Practicing Psychology: Pinning Down Criminal Psychopaths

When you think of the perfect example of a criminal, a few images may come quickly to mind — the criminal mastermind plotting the ultimate crime, the callous armed robber putting a pistol in a bank teller's face, or the serial killer cleverly evading the police.

Each of these images represents an aspect of the stereotypic villain — intelligent but demented, cold and ruthless, violent and destructive. Batman fought against the Riddler, Catwoman, and the Joker. Superman battled Lex Luthor. All of these super-criminals represent people who often engage in extreme criminal behavior and challenge our concept of morality. Such people have intrigued professionals for years. They're on the front page of the newspaper, and they're the lead story on the evening news. They sit in our prisons, and they're sometimes executed for their horrific behavior. These are the psychopaths.

Definitions of the psychopath abound. In fact, some professionals don't see psychopaths as necessarily criminals at all but rather as suffering from a clinical disorder. The title of this article may imply that all psychopaths are criminals, but in fact, this may not be true. It is a fact, however, that many psychopaths act criminally, and when they do, they typically represent a level of seriousness unparalleled by non-psychopathic perpetrators.

Psychopath expert Professor Robert Hare gives a comprehensive list of psychopathic personality traits that outline the major features of this disordered personality.

  • Glib and superficial charm
  • Callousness and lack of empathy
  • Grandiose sense of self worth
  • Parasitic lifestyle (lives off of other people)
  • Need for stimulation, prone to boredom
  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Pathological lying
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Conning and manipulativeness
  • Early behavior problems (temper tantrums and disobedience)
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Failure to accept personal responsibility
  • Shallow affect (no deep feelings about anything or anyone)
  • Revocation of conditional release (put back in jail after failing at reform)
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • Many short-term marriages
  • Impulsivity
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Irresponsibility
  • Criminal versatility (good at a lot of different crimes)

Wow, that's quite a list. But this checklist has become a real standard for evaluating people in court cases, prisons, and forensic hospitals. Some of these traits seem more "villainous" than the others and are worth taking a closer look at.

Two hallmarks of psychopaths are their smooth presentation and charm. They're not easily embarrassed or even mildly self-conscious. They're calm in social situations because they couldn't care less about what other people think of them. Sometimes, they come off as if they're the hottest things since sliced bread. They're often full of themselves and see other people as inferior and easy prey. They'll lie, cheat, and manipulate to get whatever it is they want, and they'll do all of this with a coldness of heart. Psychopaths don't feel remorseful or guilty for any of their transgressions and can sometimes be so cold that they are extremely ruthless, possessing no empathy for the suffering of others. Finally, a host of crimes that they have either been convicted of or have admitted to doing represent their criminal versatility. The range is impressive, from murder to fraud, forgery, kidnapping, arson, tax evasion. . . . Get the picture?

Setting apart the serial killers

Dahmer, Bundy, Gacy, Ramirez, Jack the Ripper, Fish, the list goes on. Serial murderers represent perhaps the most serious and morbidly fascinating image of criminality. They're modern-day bogeymen. They commit horrific acts of violence and indulge in strange and perverted acts with their victims. The concept of evil comes quickly to mind when thinking of their deeds.

Psychologists, however, are not scientists of evil. They're scientists of behavior and mental processes. That doesn't mean serial murderers' behaviors and minds cannot be studied from a psychological point of view. Richard von Krafft-Ebbing is understood by many experts to have provided the seminal work on serial killers, Pscyhopathia Sexualis (Sexual Psychopathology), published in 1886. Many contend that much of what is known about serial homicide is contained in that work. Before you get into some of that information, however, a quick definition of serial murder is in order.

Serial murder is commonly viewed among professionals as a sexually motivated "subtype" of sexual homicide. That is, serial murder is sexually motivated. Forensic psychiatrist Don Grubin states that the sexual nature of these crimes is seen in the way a perpetrator's sexual arousal is connected to his victim's pain and humiliation. Serial killers are distinguished from mass murderers (killing a bunch of people at one location at one time) and spree killers (killing a number of victims at different locations within hours or days).

Krafft-Ebing identified three main components of sexual homicide that experts still focus on today.

  • Sadism: Sexual arousal from the physical suffering, humiliation, or control of a victim is central to the serial killer's psychology. There's an absolute need to control another, weaker human being, and great sexual satisfaction is derived from this act.
  • Fantasy: Psychoanalyst David Beres defines a fantasy as a group of symbols combined into a story. It's a mental phenomenon, inside the minds of those who fantasize. You might fantasize about being rich. Sexual murderers fantasize about killing and torturing their victims. Their ritualistic behaviors at the crime scenes are seen as outgrowths of their fantasy life, a way to make the fantasy real. Fledgling serial murderers begin to engage in fantasy early in their life, building on the complexity and intensity of the fantasy as they go along.
  • Compulsion to kill: Plenty of people have kinky sexual urges and sometimes even destructive fantasies. Even normal men can have sexual fantasies involving violent and aggressive images, including rape scenes. So, just being a sadist and having a violent fantasy life does not a serial killer make. At least for now, in this society we are responsible on the level of our behavior — no "thought police" yet. Drs. Eugene Revitch and Louis Schlesinger believe that acting out sadistic fantasies is made possible by a compulsive need to do so. A compulsion is like a burning and irresistible need, driving you to do whatever it is that you need to do. When you finally do it, you feel an intense, almost-orgasmic sense of relief. Revitch and Schlesinger believe that the sequence is something like this: sadism --> fantasy --> tension state --> compulsion --> action. The murderous act is, therefore, experienced as an act of release, which is pleasurable and therefore reinforcing of the prior sequence of events and make its repetition likely.

This information is powerful and very interesting. The only fear is that, after reading this, people will go out there and think that they've got serial killers all figured out. This discussion is a really crude introduction to the topic of sexual homicide. Some professionals have devoted their entire careers to figuring out how these people tick. It's not that easy.

Profiling

Speaking of the professionals devoted to figuring these people out, the attempt to apprehend these individuals based in part on information about their personality and mental state is called psychological profiling. Forensic investigators Dr. Robert Keppel and Dr. Richard Walter call it crime scene assessment. It's an attempt to ascertain important information about the perpetrator of the crime(s), such as his physical, behavioral, and demographic characteristics, and figure out the signature of the perpetrator. A signature is a component of the crime that is unique to that particular killer and can be found across multiple crime scenes.

Keppel states that two very important features for developing a psychological profile of an offender are his signature and his modus operandi. The signature may be the way a rope is tied around a victim's hands or the particular way the victim is tortured. Modus operandi (MO) refers to the particular method of operation of the killer, including the object of the crime, the means, the time, and so on. The MO can change, but the signature usually doesn't.

Park Dietz is a very well-known forensic psychiatrist who sees psychological profiling as a systematic problem-solving activity with five basic steps:

1. The profiler gathers data, including crime scene photos, autopsy reports, witness statements, and forensic lab reports.

2. She attempts to reconstruct the sequence of events before, during, and after the murder.

3. The profiler tries to reconstruct what the perpetrator(s) and victim(s) were experiencing mentally and emotionally that may have led them to act this way. It's an analysis of their motivations, the "why" of their crime.

4. She uses the information that she has gathered to develop a criminal typing — an attempt to fit the offender into a category (sexual sadist or thrill-killer, for example).

5. The profiler tries to use the previous information to figure out what kind of person would do this — man, woman, tall, short, and so on. They even try to figure out what kinds of work he or she may do and any other activities that he or she may engage in. From this information, the expert establishes a profile and gives it to law enforcement officials to use at their discretion.

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