For the majority of human history, psychologists, criminologists, law enforcement, and even doctors have wondered what makes one commit a violent crime, specifically murder. Their main objective is to answer the question-what makes a person have a murderous mind. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines murderous as “having the purpose or capability of murder” but it fails to define who has such purpose or capability. By that definition alone, one can conclude that anyone can have the potential of having a murderous mind. However, while scientists differ on what they believe to be the conditions that drive people to kill, they agree that these individuals belong to a subset of the human population that possess certain unique characteristics, making them capable of great violence against others. While the root of abnormal psychology has been debated among scientists for years, most research suggests that there are both biological and environmental factors that contribute to a person committing a violent, sometimes deadly crime.
To begin, there is a lot of data that suggests that the ability to commit violent crimes is linked to genetic information, brain chemistry and structure. For instance, consider the case of Dr. James Fallon, psychiatrist and professor of human behavior at the University of Southern California in Irvine. Not only is Dr. Fallon a neuroscientist, he is also a psychopath. The DSM-IV contains the characteristics and qualifications necessary to diagnose an individual with a personality disorder. According to the DSM -IV, it can be summarized that psychopaths have these five characteristics. Firstly, they are known to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. In psychology, this is referred to as a sense of grandiosity. A person expressing grandiosity, “exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements” (DSM-IV, 9). Secondly, psychopaths are unable to maintain meaningful relationships with others. They only associate themselves with people whom they believe to be beneficial in obtaining their goal. Thirdly, they need constant admiration and affirmation that they are special. Continually, these individuals have a sense of entitlement, stemming from their grandiosity. This often presents itself when psychopaths expect others to blindly do what they want. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, people with personality disorders are defined by their total lack of empathy towards others. This is relevant where Dr. Fallon is concerned, because of the manner in which he discovered he was a psychopath. Dr. Fallon, was conducting an Alzheimer’s study, for which he collected brain scans of his family to represent “normal” brains (not affected by Alzheimer’s). When he looked at his own brain scan, he was shocked to find that his brain looked just like the brain images of serial killers and other psychopaths he had previously studied. So what did his brain scans look like and what do the brain scans of all psychopaths look like? Well, according to a recent study by Martina Ly, et al., psychopathic inmates whose brains were scanned showed to have thinner cerebral cortices in roughly six different regions in the brain, as opposed to non-psychopathic inmates (Haycock, 1243). Further, Fallon’s scans revealed that he had “metabolic sluggishness in the frontal lobes first observed in violent and murderous individuals,” (Haycock, 1479). Interestingly enough, Fallon’s mom later admitted to him that his family on his dad’s side had a long history of psychopathic tendencies dating back to Thomas Cornell, who murdered his mother and Lizzy Borden who infamously was suspected of murdering her parents. Sure enough, when Dr. Fallon to the psychopathy diagnostics test, he scored very high on the psychopathic scale. Dr. Fallon, however, identifies himself as a pro-life psychopath, admitting that while he has low empathy and antisocial behavior, he has no violent intentions against others.
Furthermore, one cannot discuss the biological factors of sociopathy, without discussing the Macdonald triad, also known as the “triad of evil”. Essentially, the Macdonald triad claims that if during childhood a child exhibits animal cruelty, fire setting and bed-wetting, that child will almost certainly go on to committing a homicide in adulthood (Ramsland). For the most part, this has proven to be true as almost all serial killers from John Wayne Gacy to Edmund Kemper, exhibited the Macdonald tried during their childhoods. In addition, children who experience frontal lobe damage through any variety of head injuries and who already showed one or more signs of the Macdonald triad, also grew up to be killers. Major support for biological factors being the primary source of a psychopathic brain, comes when discussing child killers such as Mary Bell. She is an English woman who at the age of ten killed a three year old and a four year old boy. Although Mary did experience absentee parenting, her behavioral changes are largely attributed to a fall she experienced, as a result of which she suffered damage to her prefrontal cortex. It was hard to believe that such a young girl was capable of such a heinous crime, but psychologists who interviewed her described her as having “classic symptoms of sociopathy” (All That’s Interesting, 29). It is interesting to note, that Mary Bell’s mom often complained about her daughter’s repeated bed-wetting. This serves as further proof of the Macdonald triad and the frontal lobe damage theories.
