23 Mar 2022


Serial Killers Phenomena: The Predisposing Factors

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Academic level: University

Paper type: Research Paper

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Background information  

Ronald and Stephen Holmes in their article Contemporary Perspective on Serial Murder define a serial killer as anyone who murders more than 3 people in a span of more than 30 days while taking an inactive break between the murders. They go on to explain that the main motivation for a serial killer is psychological gratification (Ronald and Stephen, 1998). However, authorities apply diverse criteria when defining a serial killer; while some authorities lessen the threshold number at two, some increase it to three. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation identifies a serial killer as a person who commits a succession of a minimum of two murders at different events; the offender often acts alone when committing the murders (Morton, 2005). 

Serial killing is often confused with mass murdering and spree killing. In mass murders, the perpetrator kills several people in only one incident. The FBI describes mass murders as slaughter of no less than 4 people in a single event without a time break in between murders, ‘cooling off period’. An example of a mass murder is the killing of 32 people in Virginia tech’s campus by Seung- Hui- Cho in 2007 (Farhi, 2012). On the other hand, a spree killer has no definite number of victims to define them- they must be more than 2 victims. A spree killing crime is committed in at least two locations in a relatively short period of time. The main difference between a spree killer and a serial killer is that serial killing occurs in a relatively long period of time, sometimes it can take years while spree killing occurs in a relatively short time sometimes days (Randall, 2012). 

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Psychological gratification is regarded as the first motive for a serial killer to commit the murders. Most serial killers will not only kill but also abuse their victim sexually. However, the FBI reports that the motivation of serial killers to commit an offense does not only lie in psychological gratification; they report anger, financial gain, thrill and attention seeking as other instigators. They clarify that in most cases, the victims of the serial killer bear similar characteristics such as their age, gender, physical appearance, race among others. Other than the similarities in the characteristics in the victims, the attempted or completed murders will be done in a similar manner. For example, when a serial murderer kills his first victim by strangulation, it is most likely all his subsequent victims will be killed in the same fashion- by strangulation (Morton, 2005). 

According to Shirley, 2010, serial killers have a variety of similar characteristics that include mental illness and psychopathy. She explains that a person with a psychotic break may be compelled to kill. On the other hand, psychopathic behaviors in sequential killers consist of thrill seeking, predatory behaviors, and absence of guilt or remorse for victims, impulsivity and the necessity for control. Unlike other mental disorders such as schizophrenia, psychopaths are able to hide their mental conditions and act normal before people when they to and even be charming (mask of sanity); this is how they manage to lure their victims and hide their actions for quite a long time. Another characteristic of serial killers given by Shirley is most serial killers were often abused by a family member or close family friends either sexually, physically or emotionally during their childhood (Shirley, 2010). 

Silva, Leong and Ferrari, 2004, report that serial killers are most probable to engross in different paraphilia including fetishism, necrophilia and partialism. Besides, during childhood, serial killers exhibit a minimum of one of the three predictors of imminent violent behaviors as depicted in the MacDonald triad. The three predictors include fascination with setting of fire, involvement in sadistic activities (such as torturing of animals) and wetting of the bed beyond the age of 12. They elucidate that, most serial killers were bullied and stigmatized during their childhoods. They cite an example of the renowned serial killer Henry Lee Lucas who became a serial killer because of his childhood mass rejection and ridicule by his peers. Also, Kenneth Bianchi, a serial killer, was also ignored as a teenager by his peers because he suffered from twitching and had urinated in is pants as a child. As grownups, serial killers have a problem of keeping a job; hence they mainly work in menial jobs and have unstable families. Although this is cited in some researches, the FBI reports that most serial killers have normal lives have families with steady jobs (Silva, Leong and Ferrari, 2004). 

From the above discussion of the characteristics of serial killers it is deducible that these reprobates had a predisposing factor that led them to be who they are. One of the basic predisposing factors that have been seen to contribute to the development of a serial is a rough childhood. They could were abused, stigmatized or traumatized in other ways when they were young. However, some of them had no childhood issues and their main contributing factor is mental disorders. This paper will discuss the predisposing factors for serial killers while citing relevant examples. 

