Are serial killers born or made? - Rest Less (2024)

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Elise ChristianMarch 7, 2024

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One reason that true crime fascinates so many of us is that we’re curious about what motivates the perpetrators. What drives someone to kill – especially if they do it more than once? And do serial killers feel guilty and ever regret their crimes?

For decades, psychologists have been attempting to unravel the dark and complex minds of these rare individuals – with findings supporting prevention efforts and contributing to society’s understanding of criminal psychology.

While research in this area is still ongoing and it’s impossible to place people in clearly defined boxes; some traits and experiences are commonly linked with serial killers.

Below, we’ll consider whether serial killers are born or made and whether it’s really possible to predict whether someone is predestined to kill.

Trigger warningThis article contains themes of extreme violence and sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised and our thoughts are with anyone who may have been affected by any of the tragic events mentioned here.

Though various factors could contribute to an individual’s reasons for committing multiple murders, some seem to crop up time and again. These include…

Childhood abuse

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Though not all serial killers are abused as children and not all abused children become serial killers, research does show that childhood abuse is more common in ‘lust killers’ (those who kill for sexual gratification).

For example,one landmark US studyof the history of 50 convicted serial killers found that 36% had suffered physical abuse, 26% had suffered sexual abuse, and 50% had suffered physical abuse. These numbers are six times higher than the general population statistics.

Plus, in Robert Ressler’s book,Whoever Fights Monsters, 40% of the serial killers interviewed reported being physically beaten and abused in their childhoods, and 70% reported that they had “witnessed or been part of sexually stressful events” as children.

To look at a few examples of notorious serial killers who have been sexually abused as children…

  • Richard Ramirez from El Paso, Texas killed 13 people in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Growing up, he endured brutal beatings from his father.
  • Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 boys and men between 1978 and 1991. His crimes involved rape, necrophilia, dismemberment, and cannibalism. In 1991, Dahmer’s father reported that his son was molested by a neighbour at the age of 8. His parents also had a toxic relationship and the police were often called to their family home to break up fights.
  • Fred and Rose West raped and killed 12 women and girls between 1967 and 1987. Rose’s father was a paranoid schizophrenic who regularly sexually abused her. Her mother also received shock therapy in the late stages of pregnancy, which, some psychologists feel, could have affected Rose’s development. Fred also claimed that his parents abused him as a child – though his brother has since disputed this, saying there was no abuse in their home growing up.

The experiences we have in early childhood can have a profound effect on shaping our personality and life choices. It’s acommon beliefamong psychologists that individuals who experience early childhood abuse may learn to suppress their emotions and, therefore, never learn the appropriate response to trauma.

Onestudywhich looked at abuse/neglect in childhood suggested that “a child might become ‘desensitised’ to future painful or anxiety-provoking experiences” and that this desensitisation might make “him or her less emotionally and physiologically responsive to the needs of others, to be callous and lack empathy, and to lack remorse or guilt.”

Abuse may alsoaffect a child’s sense of morality, especially when they’re abused by people whom they love and trust, like a parent. For some children, abuse may even become normal – and they may not understand it’s wrong – while others may become bitter as a result of their experiences and look to seek revenge by harming others.


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Psychopathy is a personality disorder commonly linked to serial killers. Individuals with psychopathy exhibit a specific pattern of behaviour that sets them apart from the general population.

Some of the key features associated with psychopathy include…

  • Lack of empathy. Psychopaths have difficulty understanding or feeling the emotions of others. They often lack compassion and fail to recognise the impact of their actions on others.
  • Superficial charm. Psychopaths can be charming and charismatic, but this charm is often used to manipulate others for personal gain.
  • Impulsivity. They tend to act impulsively without considering the consequences, which may lead to risky behaviours and criminal acts.
  • Deceitfulness. Psychopaths are skilled at lying and manipulating, and may create elaborate stories to deceive others.
  • Shallow emotions. While they can experience emotions, their emotional range is limited. They may not feel deep sadness, guilt, or remorse.
  • Irresponsibility. Psychopaths often fail to take responsibility for their actions, blaming others or external circ*mstances instead.
  • Lack of remorse. Even when they harm others, psychopaths rarely feel remorse or regret.
  • Antisocial behaviour. Psychopathy is closely linked to antisocial behaviour, including criminal acts, aggression, and disregard for societal norms.

As you might expect, there’s astrong linkbetween early childhood abuse and developing mental health disorders, such as psychopathy, later in life. Though, of course, not all children who are abused develop psychopathy, and not all psychopaths have been abused as children or go on to become serial killers.

However,researchby Columbia University professor Michael H. Stone, who looked at the biographies of 89 male sexual serial killers, reported that 87% met the criteria for psychopathy, according to the Hare Psychology Checklist. 88% also had a sad*stic personality disorder, meaning they got sexual gratification from hurting others.

In anotherstudy, which looked at 36 German serial killers, 86% had at least one personality disorder – with 36% meeting the criteria for psychopathy.

