Psychology of Murder

The Mind of a Psychopath: The Psychopathic Killer

The mind of a psychopath is a curious entity. Over the last ten years neuroscience and psychology have become increasingly focused on the brain differences between individuals and specifically trying to identify what makes an individual kill another human being. While not all killers are psychopaths, psychopathic traits are seen in many of them, as are a combination of environmental factors.

As a society we are fascinated by true crime. We watch documentaries on serial killers, programmes following police forces and homicide units. We are interested in forensics and crime scene investigations and we find people who kill intriguing. For most of us, taking the life of another out with self-defence is an act we cannot imagine. We have an innate brake system, something which tells us that this is an act we just cannot carry out. Those who seemly do kill without conscience, guilt or remorse and do this repeatedly peak our curiosity and our desire to understand how and why.

Inside The Mind Of A Psychopath

In psychiatry being a psychopath is not a diagnosis. It is a term used more commonly in forensic science and is used very loosely in the media to describe people who commit acts which are particularly gruesome or brutal.

A psychopathic personality is one which displays a number of behavioural traits which range from being cunning and devious to manipulative and charming. Ted Bundy is a typical example of a psychopathic killer. He was an individual who manipulated his victims into trusting him by pretending he was injured.

He could change his persona to fit almost any environment and he was highly intelligent with a great deal of planning going into his attacks, at least during his early activity. Most assume a psychopath is an insane, mad individual who can be spotted in the crowd, but the reality is quite different. As explored in depth in his excellent book Inside The Mind of a Psychopath, writer Paul Sorensen gives a true insight into what it really means to be a psychopath.

He describes how to recognise a psychopathic personality and the research into the psychopathic mind profiling some of the worst known psychopaths in history.

Related: Was 8 Year-old Ann Marie Burr Ted Bundy’s First Victim?

The most common feature within the mind of a psychopath is a lack of empathy and a lack of true feelings for others. While no one is born a psychopath, we are all born with some degree of empathy. Our environment in our early years is where this empathy will manifest and continue or where it will fritter away until it is not there at all.

Recommended Books

Without Conscience by Dr. Robert D. Hare
The Psychopath Whisperer by Kent Kiehl
The Psychopath Inside by Prof. James Fallon
The Evil That Men Do by Roy Hazelwood
The Anatomy of Violence by Dr. Adrian Raine
Mindhunter by John Douglas

The Mind of a Psychopathic Killer

As highlighted by Dr James Fallon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at the University of California, psychopaths are “believable but not readable as they have no feelings to read through their eyes or body language”.

These are individuals who have a very low response to stress, they are callous and they do not connect with others in the same way you and I do. From a criminal perspective, they can be cruel, manipulative and aggressive. They do not take responsibility for their actions as according to them, their actions are caused by the behaviour of other people.  In this way there is an overlap between psychopathic traits and narcissistic traits and equally this lack of responsibility for behaviour and actions can prove dangerous.

The Psychopath Scale

Dr Robert Hare developed the psychopath scale which is considered the most reliable and effective instrument to measure psychopathy. Originally designed to assess incarcerated adult males it has since been expanded for wider use but is still mainly used within criminality.

The scale covers behaviour such as communication abilities, interaction and manipulation of other people, lying and deviousness and how people behave socially. Scores range from 0 – 40 and the higher the score for an individual, put simply, the more of a psychopath that person is.

The Interconnecting Behavioural Traits of a Psychopath

This information is of course very categorical. It relies on someone’s awareness and honestly about their own behaviour and attitudes. However, when this information is combined with the history of an individual, their behaviour and their experiences, their brain structures and brain patterns, genetics and environmental influences, an overall picture of that individual can be gained.

Related: Can Criminal Behavior Be Predicted Using Brain Scans?

Nature vs Nurture

Psychology has long debated the issue of nature and innate characteristics, against nurture and the effect of environment on a growing and developing individual. The area of criminology and forensic science is no different, asking whether criminals are born or made.  We are certainly seeing increasing evidence on the importance of childhood and recognising psychopathic traits in children along with those crucial years of adolescence and the significance of teenage brain development on decision making and behaviour.

The development of technology within brain science has allowed these questions to be assessed more fully and from a scientific perspective. Functional brain scans such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning have revealed some very interesting differences between those considered to be psychopaths and those who are not.