Purpose of the Paper  

The main purpose of this paper is to determine the predisposing factors that drive a serial killer to kill. The paper seeks to find out what inclines a serial killer to commit the murders as they do; whether the problem is mental, emotional or psychological. In addition to this, the study is established to find out the correlation between family relations of a child and future serial murders by the said child. An additional purpose of this study is to discover the role of peers to a child becoming a future serial killer. Lastly, the study will establish the relationship between the surrounding environment of the serial killer and the perpetration of murders. 

Research Questions  

Are there predisposing factors that prompt a serial killer to kill?

What is the correlation between serial killers and their past family relations?

What is the role of peers in the inclination to serial killing?

How does the surrounding environment influence an individual to serial kill? 



Ted Bundy, a serial killers, has been witnesses saying, ‘I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I don’t know what makes people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions… I’m as cold as anyone can ever be. I don’t care about those I killed I don’t feel guilty for anything. I only feel sorry for people who feel guilt.” These words by Ted echo the thoughts of most serial killers. In this literature review, these traits will be linked to several disposing factors for a serial murderer. 

Predisposing Factors that Serial Killers Share 

According to psychologist Berit Brogaard, a serial killer is a psychopath who has callous and exploitative traits with diminished emotions and impulsive proclivity and they are incapable of feeling guilty or remorse. In her article, ‘The Making of a Serial Killer,’ she suggests that the psychopathy behaviors in a serial killer were either prompted by nature or nurture. She argues that psychopathy could have been caused by individual upbringing or could have been attributed to the surrounding environment. In her article, she refers to the ‘Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart’ which was a project that was conducted by professor of psychology from Minnesota, Thomas J. Bouchard. In the study, professor Bouchard concluded that psychopathy is 60% hereditable; therefore, the professor argued that psychopathic traits in serial killers and other individuals are mainly due to the DNA of the individual rather than their nurturing (Brogaard, 2012). 

In her report, Brogaard explains that since psychopathy is genetically determined, then the serial killer most probably is suffering from a brain abnormality. In this case, she cites a study conducted in the University of Wisconsin, Madison which reported that criminals were connected to a reduction in the connection between amygdala (this part of the brain is involved with the processing of negative stimuli) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (frontal part of the brain that deals with the interpretation of amygdala responses). This implies that low connectivity between the two regions of the brain lead to inappropriate translation of the processed negative stimuli thereby restricting the feeling of any strong negative emotions. The inability to process any negative emotions is used to explain why serial killers do not feel embarrassed or nervous when they are committing the crimes or when they get caught for committing the transgressions. Though they may experience physical pain, they are unable to get hurt emotionally and therefore, they cannot feel sympathy during the suffering of other people (Brogaard, 2012).

In her research, Brogaard argues that genetics and abnormality of the brain are the only contributing factors to psychopathic behaviors and rules out any social factors as contributors to psychopathy. She explains that as much as childhood neglect and abuse may be a causative factor in psychopaths committing a crime, it is not a necessary cause for psychopathy itself. Since she contends that psychopathy is the only predisposing factor that motivates serial killers to commit murder, she rules out any social factors including surrounding environment and individual upbringing. She elucidates that although some famous serial killers such as Charles Manson had an abusive and neglected childhood, a generous number of serial executioners such as Jeff Dahmer and Ted Bundy had a healthy childhood with supportive family members (Brogaard, 2012). 

