Research Report on Motivations of Serial Killers

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The study investigated the contributing factors of why people become serial killers. The study methodology involved twenty case studies of killings that took place in the United States. The case studies were limited to 1960s up to date. The case studies were screened for credibility and authenticity. Drug abuse, alcohol use, sexual-abuse, and child-parent relationship was specifically examined to identify possible development of psychopathic behavior later in life. Statistical tools, namely SPSS and Chi-square, were used to analyze the results. One of major finding of this study is that military experience was a significant determinant in the category of organized serial killers.


For many decades, serial killers have frustrated law enforcement and bewildered the public. Myers, Gooch, and Meloy (2005) suggest that the term serial killer seem to have been first used by James Reinhardt, a criminology expert in one of his books published in 1957. However, there are suggestions that the term may have been used as earlier as the 14th and 15th centuries. One of the earliest known and recorded serial killers was Gilles de Raise, whom it is reported killed an estimated 100 children. To date, serial killers continue to capture the public’s eye in different parts of the world and based on a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report over 35 serial killers at any one instance are operating in the US. For many people such as social scientists as well as the common man, these murders have been labelled evil. It puzzles people why an individual would decide to murder people without cause, and this has turned the rhetoric evil. However, some people argue that the “evil” is a result of deliberate intent to annihilate human life (Skrapec, 2001). This research examines the competing ideas as to why people become serial killers.

Research Question

  • What are the intrinsic motivations that cause people to become serial killers?
  • What are the psychological factors that make people to become serial killers?

Rationale for Study

There is a wide body of research that has explored the motives of serial killers. Essentially, these studies have examined the typology and etiology of serial killers. A great percentage of these studies have used relatively small samples sizes to on Caucasian male serial killers. Only a limited number have investigated causative factors on African-American serial killers. Findings from these and other studies have been employed by law enforcement to constrict models for the etiology and typology of serial killers. It is apparent that as different criminology-related agencies try to come to terms with the causes of serial killing, they have employed various definitions to describe different intentions (Egger and Doney, 1990). Current and previous studies have detailed scientific evidence regarding the underlying reasons that help to explain why people become serial killers regardless of their gender or ethnicity. It is notable that most of the research has majored on men serial killers, something that has drawn scholarly attention and inquiry. Excluding one gender from research is thus a scholarly problem that needs to be addressed. This research will, therefore, include both genders to adequately address the root causes of serial killers. Problem Statement

The aim of this research is to investigate a wide body of literature that explore a diverse range of serial killers and explore certain etiological factors for a better understanding of why people become serial killers. The review of different studies will be particularly focused on case history for serial murderers within the United States. This will include possible inquiries into whether an individual’s upbringing might have influenced them into becoming serial killers.

Literature Review

Most of the studies conducted concerning the causes of serial killing have mainly focused on establishing environment factors. Nevertheless, recent studies have incorporated genetic and biological factors in connection to the environment to account for reasons why people become serial murderers (LaBrode, 2007). While these studies have been crucial in establishing the biological and environmental risk factors, they have not managed to adequately isolate the factors as either environmental or biological as they are not able to control the association between them. Myers et al. (2005) asserts that another challenge regarding this subject that there has not been a unanimous agreed-upon definition isolates serial killers from other types of killers. For example, isolating mass murderers, spree, and serial killers has been a difficult task. As a result, there is a diverse number of appropriate of what is considered serial killing. Findings of a Myers et al. (2005) study urge that serial killers refers to a single offer is reportedly involved in at least five isolated incidences with a “cooling-off-period” between the instances. The same study also reports that many studies seem to agree that one of the conditions that define serial killing is the “cooling-off-period.” Yet, disagreements largely exist concerning multiple other variables that make up a serial killer such as motivation and number of victims involved. A mass murderer describes an offender that destroys several human lives in a single operation. Based on these definitions, the number of operations is what distinguishes serial killers from mass murderers. On the other hand, LaBrode’s (2007) findings define spree murder as one that involves more than killings at different places but within the same incident. LaBrode (2007) identifies some risk factors that are associated with such kind of antisocial behavior as exhibited by serial killers. It is deemed important to understand risk factors for psychopathic violent behavior as it helps law enforcement and rehabilitative justice agencies to create interventions for people who may be prone to commit the same kind of acts. Beasley (2004) states that the highest risk factors are primary influenced by two major factors: early onset of violent and antisocial behavior, and secondly, persistence of such criminal behavior. Moreover, there are two other categories of serial offenders: those that are adolescence limited and those that are life-long persistent. The adolescence-limited category involves peer influences where an adolescent tends to mimic what peers exhibit and do, while life-course persistent is like a disorder. Beasley (2004) suggests that those offenders that begin exhibiting violent or criminal behavior at an early age may have genetic influence when compared to adolescent-limited category.

