Why Do People Kill?

It’s a simple question, but people have been asking it for centuries.  In my search for answers, I came across expert opinions that amounted to conflicting information.  In this enlightened age of science and technology, there are numerous methods to identify a murderer and to determine how the murderous deed was accomplished, but the “Why” of killing still baffles many.  Profiling a murderer has gained much ground as a science, but it falls short of definitively answering the question, “Why do some kill to accomplish a specific goal and others choose less lethal methods?”

It’s been documented that the central reasons people kill are for POWER and CONTROL.  Yet we have many influential, successful professionals who don’t murder and never say, “The devil made me do it”.

Of the numerous personality disorders, statistics show that over 50% of Americans fit into one or more of the anti-social personality disorder classifications.  So is it a coincidence that the US has the highest rate of serial killers than any other country in the world?  But what makes specific people turn to murder?

Dr. Pete Ash states that people decide to kill because of a psychological build-up of physical or emotional trauma over time.  He further states that the initial triggers are numerous but considers the major ones are fear, anger, desperation, greed and religious fanaticism.

A noted criminologist, Dr. Lonnie Athens, believes that no one is born a bad person.  He states that psychopaths are not born; they are created.  He further states that mental illness is often not a factor in killing people, an opinion shared by Special Agents in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU).    Dr. Athens concludes that some brutalization in the killer’s lives (possibly the triggers suggested in Dr. Ash’s research) is responsible for the initiation of the specific psychopathology.

Dr. Ash also explains that these initial triggers can be exacerbated when ones natural inhibitions are removed (as with alcohol or mind-altering drugs).  For instance, an otherwise rational person could act out inappropriate anger in the form of road rage while under the influence of a psychotropic drug, or possibly beat someone to death with a pastry roller after sampling too much cooking sherry.

Dr. Paul Mattiuzzi has lectured that individual personality traits play a key role in how certain triggers can evolve into acts of violence and murder.  The chronically aggressive individual as well as those with opposite traits, such as overly suppressed hostility, can react similarly in threatening situations.  And those that are emotionally resentful from a past severe hurt or trauma can become similarly and inappropriately aggressive in specific situations.

So we have to dig deeper to find the emotional triggers that motivate people to murder.  A person may not like his or her significant other, but why does one seek a separation or divorce while another plans a murder?  Why does one person work harder to outperform a competitive coworker while another plans an intricate murder?  Does it all come down to an evolution of a personality disorder?  That certainly makes for interesting murder mystery writing, but is there more involved?

Experts in criminology mostly agree that a specific event in a killer’s life triggers the psychology that eventually preoccupies the mind to act out criminally.  And without proper psychological and pharmaceutical intervention, the need for a specific inappropriate action can eventually become an obsession.  This is the stuff that leads to the development of major criminals and certainly serial killers.

Pharmaceutical interventions are numerous and specific to the psychopathology exhibited, but there are three main categories of drugs used in psychotherapy:

1)   Antidepressants – these increase serotonin levels (more on this next week) and there are two basic types: SSRI’s (such as Prozac) and MAO Inhibitors (such as Nardil)

2)   Anxiolytics – these treat anxiety (such as Xanax and Valium)

3)   Antipsychotics – these treat schizophrenia, especially the delusions and agitation that are exhibited (such as Clozapine)

The mind and its manipulation, either intentionally or accidentally, is interesting subject matter and allows for unique character developments.  I hope this gives you further information for your writing.  It certainly has for me.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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9 Responses to Why Do People Kill?

  1. Jim,
    Interesting as always. While not really an issue in your message, the “over 50% of Americans fit into one or more of the anti-social personality disorder classifications” is itself an indication of a problem — not with society but with the definition of anti-social personality disorder. Using the definition you reference, it “is a mental health condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others.” This includes every politician, military officer, public safety officer, teacher, salesperson, parent, or consultant in any field. The definition then goes on with, “This behavior is often criminal.” If over half of all Americans fit into this definition, then it is the wrong definition. Acceptable behavior needs to include closer to 95% of a population, otherwise you end up with the 1950s era Soviet Union. As you know, I am reasonably ignorant of medical issues in general and medical health in particular, but I have noticed a steady increase in “named” mental diseases. Many of these cover behavior that I have considered as eccentric or weird, and maybe I want nothing to do with the person, but it is rarely criminal. And it does not need to be “fixed.” In my paranoid moments, I think the doctors and pharmacists have figured out that if they name it then they can make money off of it.
    Maybe being labeled “antisocial” is one of triggers for later criminal behavior. Maybe if we didn’t label over half the population as “antisocial” we would be much better off.