On the other hand, pro-nurture scientists argue that a person’s inclination to commit a violent crime stems from a neglectful or abusive childhood. In fact, if one was to look into the childhoods of the most notorious killers, one would most often find an abundance of physical and emotional abuse present. Most psychologists believe that homicidal individuals attempt to regain the control they lost in their childhoods through violence against others. In fact, FBI’s groundbreaking criminal profiler John Douglas says that the main goal in these people’s lives is to “manipulate, dominate and control” (Douglas, 325). Support for the importance of nurture in the life of an individual, comes from long-term case studies involving twins. Twins offer great insight into the nature versus nurture debate as biologically and genetically they are identical, so the difference in personalities can mostly be attributed to their upbringing. In one such example, scientists were able to follow the lives of twins separated at birth. In the case of the twins at hand, one was raised in a nurturing, kind household with two present parents who doted on their child, while the other was raised in a home with absentee parents who did not offer the same emotional support. When psychologists interviewed the twins in their adult lives, they discovered that the twin with the upstanding home, went on to become successful in his career and to having a family of his own. In contrast, the twin with the troubled upbringing went on to commit petty crimes and was unable to maintain meaningful, long-term relationships with others. While this is not an example of extreme childhood abuse or trauma, which resulted in homicide, it still speaks to the important role that one’s upbringing plays in his/her development and ultimately, life.
An interesting case to consider is the case of Beth Thomas, popularly referred to as “child of rage”. The hosts of the podcast “Color Me Dead”, covered this case in the second episode of their show. They explained, that in what is often referred to as one of the worst cases of abuse, Beth experienced both extreme neglect and sexual abuse at the hands of her father until she was 19 months old. When her mom passed away when Beth was only a one year old, she was put in the sole care of her father. The maltreatment she experienced at the hands of her guardian was so severe that child protective services took Beth and her younger brother away from their biological father at 19 and 7 months old respectively, and put them into the foster care system. They were adopted by Tim and Julie Tennent, who were told that the kids were both physically and emotionally fine. Beth’s adopted parents quickly learned that both children had severe developmental issues stemming from the abuse they experienced, but Beth’s was particularly disastrous. On more than one occasion, Beth attempted to kill her brother and was also known to kill pets and other small animals around the neighborhood. When Beth was taken to a child psychologist, she admitted to hurting her brother’s genitalia and even sexually assaulting him. At the time of the interviews, Beth was only 6 years old. However, Beth’s story does not end here. When Beth’s adoptive parents could no longer deal with her behavioral issues, they took her back to the system, at which point Beth’s therapist adopted her. Beth’s therapist diagnosed Beth as suffering from reactive attachment disorder, which occurs when a baby is unable to form an attachment with his/her parents. Since she suffered such great abuse, it is not surprising that Beth was unable to form a healthy attachment with either of her parents. The therapist’s job was to reverse this attachment disorder and show Beth that she could trust her caregivers and others. With years of therapy and proper, healthy relationships, Beth was actually rehabilitated and never commited a violent crime against anyone else. She even went on to become a nurse. Beth’s case is a unique and poignant example of how childhood upbringing can be both debilitating when mistreated, yet rehabilitating when properly cared for and loved.
While discussing psychopaths and sociopaths tends to make the average person uncomfortable and perhaps even scared, the truth is, that we have most likely encountered one or more of these individuals in our lives. According to Psychologia.co, psychopaths make up 1% of the total population, while sociopaths make up 4%. To put this into perspective, if the population, according to Worldometers, of the United States in 2019 is 328,722,897, this would make approximately 3,287,229 people psychopaths and 13,148,915 people sociopaths. Although this number seems extraordinarily high, the number of reported homicides in the U.S. so far is just under 8,000. This indicates that as many psychopaths and sociopaths as there are, very few of them are committing violent crimes. Actually, most of these people are non-violent individuals with high paying careers. According to the Business Insider, the most popular job for a psychopath to hold is CEO, followed by careers in law, sales and medicine. The Business Insider attributes the lack of anxiety in the face of stress and high pressure situations, as being the primary reason why many people suffering with personality disorders can often be high functioning, successful individuals.
To conclude, there are a myriad of factors supporting either side of the nature vs. nurture debate. Yet, the most comprehensive explanation for abnormal psychology, is most likely a perfect storm of biological factors, environmental stimuli, and timing. This means that a person has to have some degree of genetic predisposition to a personality disorder and violence, coupled with either a traumatic event or maltreatment in childhood, and at a time in their lives crucial to development of decision making skills. Considering all the evidence previously explored, it is indicated that a child has to have a combination of brain chemistry imbalance and greatly negative experiences to be able to commit such great crimes against other humans in adulthood. While there is already an abundance of information on the topics of abnormal psychology, it remains to be uncharted territory with further potential for discovery of answers. Psychologists and neurologist alike have much more work ahead of them in studying the enigmatic brain, in order to hopefully one day conclusively answer- what makes a killer?