Biological Causes of serial killing behavior

While there have been limited conclusive research about the underlying causes of psychopathy, several studies have examined the neurobiological underpinnings of serial killing (Alley et al., 2014; Beasley, 2004, Messori, 2016). In trying to understand the neurobiology of serial murderers, researchers have mainly investigated two parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. According to neurobiological studies, the work of the amygdala is associated with aversion conditioning and reactions to facial expressions (Alley et al., 2014). These faculties have been shown to be significantly impaired in people with psychopathy. Low volume of amygdala and slow reactions to words with negative connotations were observed in people with high degrees of psychopathy. This finding is an indication that distortion in the structure of the amygdala is a contributing factor to social disorders, especially in terms of instrumental learning and aversion conditioning (Perez, 2012).

It has also been argued that distortion to the prefrontal cortex is associated with psychopathy. The medial orbit-frontal cortex (OFC) is responsible for sending and receiving projections to the amygdala. Damage of to the OFC has thus been associated with psychopathy. Evidence links low volume in prefrontal cortex in unsuccessful psychopaths relative to control participants. This should not be understood to mean that all neurological impairments are responsible for psychopathy; instead, it provides a clue as to the possible reasons why people become serial killers (Haggerty, 2009).

Organized Killer

According to Messori (2016), organized serial killers are those that are actuated by stressful events. This category of offenders are said to use forethought as they plan and execute their operations, mostly after a triggering incident. The FBI profiles these killers as those that likely have average intelligence with a significantly good social normalcy. Typically, they carry their weapons and plan to take their targets to an unspecified location so as to destroy trace of their actions. Considering stressful events in the lives of this category of offenders, some studies have suggested that they seek to kill people as a way of trying to gain control of their stressful feelings (Messori, 2016; Haggerty, 2009). They seem to have experienced inconsistent childhood discipline and they have a good level of calm when they execute their targeted victims.

Feelings of Loneliness and Rejection

Some serial killers are motivated by feelings of loneliness and rejection and exhibit a great degree of interpersonal relationships problems. According to the FBI, such serial killers are profiled as disorganized killers. They are not easily predictable, and it is difficult to construct their way of operation. They leave a trace of their operations and reportedly of low intelligence with an appreciable degree of lacking social normalcy. Messori (2016), asserts that childhood background of these type of murderers seem to be characterized by parents with unstable employment and received extreme punishment as they were growing up (Conroy, 2018). Their crime scenes are not organized and there appears to be randomness of how the execute their victims which tend to portray their problems at interpersonal relationships. They experience a higher degree of anxiety as they kill their victims and they get involved in sexual acts with the dead victims.

Internal Motivations of Visionary Killers

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Despite the idea that most serial killers are not influenced by psychotic behaviors, multiple murderers who think that certain invisible voices are directing them to murder would fit into this category. According to Messori (2016), these killers are motivated by “heard voices” that dictate their violent actions. One known example in regard to this category of serial killers is Herbert Mullin who, in the 1970s, killed ten Californians since he thought that the killings would be tantamount to offering sacrifices that would help to stop earthquakes. Put differently, visionary killers experience hallucinations which may sometime be impossible to explain. Profiles of visionary killers assert that they received messages/impressions from either God or demons to execute certain people. In fact, most of them when they get prosecuted defend themselves using insanity.


Studies have profiled mission-oriented killers as those that feel that they have a purpose to target and annihilate a group, especially minority groups such as prostitutes, children, or people belonging to a race. Their intrinsic drive seems to be a deeper desire to “straighten up” things that needed to have been rectified. Thus, their objective is entirely grounded on the idea of getting rid of the world, state, or country, of target people that they think are problematic. They carefully plan their operations and seem to pick their potential victims at random.

Hedonistic Serial Killers

Under this category, serial killers seem to be actuated by three factors: lust, thrill, and comfort. Their primary motive is to achieve some fulfillment as a result of the joy they find in killing their victims. Unsurprisingly, this explains why they take pleasure and love what they do during their violent acts. They exhibit high competency which is evidenced by how they plan their operations coupled with the efforts they put on trying to distort trace of their actions. Law enforcement agencies have found it difficult constricting the profile of such serial killers particularly if they are transient. Those motivated by lust are believed to obtain sexual pleasure by killing people. As for thrill-oriented killers, they simply kill people solely because they like the thrill that such acts bring them. They seem to delay death of their victims wanting to see their agony as they die away. Research has not identified any other possible intrinsic motive why such killers conduct their violent acts (Egger, 1990). Lastly, comfort-oriented killers kill to gain control or comfort over their victims. Despite competing ideas regarding what this type of killers benefits by killing their victims, it has been argued that they have “narcissistic needs” for control and power (Messori, 2016; Wright, 2019).


