Psychology of a Serial Killer

Topics: Psychopathy, Psychology, Antisocial personality disorder Pages: 10 (2929 words) Published: November 8, 2012

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.


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...

References: APA. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Text Revision (4th ed.). Washington DC: APA.
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