Serial Killers: A Psychological Perspective

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The understanding of human behavior has been a subject of great importance for different natural and social disciplines such as, psychology, anthropology, sociology among others; this has allowed to the discovery of psychological and social factors that lead to the evaluation of different human behaviors, which has been of great help when it comes to labeling personality traits and conduct disorders, especially in serial killers.

A serial killer, is consider a person who murders three or more people in a period of 30 days or more, with a cool off period between each murder, and whose motivation is based on the psychological satisfaction that the act of killing provides. Serial killers are specifically motivated by a multitude of psychological impulses, especially cravings for power and sexual compulsion. Crimes are often carried out in a similar way, and victims commonly share some characteristics such as profession, sex, age, and race.

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According to Dr. Knight’s research, most serial killers exhibit some type of abuse at some point during their childhood. “The mothers of these serial killers, as indicated, were domineering and controlling, punitive and rejecting, or overprotective and seductive, while the fathers were (literally or symbolically) absent. These primary figures, in failing to give sufficient mirroring and idealization, and in lacking recognition of their infant’s emerging needs for grandiosity and idealization.” (Knight, 2006, p. 1199) In her study, Dr. Knight also emphasizes why “many serial killers, as pathological narcissists, are interpersonally manipulative and exploitative, and why their relationships are shallow and lack intimacy, and why they vacillate between devaluation and idealization of the object relations” (Knight, 2006, p. 1199) which explains why criminals fantasize about murder since childhood; they have no remorse or guilt, and acquire a defensive and manipulative personality.

Serial killers are categorized into two different types: organized and disorganized: Organized killers usually have an above-average IQ; they plan their crimes in a very methodically, and cautious way. Sometimes they carry out their murders out of spite, and, to cover up, they involve other people in their planning. Usually, they kidnap their victims, after gaining their trust, killing them in one place and getting rid of their body in another. Sometimes, this type of serial killers look for revenge among people who were part of their life and who marked them in some way. On the other hand, unorganized killers commit their crimes impulsively. While an organized killer will specifically go hunting for a victim, the disorganized will kill someone whenever the opportunity arises, rarely bothering to get rid of the body, leaving it in the same place where they met their victim. They usually carry out surprise attacks, assaulting their victims without warning, and will typically perform horrendous acts such as necrophilia, mutilation, and cannibalism. “In their fantasy, the victim becomes the perfect other and this devouring of their victim fulfils their unconscious need to be a part of the perfect other, to experience the “you are perfect and a part of me” experience.” (Knight, 2006.)

Serial killers share common characteristics. The vast majority come from dysfunctional homes, where the presence of a dominant parent can be appreciated; others were just simply victims of abandonment and rejection, “research into the impact of childhood abuse and neglect on violent behavior of adults who became serial killers concluded that adults who had been physically, sexually and emotionally abused as children were three times more likely to act violently as adults” (Knight, 2660, pg.1199). There are even cases of genetic pre-dispositions such as brain tumors, mental illnesses, and traumas that acted as an external factor that triggered criminal behavior. There is no doubt that further research is required to provide more evidence in order to fully understand the motivation and behaviors of serial killers.


  1. Knight, Zelda G. (2006). Some thoughts on the psychological roots of the behavior of serial killers as narcissists: An object relations perspective. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal. EBSCO. Web. 1 Feb. 2019.
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Serial Killers: A Psychological Perspective. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
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