Psychology of Murder

What Makes A Serial Killer? Common Traits and Characteristics

Psychological research has been making some headway in discovering the key traits and characteristics common in serial killers.  Furthermore, this research highlights just how complex the human mind can be and how the various strands of biological makeup, childhood experience and mental health can intertwine together.

An infographic “What Makes A Serial Killer? has been produced by NCC Home Learning, who have hundreds of home learning courses available including Criminology, Forensic Psychology, Forensic Science, and the Psychology of Criminal Profiling.

It highlights the results of some of the most recent research into serial killers and the types of personality which is most often seen. Power can be an important trait for those who commit serial murder;  a desire to feel control over others and have the final decision over their victim’s fate.

These individuals are often very good at reading people, being able to pick up on vulnerabilities and exploit them while being utterly charming on the outside.  Ted Bundy was a master manipulator and used these skills to lure his victims into positions where he could abduct, assault and murder them.

Serial killers have often been associated with psychopathic traits; although it needs to be said that not all those who have such traits go on to commit murder or any crime at all.

Psychopathic Traits

There are different types of psychopath who fall into the same broad category but have different characteristics which distinguish them from each other.  Some like the danger of murder.  They enjoy engaging in risk taking behaviour to obtain excitement and thrills which they cannot achieve normally.

Many are narcissists where they believe they are special and relish in causing damage to those around them to feed their need for power, authority and control.  For these individuals their primary aim is self-benefit and they do not care who gets hurt in the process. Some serial killers who may also fall into the category of psychopaths are entirely straight-forward ‘normal’ people.  There are no clear signs of a problem and this, quite possibly, makes them the most dangerous.

Seasoned true crime writer Carol Anne Davis has recently explored this topic in her book ‘Masking Evil: When Good Men and Women Turn Criminal‘, examining 37 cases of individuals who were in respected professions but whose dark side tipped them over into the most heinous of crimes.

There is evidence from fMRI studies that psychopaths do not have the same brain function as non-psychopaths and this, it has been suggested, may go some way to explain how serial killers can continue to kill without emotion or remorse.

Childhood Experience

Another focus of criminologists and psychologists is how some of these traits develop and why they develop in some individuals and not others.  Childhood abuse often features in the background of serial killers and psychopaths.

John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway and Ed Gein are all notorious serial killers who suffered abuse as children, thought to have impacted their violent behaviour as adults.  Abuse can be physical and/or psychological in nature and deeply affects their sense of self at a critical time in their development.

Anti-social behaviour, voyeurism and controlling behaviour all raise red flags for an individual and all have been closely associated with serial killers.

Mental Illness

Mental illness can be a feature in serial killers and psychopaths.  Schizophrenia for example often manifests in auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia and disturbed cognition, all of which have a profound influence on how that individual views the world around them and the people in it.

Mental illness itself however, is not a sign that an individual will become violent or harm those around them.  With such a high prevalence of mental illness within the population, it is inevitable that a percentage of serial killers will show a history which features some form of mental ill health.

The investigation into the development of such traits common to serial murderers and into the brains of serial killers is one that is sure to continue into the future. Much of this research is centred around the idea that brain damage and mental illness can be a combination which impairs judgement and impulses.  Add a history of childhood abuse and a very angry individual emerges, an individual who may well be capable of serial murder.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2017, Jan 27) What Makes A Serial Killer? Common Traits and Characteristics. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from

Related Books:

Site Categories