The brain of the psychopathic killer and a shocking discovery about Dr Fallon’s own brain

The Brain Scans of Psychopaths

What is interesting about psychopaths is there is evidence their brain regions to not function in the same way ours do. Functional MRI measures blood flow in the brain and when an individual is performing a task, whether it be looking at images or listening to music, scientists are able to see in real time which areas of the brain are active during these tasks and which are not.

Science has learned over the years which brain areas would be expected to activate when exposed to certain types of stimuli in the normal human being’s brain. Psychopaths it appears do not do this; in fact they barely react at all. There is no behavioural response and there is no stress response. They are indifferent to these images and do not react emotionally to them. Psychopaths may voice their disgust at such images, however they do not feel disgust and the results of their brain scans have been able to highlight this scientifically.

Imaging Genetics in  Psychopathic Killers

Over the last five to ten years imaging genetics has developed within psychiatry. In the early 1990’s a gene was found termed the warrior genewhich has been linked to violence and aggression. A Dutch family has been cited as an example where all the males within the family were missing this particular gene and all showed extreme violent and aggressive behaviour.

Further studies by Kings College in London in 2002 have highlighted that even with a form of this gene present, if less gene expression occurs more of the neurotransmitter serotonin can be released which along with early exposure to abuse can lead to teenagers in particular to show higher levels of aggression (Caspi et al, 2002). Serotonin is released in anger and has been directly linked with psychopathy. According to Dr Fallon the serotonin transporter is associated with violence but if a child is showered with love in their early years they are unlikely to become violent, however a child surrounded by violence is more likely to show violence in later life.

Childhood Abuse and Psychopathic Killers

Studies have shown early childhood abuse is a factor within psychopathic killers (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005 and LaBrode, 2007). John Wayne Gacy, the ‘Killer Clown’, Gary Ridgeway, the ‘Green River Killer‘ and Ed Gein, the notorious American serial killer, all suffered childhood abuse. Furthermore, John Wayne Gacy, Henry Lee Lucas, Ed Gein, and possibly Dennis Rader, the ‘BTK‘ killer, all suffered childhood incidents of head trauma (LaBrode, 2007).

The connection between an abused childhood and anti-social behaviour as an adult is often thrown around loosely. Furthermore, some feel it is given as an excuse and a ‘get out clause’ for unacceptable and particularly violent behaviour.

Related: Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse: Is There a Link?

Certainly, not all abused children grow up to become abusers, criminals and murderers. Evidence however does show a pattern between childhood abuse and psychopathic serial killing and it also suggests the younger the age of the child at the time of the abuse, the worse the effect on the growing individual.

Those first few years of life are the most important for risk factors. After a child turns 5 years old the risk to their developing personality reduces markedly.

Thou Shalt Not Kill: Knowing Right from Wrong

We all know it is wrong to kill or at least that is the presumption we make. The act of murder is so abhorrent to the majority of us we assume everyone feels the same and people who don’t must be within the grips of mental illness.

We hold an assumption that we all have the same brain that functions in the same way. Moreover that we therefore all have the same control and choices over our behaviour; however the simple fact is that this is just not the case.

If a psychopath has no feelings that an act of murder is wrong, that automatic repulsion and brake system which prevents us from harming others, can it be said that they do not know the act was wrong? Psychological studies suggest that psychopaths grow up learning what is perceived as right and wrong. Through watching other people’s behaviour and societies response to that behaviour, they gain an understanding of what is morally and ethically wrong.

Just because they don’t feel it themselves does not mean they do not understand it and acknowledge it. However, this learnt knowledge takes time to obtain. A young child for example may not yet have learnt this objective understanding and are thereby led more by their impulses and internal feelings, with less regard for society’s rules, judgement and potential consequences.

Acceptance of Biological Explanations for Crime

Neuroscience has come a long way over the past two decades and we now have a much deeper understanding of different areas of the brain, their functions and their relationship to our behaviour, particularly with regards to forensic psychology and the criminal mind.

To seriously consider biological factors within the causes of crime has only recently been accepted. Social and environmental causes had always been the leading theories and explanations in the past. Dr Adrian Raine, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania was one of the first to raise these issues and originally encountered many barriers within the world of academia.

Related: Will Advances In Neurocriminology Give Rise To A Criminal Disorder Being Identified?

In Dr Raine’s largest study to date, he used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to take brain scans of 41 convicted killers and compared them directly against 41 ‘normal’ individuals of a similar age and profile. The results highlighted clear differences in brain activity with an area of decreased activity visible in the killers brains in the area of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This area is at the front of the brain, just behind our forehead and is responsible for analysing thoughts and regulating our behaviour.