In another report by Alley, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson and Gillberg, 2014, it was suggested that serial killing is most likely influenced by a complex interaction between psychological, biological and sociological factors. This article contradicts the argument provided by Brogaard, that psychopathy is the main predisposing factor for serial killers. According to the report, psychosocial mediators are the main contributors to serial homicides. Alley, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson and Gillberg, 2014, report that physical abuse and/or psychological during childhood was a prevalent trait among all the 60 serial killers they studied. In a research to investigate the relationship between childhood abuse and violent behavior in adulthood, it was revealed that adults who turn out to be serial killers were physically, emotionally or sexually abused by their parents or other important people in their lives during their childhood. In addition, humiliation and narcissistic injury at a young age have also been found to contribute to adults turning to serial killing. The article reports that adoptions, abandonment and neglect can also be accounted for the violent behaviors of serial killers. The condition is exacerbated when a child who carries the violent genes from their parents and is adopted into a violent home (Alley, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson and Gillberg, 2014). 

Alley, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson and Gillberg, 2014 also informs that other than psychosocial predisposing factor, sexual fantasy and fallacies can also push a person to become a serial killer. These types of serial killers are over reliant on sexual and aggressive fantasies that developed from several threats including childhood mistreatment. This factor is mainly based on male sexual serial killers who tend to be violent with rates of paraphilia. The pentad also linked neurochemistry to serial killers. Neurochemistry as a predisposing factor serial killing is based on the neuro-chemical imbalance which is linked to aggression.

Family Relations and Child Abuse  

The relationship between childhood events and violent crimes in adulthood has been a subject of research for several years. Academics have argued that although evidence from several studies indicate that not all childhood victims of abuse and anti-social behaviors grow up to be violent criminals, abusers or murders, childhood traumas significantly heighten the risks for personality disarrays leading to criminal activity in adulthood. A research aimed at finding out the relationship between serial murders and childhood abuse discovered that a high percentage of people with murderous behaviors in adult life including serial killers suffered childhood abuse (sexual events, personal abuse or witnessed violence). 

An article by Guy, 2015, reported that childhood abuse amongst serial killers is higher than the overall population. In their study of 50 serial killers, they found that 36% of them suffered physical abuse earlier in life, 50% suffered psychological abuse, and 26% suffered sexual abuse while 18% suffered neglect. Out of the study population, only 2% were not a victim of early abuse. It is important to note that these types of abuse did not determine the kind of serial killer the individual would be that is organized, disorganized or mixed. Guy also reported that the rate of physical abuse was six times higher in a group of serial killers than in the general population. Guy concludes that as much as childhood abuse can be a contributing factor to a child turning to be a serial killer when they grow up, it is not the only factor that contributes to the psychotic behavior (Guy, 2015). 

A study documented by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 2014 showed that the majority of people who turned to be serial killers in adulthood were either rejected by their parents or by someone very important in their lives. The article explains that once rejected, the children plunge into their self-indulgence and lose themselves. When these children get to puberty, they are not able to understand who and how they are. Therefore, the social experiences that lead to precarious violent criminals are very significant in a person’s life. Rejection and abuse victims realize comfort by fulfilling their caprices and dreams; this drives them to the demesne that they can control. When serial killers assault and kill their victims, they turn their fantasies into a reality that only they can control. When a person is brought in family that does have an appropriate relationship to model them, they will grow up incapable to understanding how to interact with others and coexist peacefully. Therefore, many scholars argue that one of the most convenient ways to stop serial killers and other violent crimes is through curbing domestic violence (The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 2014). 

Role of Peers in adults becoming serial killers  

Psychologists and Criminologists argue that experiences during childhood and recurrent psychological trauma can predispose a child to seek respite in violent activities like killing and torturing animals. Most ordinary children have friends to talk to, to play with and confide in during problems at home. However, when children become isolated from their peers, it affects them psychologically and therefore they tend to be violent. For example, when Dahmer, a serial killer, was young he had many friends; he was jovial and would play around with his peers. When his father attained a Ph. D in chemistry, they had to move a lot and this alienated him from his friends. He got tired of making friends every time they moved and decided to stay alone. Due to the loneliness, he would find animals, dissect and torture them. He became alienated from his parents and would stay without talking to anyone (The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 2014). 