Given the complication involved in directly interviewing serial killers, this study employed the use of case studies and secondary sources-mainly the review of literature to come up with findings. The study used specific keywords to identify potential sources from a wide range of databases, these were: etiology, typology of serial killers, serial killers, intrinsic motives of serial killers. Case studies used in this report were limited to the happenings in the United States. Based on a study by (Baxter and Jack, 2008), case studies are useful means of studying a phenomenon when the subject’s behavior cannot be manipulated. Therefore, for this study, the contextual factors that helped the victims to carry out their actions all happened in the past and cannot be manipulated. For this reason, multiples case studies and other secondary sources were compiled to examine the phenomenon under study.

Data Collection

For the current study, given the population that is under investigation is both dangerous, deceased, or well protected, the research opted to use publicly available information and databases to collect data. Data sources included websites, peer reviewed journals, and books. Case studies in the form of court reports, autobiographies, and research studies were employed to evaluation the typology and etiology of serial killers. All sources used for this study were assessed for authenticity and reliability by comparing each source with at least 5 others so as to establish consistency of information in each case study. It was important to evaluate the authenticity of the sources as it helps to determine their credibility. As Messori (2016) found many studies use this criterion to gather data by finding similarities and linking information in every case.

Statistical Analysis

Based on the case studies and other secondary sources examined, the independent variables were military experience, sexual abuse at an early age, alcohol and drug abuse, the nature of the relationship between a child and parents. To identify the interrelationship of these variables (etiological factors), the obtained data was analyzed using SPSS version 23. The averages obtained from the statistical analysis were then used to examine the collected data.


Based on case reports of serial killers throughout different eras of history, the serial killers were examined, particularly on their inner motivation that drove them to conduct their operations. These factors were derived from 20 selected case study reports that specifically happened in the United States. A triangulation method was employed to identify what is truly factual from what are merely opinioned views. Out of the selected 20 case studies, 18 were approved for this study. For typology analysis, 10 cases were identified as lust-driven, four were mission-driven, 2 were vision-oriented, and the two were thrill-oriented. The Study findings were not able to identify any comfort-oriented. The research assessed whether there was a link between the mentioned typologies and intrinsic motivation for serial killing. A chi-square was used to find out if those results provided any significance at 1%.

The quantitative data found that 80% of disorganized serial offenses the case reports and autobiographies had not previously served in the military. However, 70% of organized serial killers had previously served in the military. This finding was found to be statistically significant having yielded a P ≤ 0.1 which means that organized serial killers have a high probability of having a military history as compared to disorganized ones. Three-quarters of thrill-driven serial killers may not have had military experience. In addition, disorganized cases were linked with drug use, alcohol, and lust. All types of serial killers had associations with potential bullying of the killer at an early age. The results also showed that for every type of serial offender, the probability of being bullied as a child was higher than not.


One of the major objectives of this study was to include a larger sample size that incorporates of races and gender-a diverse demographic composition. Most of the existing studies have typically concentrated on case studies involving Caucasian serial killers. The study identified etiological aspects of the killers from the review of literature. As already highlighted, for all the case reports, data was gathered from publicly available sources. Due to time and data constraints, it was difficulty obtaining data for some of the typologies of serial killers used in this study. Findings established that 80% of disorganized category lacked military history while 70% of organized serial murders had military experience with a positive significance (p ≥ 0.01). This is explained by the idea that disorganized murderers tend to be socially immature, low integrity, and unpredictable in their operations. However, organized ones (especially military-type), by virtue of their training, carefully plan, execute, and even hide trace of their acts. It is evident therefore, why organized serial killers are likely to have served in the military. What is not clear from the results, however, is that it was difficult knowing whether military training may have contributed to such anti-social behaviors leading to violence.

Alcohol was linked with many cases because it enhances the risk of getting involved in violent and destructive behaviors. Alcohol can stimulate violent acts as it inhibits behavior and can make someone courageous to act as they please. In other words, it can boost fantasy which is then used a means serial killing. Drugs have a nearly similar impact as alcohol-it can make a person fantasize and boost their courage when they want to carry out their violent operations. Other psychological etiological factors such as sexual, maternal abuse and bullying account for aggressive psychopathic behaviors as they contribute to feelings of rejection and hence the onset of psychopathy, especially if an enabling environment is presented.


In view of the findings of this study, it is evident that there are several theories and intrinsic motivations that can make one to be a serial killer. Despite the multiple limitations that are associated with serial killers, this study attempted to investigate the intrinsic motives by incorporates a diverse demographic sample. It is noteworthy that previous studies have focused on Caucasian serial killers. However, this study included genders, Hispanic, Caucasians, and Black-Americans. The finding that military experience could be attributed to serial killing, can aid the criminal justice systems in apprehending suspects and developing treatment interventions as a form of rehabilitative justice, for specific persons. More research on African-American serial killers should conduct as it is a major research limitation. Part of the limitation was since their data/information was not available making it difficult to profile them. Altogether, this study has provided valuable findings that can help to treat individuals who may exhibit violent or psychopathic tendencies.

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