What Makes a Murderer?

This post was written by contributor Riley Cook (MC’23). The post was edited by N. Locklin.

Over 3,000 serial killers have been identified in America since 1900. Approximately 10,000 lives were taken as a result of their actions. There are an estimated thirty serial killers operating every year in the United States. What makes a person want to harm and/or murder others? Through the years of 1919 to 1926 a serial killer terrorized towns in East Tennessee. There were a number of suspects, but no one was ever convicted for these crimes.

In the brain of a murderer, the area that controls violence is not typical. Researchers have found that the brain of a murderer has a deficiency in the frontal lobe. There are several circumstances that can cause this weakness in the frontal lobe, such as a mother smoking and/or drinking during pregnancy, shaken baby syndrome, or an abusive childhood. If a child does not get enough nutrients or has little or no attachment with their mother, the brain may not fully develop. In the early stages of development, an infant craves attachment and may become distraught when taken away from the caregiver. Attachment is the first sign that a baby is a human being and is dependent on others. Many serial killers never develop this feeling and do not see themselves as a part of the world. “A serial murderer has no feelings,” according to Dr. Helen Morrison, quoted in a 2012 interview with Business Insider’s Abby Rogers. “Serial killers have no motives. They kill only to kill an object.” The Night Marauder would not kill his victims unless they screamed because he loved seeing fear in women’s eyes. Some serial killers will perform experiments on their victims because they do not recognize their victims as fellow humans. “The complete lack of humanity is more than just being a psychopath because at least the psychopath has the capacity to express emotion,” concludes Morrison.

Morrison’s goal is to learn what causes serial killers to kill and how these people develop. The main trigger is a chromosome abnormality that starts showing during puberty which is also when people begin to express violent/murderous behaviors. There has yet to be a certain gene named, but scientists believe there is a change in the male chromosomal makeup. Heart rate can also be an indicator of a future serial killer. Statistics show that humans who act out through violence have a low resting heart rate. Scientists believe that low resting heart rates lessen the fear felt by the individual committing a crime. The fear holding other people back from committing crimes is absent in these people with low resting heart rates.

In the brain of a murderer, there is low to no activity in the frontal lobe. Their amygdalae are also shrunken, causing a lack of emotion. But not everyone with a weak frontal lobe is going to be a murderer. If there was a way to repair the damage done to the frontal part of the brain, murders, to some extent, could be stopped. Dr. Raine, a pioneer of neurological research at the University of Pennsylvania says that doctors now have the ability to scan children’s brains and predict which children are at risk of becoming future criminals.

Using motivational science to research murderous behaviors reveals certain common characteristics in violent individuals. When a psychopath is struggling in daily life, for example, they take their frustrations out through ways that are not socially acceptable. “These strategies are described as ‘self-handicapping’ behavior by psychologists and can take many shapes and forms, including self-harm, substance abuse, and even murder”, according to Bobby Hoffman, author of “Why We Kill, According to Motivational Science” in Psychology Today (2017). Goal attainment is a basic human need. When this cannot be reached, some people feel as if they have failed themselves. Normally people try again to achieve a goal with a different technique, but some do not and become frustrated. Frustration, in some individuals, can lead to murder. Murder is not that hard of a task. “One trigger-click and the unfulfilled killer has met a sordid goal”, says Hoffman. Emotional regulation, or emotional intelligence, is needed to solve problems that occur in modern life. Emotional intelligence has three aspects: Individuals with emotional intelligence have productive methods to cope with emotions, individuals with advanced emotional intelligence are more successful personally and professionally, and emotional regulation strategies that can be learned. Typically, violent people do not have ways to cope with emotions.

Emotions also continue with revenge in mind until the frustration is put to an end. In the mind of a criminal, murder might be the only source to relieve aggression. Despite someone’s motives, normally they invest time and effort in something for a rewarding outcome. When murder is committed there is almost instant gratification. The marshmallow test proves that most people want instant gratification. The test presented one marshmallow directly after accomplishing an assignment, or two marshmallows after waiting fifteen minutes. The experiment led to decades of research proving that those who have self-control are more successful, healthier, and wealthier than those who lack self-control. Humans seek recognition and compliments from others. Without these, people can develop negative views of themselves and inadequacy. Recognition for killers can come from the media, law enforcement, etc. after they commit crimes. When people feel competent, they are motivated by the appraisal of their skills. “Accounts of many psychopaths, murderers, and serial killers rarely show a pattern of traditional competence and the associated recognition for their achievements”, according to Hoffman. Killers’ needs are fulfilled when they kill others and hear about it on the news, radio, etc. They could not succeed in a typical fashion but they get attention and recognition for their violence.

Dr. Al Carlisle, author of I’m Not Guilty: The Development of a Violent Mind: The Case of Ted Bundy, believes that the infamous killer, Theodore Bundy, “crossed the line from sexual fantasy to murder and necrophilia”. This brings another aspect to a serial killer. Carslisle suggests that strength to constantly kill people and still be able to act as a normal human being is explained by three processes: fantasy (the person imagines scenarios for entertainment or self-comfort), dissociation (the person avoids uncomfortable feelings and memories), and compartmentalization (the person relegates different ideas and images to specific mental frames and keeps boundaries between them). Serial killers can act normal in public but when in private, they can show a dark side. When unpleasant memories present themselves in a serial killer’s mind, they begin to fantasize to bring relief to their discomfort. Some even cultivate a new persona that can cause them to feel more powerful.

Psychological factors, in the end, cause people to become serial killers more often than environmental factors. This could have been a leading factor in the Night Marauder’s life which caused him to enjoy hurting and killing people. People’s environments can be altered which can reduce the number of serial killers in the world. Scientists have not yet found a way to change people’s brains and chromosomes but hopefully, in the future, this will change resulting in a safer world.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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