Some well-known examples of serial killers who psychologists believe to be psychopaths include Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

With all this considered, it’s essential to note that not all psychopaths are violent or criminals. Some psychopaths lead successful lives in various fields, such as business or politics. The diagnosis of psychopathy is typically made using specialised assessment tools, and it remains a complex and controversial area of study.

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There have been many questions raised about whether people are born serial killers or whether environmental factors are the cause. But most psychologists agree that it’s often a combination of both.

When it comes to genetics, some individuals have a variant of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) – nicknamed ‘The Warrior Gene’ due to its associations with aggressive and risk-taking behaviours.

MAOA plays a key role in breaking down the neurotransmitters responsible for positive emotions – such as noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. And, having levels of MAOA that are too high or low can have negative effects on our mood and behaviour.

While you would think that having low levels of MAOA would have a positive effect because of the increase in happy hormones;researchhas revealed that people with low-activity MAOA are often more sensitive to negative stimuli, leading to heightened aggression.

In his TED Talk,Exploring the Mind of A Killer, Neuroscientist, Jim Fallon, explains that the MAOA gene is more common in men, and suggests this may be why more men are serial killers. However, this gene alone is not normally enough to drive someone to kill – and, in fact, Fallon himself, is a carrier of the gene.

Fallon spent 35 years studying the minds of serial killers. After analysing 70 brains (without knowing who was a serial killer and who was a regular person), he suggested that three high-risk factors could exist in someone without leading to murder: brain damage, having the MAOA gene, and overexposure to serotonin in the womb.

But, Fallon believes that the fourth factor – witnessing extreme violence at a young age, before puberty – could be the trigger needed to push someone to commit murder.

The MacDonald triad

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In addition to the factors above, other psychological research suggests that there are a group of behaviours in childhood that may be predictive of, or linked to violent tendencies. These behaviours are animal cruelty, bedwetting, and fire setting.

The theory came about after J.M. Macdonald published acontroversial review in 1963, which examined earlier studies and suggested a link between these behaviours and violent tendencies in adulthood.

Let’s take a look at each of the behaviours and its role in the triad in more detail…

  • Cruelty to animals – Children who harm animals, especially pets, may feel disempowered and be looking to feel a sense of control over their environment. Macdonald suggested that this may be particularly true of children who’ve experienced prolonged abuse by adults.
  • Fire setting – Similar to animal cruelty, children may start fires as a way to vent feelings of anger, and attempt to gain a sense of control over their environment.
  • Bedwetting (after five years old and for several months) – Of the three triads, bedwetting is often seen as the most surprising, as not many people would automatically connect it with murder. However, MacDonald suggested that bedwetting may add to the humiliation that a child feels at the hands of their abuser, and perpetuate the other triad behaviours. Plus, the more a child wets the bed, the more anxious they may feel, which then creates a cycle – as anxiety and bedwetting go hand in hand.

Though Macdonald didn’t find any definitive links between the triad and adult violence, his work inspired other psychologists, who’ve continued to test these findings. For example, in 1966, psychologists Daniel Hellman and Nathan Blackman looked at the histories of 88 people convicted of violent acts of murder anddiscoveredthat while 31 of them had the full triad, 57 only fulfilled the triad in part.

So where are we with the theory today? At present, psychologists tend to agree that there may be some element of truth in the MacDonald triad. But, due to insufficient evidence, it’s far from reliable in predicting whether somebody is likely to commit serial violence or murder later in life.

That said, animal cruelty is one aspect of the triad that is commonly seen in the childhoods of serial killers. For example,researchinto US school shooters found that 45% of them had harmed animals in the past; whilestudiesof aggressive inmates found that a quarter of them had animal abuse tendencies as children.

Jeffrey Dahmer and the Boston strangler, Albert Desalvo, are examples of serial killers who are believed to have targeted animals as children, before moving on to people. Jeffrey Dahmer practised cutting up dogs and cats before dismembering people, while Albert Desalvo locked cats and dogs in crates and shot them with a bow and arrow until they died. He then went on to murder 13 women in the 1960s.

Final thoughts…

Despite decades of research and TV documentaries like Channel 4’s What Makes a Murderer attempting to unpick the complex minds of serial killers, the reality is that psychologists are still unsure what drives some people to kill. And there are a myriad of different factors at play.

While, certain traits and experiences have historically been linked to serial killers – including psychopathy, genetics, child abuse, and the Macdonald triad of behaviours – these cannot accurately predict whether someone is likely to grow up to commit serial murders.

For now, psychologists tend to agree that serial killers are neither purely born nor entirely made and that the truth lies somewhere in between. Their behaviours result from a mix of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors – and further research and understanding of these factors can be useful in the prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation of serial killers.

For further reading, check out our article on 7 of the UK’s most prolific serial killers.

Do you find this article interesting? Are there any other true crime topics you’d like us to cover? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.

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Elise Christian

Elise Christian is lifestyle editor at Rest Less. She joined Rest Less in 2018 after achieving a first class Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Kent, and writes across a range of lifestyle topics such as mental health, home and garden, and fashion and beauty. Prior to this, she worked as a freelance writer for small businesses and also spent a year training to be a midwife. Elise spends her spare time going to the gym, reading trashy romance novels, and - more recently - learning to crochet. She also loves animals, and has a fascination with sharks and tornadoes.

