Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Learning Theory of Serial Murder

As an alternative to the idea that serial killers are driven by "fantasy", at least one criminologist (Hale) has proposed that they are driven by humiliation or embarrassment. They perceive the world as full of "attacks" or "challenges" that cannot go unanswered. This acute need to reassert power is drawn from early childhood experiences where the offender felt powerless to control events. This need, combined with an arrested social development which includes problems at demonstrating mastery and at social comparison, results in the use of a victim as an audience to "set things right." In this view, serial killers are seeking approval from their victims.

Like all people, even the personality disordered are motivated to seek the approval of others. For various reasons, however, they experience feelings of frustration at finding ways to conceptualize how they would go about obtaining this approval from others. They actually anticipate failure without even trying. This is because they perceive the original person who humiliated them as superior or more "powerful" than they are. They then seek out vulnerable and less threatening persons as victims, who become scapegoats for the person who initially thwarted their needs for approval.

The diagnosis of "malignant narcissism" may be more apt for serial killers than "antisocial personality disorder" because it better exemplifies the connotation of evil that hangs over this domain of personality. A malignant narcissist is someone who exhibits antisocial personality traits combined with unrestrained aggression, a more pathological than deviant conscience, a strong need for power and recognition, distrust of others, and certain elements of sadism. Kernberg says that malignant narcissism develops as a defense against feeling of inferiority and rejection.

All criminals tend to have problems understanding social norms. They are more self pre-occupied than concerned with obeying the law. Serial killers, like many criminals, are driven more by the expression of their internal needs than a rejection of external forces. To maintain this schedule of "conditioning one's conscience", two things are necessary: alienation and isolation. Fromm said that alienation can be handled by ritualized behavior. Isolation simply limits exposure to societal sources of social control. Serial killers often engage in ritualistic behavior as a substitute for socialization. They are socializing themselves, and providing their own sense of security, predictability, and order. In this sense, they are acting volitionally and learning to attend to their own needs in the only way they know how.

Dr. T. O'Connor, Dept of Justice Studies, NC Wesleyan College