Christine Falling, a serial killer, grew lonely when her parents began to fight and therefore she would escape to the woods alone. In class she would act up and do weird things that were socially unacceptable. At the woods, she would collect carcasses of dead animals and would spend a lot of time gazing at them. Unlike her friends and family, the dead carcasses she collected made her feel comfortable, fulfilled and emotionally released. Kenneth Bianchi, a serial killer, was also ignored as a teenager by his peers because he suffered from twitching and had urinated in his pants as a child. All these examples show that when children feel neglected, abandoned or stigmatized at a young age, they shut themselves up psychologically and emotionally and this may predispose them to become violent criminals later in life (The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 2014). 



This study involves the searching of internet based bibliographic databases in order to access books and articles of studies. The main books and other materials of study acquired from the internet involved violent crimes, serial killers and psychopathy. The searched materials were originally meant to be only peer-reviewed literature but their deficiency led to assessment and use of online books, newspapers articles and other online sources. The search was limited only to humans and the English dialectal. In total this research paper has included thirteen sources including 2 online books, 5 peer reviewed journal article, 3 newspaper article and 3 online sources. 

The inclusion criteria for the documents to be used was human study population, must cover serial killers, violent crimes and the behaviors of such criminals, the document covers any relationship between serial killing and psychopathy, covers the relationship between serial killers and family relations, peer relations and the surrounding environment. Documents that were not issued in English were excluded. 

The data mostly used in the paper is qualitative whereby qualitative date collected in explained in details. However, quantitative data has also been collected and in some areas has been used to further explain a point. These quantitative data has been used mainly to determine the number of serial killers, the percentages in outcomes of experiments among others. 



Predisposing factors that push a person to become a serial killer  

Brain scans conducted on 500 people who are prone to crime showed that the orbital anterior cortex that controls and confines the impulse of emotional upsurges, the amygdale that controls the response to fear and the frontal cingulated cortex that controls the reaction to conflict were different from the ‘normal’ population. Therefore, violent people such as serial killers with aggressive and anti-social behaviors were born with a dissimilar genetic makeup from the standard population. From these results, it can be concluded that as much as serial killers can be affected by people around them, nobody is a puppeteer of the reactions triggered by the violence part of the DNA. However, when the genetic defects can be diagnosed earlier in life, the child can be treated and taken care of to ensure that the tendencies of emotional outbursts have been controlled hence protecting the ones around the child from harm (The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 2014). 

How specific conditions in a child’s life leads to the development of maniacal disposition 

Athens 1992, proposes that nurture- nature dichotomy is untenable, meaningless and incorrect. He proposes that the presentation of violent behavior is not contributed by environmental factors or by genetic factors separately. Athens elucidates that it is the complex and continuous interaction between an individual and the environment it inhabits that determines the behavioral outcomes of the individual. This complex interaction is affected by the relevant contributions that affect both sets of variables such as family and peers as contributing aspects to the environment and genetic makeup and brain functionality as the contributing aspects to the individual variable (Athens, 1992). 

Bearing in mind that most childhood offences are not reported, it is evident that statistics for childhood abuse among the overall population could be greater than what is accounted in researches. In addition, the claim by serial killers that they were actually abused during childhood should be probed as it may not be sincere. Serial killers are known to be psychopaths who can change their personality whenever they want to hence have the ability to lie without any doubt. Therefore, the allegation that serial killers were abused during early life should be accompanied by intense investigation into their childhoods to make the allegations credible. Their parents, neighbors, peers or friends can be interrogated in order to acquire the true form of abuse they could have endured. In addition, some serial killers could hide the abuse they went through earlier in life with an aim of maintaining their ruthless reputation. Some serial killers would also ignore to inform the interrogators about early abuse probably because they do not view it as abuse. All these factors should be put into consideration when determining the actual statistics of childhood abuse and serial killings (Guy, 2015). 



Purpose of the Study 

The main purpose of this paper is to determine the predisposing factors that drive a serial killer to kill. The paper seeks to find out what inclines a serial killer to commit the murders as they do; whether the problem is mental, emotional or psychological. In addition to this, the study is established to find out the correlation between family relations of a child and future serial murders by the said child. An additional purpose of this study is to discover the role of peers to a child becoming a future serial killer. Lastly, the study will establish the relationship between the surrounding environment of the serial killer and the perpetration of murders.

