Inside the mind of a serial killer: a psychologist’s perspective
Perhaps because of the extreme nature of their crimes, serial killers pose somewhat of an ethical quandary for society. What is the ‘correct’ response to those who devise and commit multiple murders? On the one hand, the actions of such individuals seem alien and abhorrent to the vast majority of citizens. Even so, the inner workings of serial killers’ minds have long since served to inspire morbid fascination amongst the general public.
Serial killing is also an area that is of great interest to psychologists as it represents one of the most extreme examples of human behaviour. How can actions so vile and uncompassionate be explained from a psychological perspective? An initial response might be to label serial killers as ‘mad’. However, evidence suggests that these crimes are often committed by individuals who – although very different from the rest of us – are completely rational. Even more worrying is the fact that before they are detained, many serial killers operate unnoticed within their communities for significant periods of time. By improving our understanding of the cognitive factors that help to create and motivate serial killers, psychologists are uniquely positioned to assist those tasked with identifying and incarcerating such criminals.
As part of last week’s Flavour of Psychology event organised by the Northern Ireland Branch of the British Psychological Society (NIBPS) and hosted at Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB), Professor Peter Hepper delivered a lecture on how psychology contributes to our understanding of serial killers. During his talk, Professor Hepper, a Member of the Behaviour Development and Welfare Research Cluster at QUB, addressed a range of related issues including why society is so intrigued by these individuals and how a person becomes a serial killer....
Why are the minds of serial killers so fascinating from a psychological perspective? Can they teach us anything about the minds of – for want of a better word – ‘normal’ people?
I would argue that all forms of human behaviour exist on a continuum. The behaviour of serial killers can be found at the extreme end of this line. In one sense, serial killers are totally abnormal; they are different from everybody else in society. However, the processes that have driven them to this point are the same as the ones that have affected every other human being who has ever lived. In this respect, the only thing that separates ‘us’ from serial killers is the outcome. Psychologists want to understand the factors that drive individuals to become serial killers. It is psychology’s job to explain human behaviour, and serial killing represents one of the most extreme forms of human behaviour.
Could you provide an example of the type of factor that might increase a person’s likelihood of becoming a serial killer?
One of the biggest challenges within this field is to explain what a serial killer is. We can do this in terms of the specific behaviour; serial killers are individuals who kill three or more people with a cooling-off period in between murders. However, some researchers have attempted to produce typologies of serial killers and to group them together. In my opinion, this is where things have gone wrong. Other than the fact that they have all murdered three or more people, serial killers are members of an extremely diverse group. There are many, many different paths that can lead to a person becoming a serial killer.
It is possible to look for certain influencing factors? - for example, some people have suggested that brain injury is important.
In the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy killed 33 young men across Chicago. He had previously suffered a serious brain injury after being knocked unconscious by a swing. However, the ‘brain injury’ argument doesn’t necessarily hold true when you investigate other serial killers. Ted Bundy murdered 30 young women during the same period yet he exhibited no signs of brain injury whatsoever. This is one of the main problems with this approach. The backgrounds of two serial killers who have committed comparable crimes might have very little in common with one another. At present, it simply isn’t possible to say that factor x causes a person to become a serial killer. This behaviour is undoubtedly the result of some combination of factors operating at a certain point during an individual’s life, but what these factors are, we just can’t say.
Given the diversity that you’ve just mentioned, can it ever be useful to create psychological profiles of serial killers who have yet to be apprehended?
I think that this strategy is potentially helpful from the perspective of law enforcement. Whilst profiling is never going to be able to provide the name of the individual responsible for a crime, it can help to narrow down the pool of suspects. Psychology, however, is interested in getting inside the serial killer’s head. Unfortunately, there exists such a multiplicity of factors that we are not yet in a position to group these people together appropriately, or to identify the most important drivers.
Obviously, the actions of serial killers disgust most members of society. With this in mind, why do you think we find these individuals so fascinating?
This really is a difficult question to answer. The crimes that serial killers commit are absolutely horrendous. In real life, nobody would want to be associated with these acts. However, for some unknown reason, books and TV programmes have been written with serial killers as their central figures. For example, in the Hannibal Lecter series, the title character has transmogrified into the antihero. Hannibal is now a ‘good’ serial killer in contrast with Buffalo Bill, who is a ‘bad’ one. In Showtime’s Dexter, we also see a ‘good’ serial killer. On reflection, this trend seems quite odd.
Many of us have a slightly darker side that has a tendency to become fascinated with things that lie beyond our comprehension. I think that this is partly the result of inquisitiveness – an attempt to understand actions to which we just cannot relate – but I believe that it’s also related to fear. Although rare, serial killers are random. They can pop up at any time and in any place. I would argue that the public’s fascination with this group is, in part, an attempt to reduce the latent fear that is evoked by serial killers.
What, in your opinion, are the most interesting avenues of contemporary research concerning the psychology of serial killers? Has our understanding of this group continued to advance over the years?
Yes, it has. For understandable reasons, the vast majority of research into serial killers has been conducted by individuals who are linked to law enforcement. Only recently has it started to move into the psychological arena. We need to address this extreme form of behaviour from a psychological perspective; to try to understand just what’s going on in the minds of serial killers. What causes them to do the things that they do? Why have they developed in this way? What are the main differences between serial killers? Psychologists want to create a clearer picture of what exactly is going on.
Do you think that psychology will ever be capable of identifying markers for this extreme behaviour before a person begins to kill?
I think that we will because I believe that psychology can endow us with an understanding of human behaviour. However, I think that the ability to spot potential serial killers is still a long way off. We need to develop a better understanding of the factors that drive these people; how certain events that happen to an individual can increase his or her likelihood of becoming a serial killer. Psychologists must identify the factors that have some predictive value in determining future behaviour.
But presumably, any new knowledge in this area would be useful. Even if it isn’t possible to identify markers in advance, a greater understanding could facilitate those working to apprehend serial killers…
That’s right. It may also be possible to identify factors that suggest a person is not a serial killer. We just don’t know at this stage. It all comes back to the level of specificity that we are able to achieve. At present, we’re still at the level of very general factors but as we explore the scene, these factors will become more and more specific. In the future, we might even be able to identify indicators for particular behaviours further down the line.
Are any of your current research activities related to the psychology of serial killers?
There is a general theme in my research that is related to this group. I am interested in behaviour development: prenatal learning, how we recognise our siblings, etc. When I started out as a psychologist, we looked at the individual and his or her behaviour as a whole. I am slightly concerned about the path that psychology has since followed. We now tend to ‘chop off’ little bits of behaviour in an attempt to understand them better. However, we don’t always replace these bits within the big picture. I want to return to a starting point whereby I try to understand why a person behaves as they do. Serial killing is of interest to me because it encompasses gross and extreme examples of human behaviour. If psychology is to succeed in understanding ‘the mind of the serial killer’, it must start by finding out why certain individuals exhibit these behaviours.