination of the two in a given situation. The authors concluded that there is a connection between an individual and a situation which results in a distinctive ‘behavioral signature’ (p. 675) that tends to remain consistent across situations. These behavioral signatures are interpreted by the individual as psychologically similar. Applying Shoda et al. ’s (1994) findings, it can be concluded in situations where the goal is the same (e. g. rape, homicide, etc. and it is viewed as psychologically similar by the individual, then there should be considerable consistencies in behavior. Consistency of criminal behavior As it applies to criminal behavior, the consistency hypothesis by Canter (1994) states that ‘the way an killer carries out one crime on one occasion will have some characteristic similarities to the way he or she carries out the crimes on other occasions’ (p. 347). Thus, if research is to aid law enforcement in the identification of crime scene behaviors of an individual for linking purposes, then understanding criminal behavioral consistency is crucial.

Grubin et al. (2001) examined the consistency of similar crime scene behaviors across multiple crimes that serial sexual offenders displayed. In order to accomplish this, the authors created four domains composed of behaviors that are from the various aspects of sexual assault. The behaviors were categorized into control, sex, escape, or style. The authors examined the series of each rapist in order to determine if the rapist consistently displayed behaviors within the same domain type. Of the serial rapists, 83% were found to consistently display at least one of the four domain types throughout their series (i. . constant use of the same type of control, or the same type of sexual behaviors, etc. ) Only 26% of the sample used the same four domain types over several assaults within their series. Overall, it was discovered that the behaviors within the control domain, revealed the highest consistency between crimes. Behavioral consistency in serial homicide While it has been suggested that a serial killer’s behavior will remain consistent throughout his or her series of homicides, few studies have focused primarily on the behavioral consistency of these killers.

Behavioral consistency in serial homicide can only be of use in the purpose of linking crimes to an individual only if the behaviors are constant but also distinct from another series. For example, if it is a consistent behavior for a serial killer to leave the victim in a remote area, but it occurs in most serial homicides in general, then it is of little use to try and link the two separate incidents to one individual. Bateman and Salfati (2007) examined behaviors by 90 serial killers across 450 homicide crime scenes to determine the consistency through the serial killers’ series.

Subgroups of behaviors (body disposal, planning and control, mutilation, sexual offences, theft, and weapon) were looked at as well and behaviors in each of these subgroups. Out of the 35 serial crime scene behaviors only four behaviors were seen consistently over each of the homicides. Only one of the behavioral subgroups was present: planning and control category. The amount of inconsistency was more present then the consistency of behaviors. BEHAVIORAL INCONSISTENCY AND BEHAVIORAL CHANGE

Funder and Colvin (1991) suggested that what people deem behaviors consistently over multiple situations may not be so much behavior at all but actually underlying psychological traits. Behaviors perceived by the killer to be interchangeable may actually be inconsistent. Showers and Cantor (1985) explain that a change in an individual’s consistency may change based on the situation and the goal, ‘analyses of cognitive strategies reveal meaningful patterns of behavioral variation; but those strategies can and will change in line with the situational contingencies and individual’s goals’ (p. 277).

Indeed, Salfati (2000, 2003) stated that homicide is an interaction between the killer and the victim. How the victim reacts during the assault can have a direct impact on how the killer acts (i. e. a victim that is submissive may be treated differently than a victim that resists and tries to fight back). If this is the case, then the situation makes the killer adapt their behavior and change the initial strategy in order to complete the homicide. As a serial killer begins to progress and evolve, the individual may need to employ new strategies and behaviors to allow for fulfillment of their fantasy.

The killer’s inability to fulfill their fantasy may provoke change in the amount of risk taken and the behavior in planning. Individuals engage in an active and continuous process of setting goals and adjusting their behavioral patterns to match their goals. The need for control in the fantasy and behavior of the killer and any loss of control may result in behavioral changes, such as increased kill rate or sloppiness (Hickey, 2006). Grubin et al. (2001) suggested that as the series progresses, the killer’s goals may begin to change. As the killer becomes more accomplished with their goals in early crimes, they begin to change their goals.

This may be due to the fact that the killer’s fantasy evolves over time. There may be a direct relationship between the content of violent fantasies and the behaviors engaged during the crime. These fantasies are filled with violence and begin to serve as the original plan for the killer’s behavior. The role of fantasy is crucial to the serial killer as it provides the rationale, ritual, motive, victimology and satisfaction. DISCUSSION Serial killers have been around for centuries all over the world, but what goes on psychologically to create the serial killer?

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