His determined focus and belief in the results of his research maintained his stance and he is today considered one of the leading experts on this topic. His book, The Anatomy of Violence, initially berated for its focus on the biological roots of criminal behaviour has now received critical acclaim and showcases his 35 years of study within this field.

What makes a psychopathic killer?

The importance of more traditional psychology and sociology approaches and their applications to the causes of crime should not be underestimated, nor should such biological and genetic neurocriminological explanations replace them completely.

However, as pointed out by Dr Raine:

“If we buy into the argument that for some people factors beyond their control, factors in their biology, greatly raise the risk of them becoming offenders, can we justly turn a blind eye to that?”

Genetics and biology work hand in hand with psychology and environmental factors; it is not so much nature or nurture but nature and nurture.

Psychology of Crime in the Courtroom

In recent years, the United States legal system have started to use neurocriminology within serious criminal cases as mitigating evidence to explanation their clients actions. Debate is building on what place this has in the courtroom and what it may mean for the Criminal Justice System.

We can only assume this will continue and develop into the future which holds its own moral and ethical debates for the punishment of criminals in this regard. The psychology of the criminal mind and brain is a complicated matter. You cannot take a sample of the mind and test it to obtain a result of what may be wrong. It is about analysis of behaviour, tendencies, characteristics and behaviour traits which all combine to give a picture of an individual.

Many of these behaviour traits overlap and there is no clear singular trait, or gene or childhood experience which can be held responsible for criminal behaviour, or in the case of the psychopathic killer, murder. The development of science within forensic psychology has enabled examination of brain scans, genetics and behaviour to see how such aspects combined could have led an individual to kill.

Not all individuals with these traits will go on to commit crime and be a psychopathic killer, with Dr James Fallon being a prime example. However, it has provided us with the strongest measurable indications of behaviour and an understanding of why that behaviour may manifest and this holds enormous potential for the future.


  1. Caspi, A., et al (2002) Role of Genotype in the Cycle of Violence in Maltreated Children, Science, vol 297, pp851 – 854
  2. LaBrode, R.T. (2007) Etiology of the Psychopathic Serial Killer: An Analysis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, Psychopathy, and Serial Killer Personality and Crime Scene Characteristics, Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, Vol 7, Iss. 2, pp151- 160
  3. Mitchell, H., and Aamodt, M.G. (2005) The Incidence of Child Abuse in Serial Killers, Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Vol, 20, No. 1, pp40 – 47

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, Jul 08). Inside The Mind of a Psychopath: The Psychopathic Killer. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from


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  • You actually make it appear so easy together with your presentation however I
    find this matter to be actually one thing that I feel I
    might never understand. It seems too complicated and very huge for me.

    I am looking forward for your subsequent put up, I'll attempt to get the
    hold of it!

  • Hi there, it is certainly a very complex area that is advancing all the time. There is so much new technology and methodology now it can be difficult to keep up with it all. Still I think the potential of neuroscience to help us gain an understanding of people who kill and the complexities of psychopathology is huge. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Great post! I had no idea people were looking at the brains of criminals and that psychopaths can be identified through them. Makes me wonder where science is going to go next. The idea that there could be a disorder or condition associated with criminal behaviour due to their brain structures and functions being different is quite a question for the criminal justice system. I wonder where this is going to be in 10 years time?

  • Thanks Valerie! Glad you liked it. The developing world of science and the criminal brain is getting more and more interesting. I think as more research is carried out and I suppose validated we will see what impact this has on the criminal justice system and especially in defence arguments. Just as mental illness can be a mitigating factor it is possible criminal brains may go the same way. Definitely an area to watch!

  • But the question remains, that what sorts of stimuli , intimidate them to become injurious to others… it is a settled case for the pshycopaths that their that the element of empathy and event better, the aspect of SuperEgo is missing , from their Functional Brain, but what are the Stimuli which makes them react in such injurious manner, even with this very same dysfunction why some people do not choose to become murders and some choose to do so ? ……Apart from that , the Article was full of Materials, lesser conclusive more informative, it was a great pleasure for the evening tea ……

  • […] Sometimes I even found myself getting angry at awful YouTube comments targeted at a pedophile or a mentally ill criminal who categorized everyone who suffer from those disorders. I didn’t forgive their […]

  • Hi Sol, there may indeed. There are some really interesting new research studies being published at the moment looking at the brains of psychopaths and their behaviour, especially the reward-cycles within the brain and how psychopathic individuals may process information, risk and consequences differently to the rest of us, so keep an eye out for some new articles as a result!

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