Summary of the Study 

The study was meant to determine the disposing factors that motivate a serial killer to commit murder. It involved the searching, assessment and deliberation of 13 literary sources in order to investigate the said predisposing factors. As a result, the research revealed that in addition to childhood abuse that most serial killers go through during early stages of life, their genetic makeup influences their action to a significant level. 


From the above discussion, it is eminent that no one was born a serial killer or a violent criminal. It is the complex interaction of the surrounding environment and the individual that determine how this person will turn out to be in future. As much as individuals could be born from violent parents and their genetic makeup passed to their children, with proper care and medication, these children can be taught how to control their emotions and therefore enabling them to become productive members of the society. 

Children, who carry the violent genes in their DNA, can be able to suppress it as long the environment they grow up in is conducive. However, a child’s probability of become violent and a criminal in adulthood is exacerbated when a child carrying a violent gene child is adopted or brought up by violent parents. Apart from the genetic makeup, biology also predisposes a person to violent crime through brain abnormality. When the orbital anterior cortex, the amygdala and the frontal cingulated cortex are abnormal, then a person’s ability to process negative stimuli is shattered- this is why most serial killers do not feel remorse or guilt when they are killing, sexually abusing or torturing their victims. 

Most serial killers have reported child abuse either from their parents or people close to them. Some serial killers have also attributed their actions to alienation during children; they could not make or retain friends. When parents ignore their children they isolate themselves because of the loneliness. When the members of the family or close family friends abuse a child physically, sexually or emotionally, the children are affected psychologically and this affects their relationship with other beings. Furthermore, when peers ridicule or isolate children because of any reason, the child builds a protective bubble around and avoids interacting with others; because of this isolation, the children will lack the basic social skills. For this reason most serial killers lack the ability to relate with other people and do not see the need to socialize. They only find comfort in assaulting, torturing and killing people since this is the only place they feel totally superior and in control. 

Significance of the Study  

This study can be used by most psychologists criminologist sin the solving of murder cases. Moreover, parents can use this information to help bring up their child in a manner that is beneficial in the society.



Alley, C. S., Minnis, H., Thompson, L., Wilson, P., and Gillberg, C. (2014). Neurodevelopmental and Psychosocial Risk Factors in Serial Killers and Mass Murderers. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19 (3). pp. 288-301. ISSN 1359-1789

Athens, Lonnie H. 1992. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Print

Brogaard, Berit. 2012. The Making of a Serial Killer: The Possible Social Causes of Psychopathology. The Superhuman Mind. Print.

Farhi, Paul (2012). Adam Lanza And Others Who Committed Mass Shootings Were White Males. The Washington Post

Guy, F. 2015. Serial Killers and childhood Abuse: Is There a Link? Crime Traveller. Retrieved on November 10, 2016 from http://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/07/serial-killers-childhood-abuse/

Morton, RJ (2005). Serial Murder Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. (PDF). Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) . Print

Petherick, W. (2005). Serial Crime: Theoretical and Practical Issues in Behavioral Profiling. Academic Press. 1: 190 ISBN  0080468543

 Randall C. 2012. Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement. The Sociological Eye . Print

Ronald M. H. and Stephen T. H. (1998). Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder. Sage Publications: 1. Print 

Shirley L. 2010. What Makes A Serial Killer Tick? Trutv.Com . Retrieved On November 10, 2016 from https://web.archive.org/web/20100728094415/http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/tick/victims_1.html ?

 Silva J. A., Leong, G. B., Ferrari, M. M. (2004). A Neuropsychiatric Developmental Model of Serial Homicidal Behavior. Behavioral Sciences & the Law : 794

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. 2014. Serial killer: nature vs. nurture: how serial killers are born. Print. http://www.aaets.org/article213.htm 

Vronsky, P. (2004). Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. Penguin- Berkley Books. Illustrated. ISBN 0425196402

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