This article was last modified on November 24, 2010.


On Recent Psychopath Theory

The following was an essay written for a student and may or may not reflect any views of my own.

I have been interested in psychopaths and serial killers for many years now, and I often read true crime books. I think that everyone finds the darker side of human nature interesting, even if they don’t want to admit it. When the chance to read journal articles for class came up, it seemed only natural that I should choose something about serial murder. I was able to combine a personal interest with something educational and for school credit. The articles I found were very relevant to my likings and also I think fit in with class. I look forward to someday taking an abnormal psychology class so I can study these things in more detail. The idea of what is normal and what is not intrigues me.

The first article, “In Cold Blood” by Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter, compared the characteristics of serial murder or psychopathic murder with criminal homicide in general. The researchers took a sample of 125 murderers in Canada and went through their profiles and criminal records to see if a pattern could be determined. Specifically, they wanted to see if psychopaths were more often inclined to kill for instrumental reasons instead of reactive ones. Did they act on emotion or for some pre-planned reason?

They hypothesized that the psychopaths would be much more likely to commit instrumental murders because of their lack of emotion. A murder was considered instrumental if the murder was a secondary reason for the killing rather than the immediate, impulsive “response to a perceived threat, danger, or insult.” The study says “psychopaths are manipulative, callous, remorseless, impulsive, irresponsible individuals” and that psychopathy “is associated with more severe forms of sexual violence”. Past studies had not covered this, besides one where the researchers found that even psychopaths can be impulsive in their instrumental actions. The impulse might be for money or sexual release.

The result of studying these crimes showed that the non-psychopaths were about even on their instrumental and reactive kills, with reactive edging out ahead by the smallest fraction. In this case, the instrumental kills could probably be attributed to such things as organized crime, where there is no personal attachment to the victim. The higher rate of reactive murder could be attributed to jealousy, with husbands killing wives or a perceived rival. In the psychopaths, the instrumental kills far exceeded the reactive ones, as expected, with a factor of more than nine to one. Almost all psychopathic murders were done for calculated reasons.

This study was very concise in knowing what it wanted to check, how to check it, and what results it was looking for. There was very little possibility for error. I did not find the results surprising at all, as I know most serial killers have no direct connection to their victims. The high rate of instrumental murder seemed normal. I suppose it is still good that this was actually studied in order to verify what was already an assumption. My only real complaint with this study is that it seems to serve no practical use. The study relies on criminal records after the fact. I suppose that an unsolved crime could be narrowed down to reactive or instrumental, but I do not think that would help catch a killer. In short, the study was interesting but pretty useless.

The second article, “The Organized/Disorganized Typology of Serial Murder” by Canter, Alison, Alison and Wentink seemed to me very fascinating, even more than the first article. Here one hundred murders committed by serial killers were studied to see if they could break down the crimes into the categories of “organized” or “disorganized”. The results showed that it was nearly impossible to fit crimes into such neat categories.

An organized killer is said to commit organized crimes. He (or she) is highly intelligent, personable and has skilled employment. His (or her) crimes are planned, restraints are used, the bodies are hidden and evidence is removed from the scene. Disorganized killers, on the other hand, are below average intelligence, leave messes behind, and even tend to have their fingerprints or DNA on the scene. Often they will live near the crime scene. Such a distinction would allow detectives to examine a crime scene and immediately narrow down the personality type of the killer, if the evidence left behind did not give away the perpetrator. The problem arose when the people who created the organized versus disorganized categories introduced one called “mixed”. If a killer could be mixed, is there even any way to clearly put them in any one category?

The researchers put it like this: “If a large proportion of actual cases are mixed, then the basic dichotomy is unlikely to survive systematic scrutiny.” And this is exactly what they found. While there were some things that seemed to fit more in one category than the other, the majority of crime scenes were mixed. This called into question the whole category system, and even though some acts could be more likely to be one or the other, there is no way to be sure.

This study was very, very thorough. They tallied and charted 39 different characteristics of the organized or disorganized killers. And the result seemed to contradict what was considered established fact, or at least made it doubtful. This is a very important study for detectives and criminal profilers, because they need to know how to connect a crime scene to a criminal. If they are using a plan that doesn’t work, that would be bad for law enforcement, and could lead to the killer not getting caught and killing again.

Also, besides it’s usefulness, it was extremely interesting. I know that serial killers tend to do certain things that the standard killer might not, but I never saw it sorted in such a precise way. I think it’s important to get criminal profiling down to an exact science. The goal of law enforcement should be to prevent crimes, or at the very least capture the criminal in a reasonable amount of time. The more we can predict the behavior of killers, the more we will be able to do this effectively.

The two articles had some similarities in that they both looked at past murders and tried to find characteristics about them that could help explain the behaviors and motives of psychopaths, whether they are instrumental, organized or disorganized. It sounds like there would be much overly between organized and instrumental killing. I think both studies wanted to take the variables of human psychology and break them down to a more manageable level where they could be charted and generalized. I think in this regard they both succeeded.

There is a big contrast, too. The first study was a very simple review of motivations behind murder, while the second was a thorough exploration of the behaviors associated with psychopathology. I think this is reflected in the results. The first one has very defined results, but they are very limited and they have a very limited use. The second study covers a lot more ground and makes a bigger impact with its conclusions and possible applications. I think it probably requires further testing, maybe a bit more refined, to get some solid answers. The first article leaves no room for additional testing, unless one wanted to use a bigger sample. But the results were so clear and predictable that a bigger sample would probably only confirm the obvious.

This project was very interesting for me and helped me go more in depth with my understanding of psychopaths. And I learned something about scientific studies. Limited studies give limited results and wider studies give wider results. Both have their positive and negatives. The more narrow, the easier to digest and accept the findings. But the wider the study, the more information and the more potentially useful the results could be. Particularly when it comes to life and death topics like murder, I think it is important to keep the studies coming so that murder can be understood and prevented. Psychopaths are abnormal, but this does not mean they are unable to be understood. With the proper study, we might be able to identify a threat before it becomes obvious to those around the psychopath. From there, we could find a method of treatment.

Also try another article under Miscellaneous
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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