    • Interesting observations, Walt, and thanks for the comments. I like to think doctors and pharmacists, as well as other healthcare professionals, are a bit more altruistic than you are thinking in those paranoid moments, but then the headlines do surprise me at times.

  2. Arlee Bird says:

    I think everyone is capable of murder, but fortunately most of us are never provided the necessary trigger to commit the act. I’m sure we all have some breaking point or something that we are so willing to protect.

    I don’t think the statistic about anti-social behavior indicates that these people are labeled anti-social, but they exhibit some symptoms of that behavior. Using that criteria perhaps that statistic could be higher than the 50%. Even if we are classifying, 50% might not be overly high from what I’ve observed. I think a lot of people are anti-social to a great degree, not so much by design as by conditioning related to apprehension, lack of confidence, fear of rejection, and other mental states that cause them to be desirous to avoid certain relationships.

    Another good post on a fascinating topic.

    Wrote By Rote

  3. Appreciate the comments, Lee. I look down the street at my neighbors and I see a bit of oddness in each and every one. I believe our life experiences mold us into who we become, or maybe who we allow ourselves to become, and that’s what makes us interesting to others.

  4. Jim Burk says:

    Exceptionally interesting piece. As I read the blog, my mind flashed to the statistics from the city of Chicago and stats from the city of San Antonio where the brutality and number of murders are increasing. Road rage, now leads to murder. The first take is that violent crimes are increasing exponitially. In actuality it may be that our awareness is greater than ever before because of the 24 hour coverage from the various news media. Moving back to the direction that your blog seemed to suggest would indicate a personality defect or weaknesses in the various components of a personality. Since the components of a personality have not changed since the creation of Adam to the baby that will be born next week, there may be other contributing factors. The first explanation might be the devaluation that folks have for human life. The next step is to say there is a feeling of hopelessness which predisposes a personality to act in a savage or destructive fashion.
    Problems, people and circumstances can create pressures that may cause any personality toward
    violent, ruthless or savage acts. I agree with your assessment in the answer to Lee, “Life experiences mold us and our actions.” Pressures of today’s living may cause the loss of vision
    to the point that some ‘murdeous’ act is the only answer to a problem. Essentially there is no personality that may fail and be driven to the point of a violent crime which is unchanging since
    Cane killed Abel. Thanks for your blog.

    • karl rust says:

      To give a shorter generalized answer ÏT IS SELFISHNESS” Thinking only of your self and NOT thinking of the wellbeing of others. Learning to think of others by helping, volunteering, helps ALL OF US TO BE COMPASSIONATE. By choosing to suffer in whatever way that is, missing the sports game and helping someone, helps our mind to learn nonviolent behaviour.

  5. I like your take on this blog and your focus on other contributing factors that may make certain people react in a specific way to external stimuli. People are the same mix of chemicals and electrical impulses since Adam, but those external factors are ever changing. I really appreciate your contribution here.

  6. Mary S. Black says:

    I have a question. Theoretically, what accounts for a cannibal like Jeffrey Daumer or more recently the guy in Canada? Is this a personality disorder (I would say Yes!), a chemical disorder (could be), psychological trauma, cultural (in some cases) or some combination (probably). I can see committing murder, but EATING?? I don’t know how to explain that.

    • Interesting question and one ripe for debate. Which comes first: the chemical imbalance that leads to the personality disorder, or the abnormal personality traits leading to abnormal chemistry. And let’s not forget all the “triggers” psychologists talk about: how some traumas trigger personality distortions in certain individuals that manifest in unimaginable ways. Makes for some interesting and diversified plot concepts, doesn’t it?

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