* Links with an * by them are affiliate links which help Rest Less stay free to use as they can result in a payment or benefit to us. You can read more on how we make money here.

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Are serial killers born or made? - Rest Less (2024)


Are serial killers born or made? - Rest Less? ›

There have been many questions raised about whether people are born serial killers or whether environmental factors are the cause. But most psychologists agree that it's often a combination of both.

Who is the youngest serial killer? ›

According to ABP News, Amarjeet Sada was responsible for the murders of three, out of which two went unreported. His horrific actions made him known as the world's youngest serial killer.

Why are serial killers less common? ›

Fox also attributes the decrease in serial killers to changing behaviors among the public as well. With widespread social and cultural changes in the 60s and 70s––drug use, hitchhiking, the hippie movement, anti-establishment sentiment––conditions were prime for predators to go on the prowl, Fox says.

What is the genetic reasoning for serial killers? ›

Development: The following factors were found to be related to violent and potentially criminal behavior: low levels of serotonin in the brain and of 5-HIAA in the CSF; 5-HTTLPR polymorphism of the SLC6A4 gene and the HTR2A and HTR2B encoders.

Do serial killers lack remorse? ›

Key points. It's commonly believed that serial killers feel no remorse. Some serial killers have turned themselves in before police located them. In serial killers' self-surrenders, motives have been mixed, but a few did show remorse.

Who is the most scariest serial killer? ›

7 of History's Most Notorious Serial Killers
  • Jack the Ripper. We call him “Jack the Ripper,” but we don't really know who the person behind one of the older and most notorious murder sprees was. ...
  • Jeffrey Dahmer. ...
  • Harold Shipman. ...
  • John Wayne Gacy. ...
  • H.H. Holmes. ...
  • Pedro Lopez. ...
  • Ted Bundy.

Who was the first serial killer? ›

H.H. Holmes (born May 16, 1861?, Gilmanton, New Hampshire, U.S.—died May 7, 1896, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was an American swindler and confidence trickster who is widely considered the country's first known serial killer.

Do serial killers have high IQ? ›

In general, the IQs of organized serial killers tend to be normal range, with a mean of 98.7. Disorganized serial killers are usually far more impulsive, often committing their murders with a random weapon available at the time, and usually do not attempt to hide the body.

Are most serial killers born or made? ›

There have been many questions raised about whether people are born serial killers or whether environmental factors are the cause. But most psychologists agree that it's often a combination of both.

What serial killer has the most kills? ›

Serial killers with the highest known victim count
NameCountryPossible victims
Luis GaravitoColombia Ecuador Venezuela194–300+
Pedro LópezColombia Peru Ecuador300+
Javed IqbalPakistan100
Mikhail PopkovRussia83+
29 more rows

What brain patterns do serial killers have? ›

Several serial killers and murderers also contain left temporal lobe abnormalities. Other scientific research confirms that temporal lobe abnormalities result in increased aggression and violence.

How common are serial killers today? ›

Serial murder is a relatively rare event, estimated to comprise less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year. However, there is a macabre interest in the topic that far exceeds its scope and has generated countless articles, books, and movies.

What disorder do most serial killers have? ›

Two personality disorders that are common amongst serial killers are anti-social personality disorder (which includes psychopathy) (APD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD), both of which are over-represented in the prison system, when compared to the general population e.g., around 60% of the male prison ...

Do serial killers know they are wrong? ›

Do serial killers feel guilt or awareness that what they're doing is wrong? Scott Bonn: Serial killers who may be psychopaths or sociopaths have antisocial personality disorders for which there is no cure. They know right from wrong, they just don't care. Society's laws and our morality mean nothing to them.

Do serial killers just stop? ›

The truth is that the urge to kill can come and go in a serial killer's life due to many factors. A number of murderers have taken long breaks from killing or even have stopped altogether.

Who is the lowest age serial killer? ›

Amarjeet Sada, a boy born in the Musahari village of Bihar in 1998, is called "world's youngest serial killer". Not much is publicly known about him, but what we do know is he killed three children by the time he was eight years old. Sada's father was a labourer, who struggled to make ends meet.

Who is the youngest child tried as an adult? ›

Curtis Fairchild Jones (born May 31, 1986), now a Christian minister, is the youngest person in the United States to have been tried as an adult and convicted of murder at the time of his conviction. Jones was born in Alabama. He was about 12 years of age at the time of his conviction.

Who is the earliest serial killer? ›

Who was the first documented serial killer? That we know of probably Gilles de Rais, a 15thC French noble and friend of Joan of Arc, who reportedly went loopy after her death and sexually assaulted (sometimes raped) and killed a large number (possibly in the hundreds) of young children, mainly boys.

What serial killer has a daughter? ›

Dennis Rader terrorized Kansas for decades before his arrest in 2005. His daughter, Kerri Rawson, could not bear to see him until this June, when she visited him in prison to help investigators. Kerri Rawson sees her life in two parts: before and after she learned that her father was a serial killer.

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