The Psychology of a Serial Killer: Mental Disorders, History, Family, and More

Serial killers commit heinous acts that are unimaginable to the average human being.

Identifying the motive for acts of violence such as murder is something doctors have been researching for decades. Motives are not always clear, and victims often have no prior relationship with the killer.

Serial killers are defined as people who have killed at least three people, with a period of time in between, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI also notes that with these crimes, there is usually an indication that the killer felt dominance over his victim.

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The unidentified Jack the Ripper is often considered the first modern serial killer. Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy are others who have become the subject of many true crime podcasts and talks, books and movies.

John Wayne Gacy, The Zodiac Killer, HH Holmes, Samuel Little, and Dennis Rader are also among some of the most well-known serial killers in history.

Ted Bundy’s victims were mostly college-age girls. (Getty Images)

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What are the early signs of a serial killer?

Serial killers often have a history of trauma or neglect, according to Psychology Today.

Engaging in criminal behavior is common, especially having a fascination with setting fires and harming or torturing animals.

Although having an antisocial personality can be a trait exhibited by serial killers, a common myth is that all serial killers are loners. However, this is not always the case.

Historically, there have been serial killers who maintain relationships with their friends, have families of their own, own a house, have a job and are active members of society, according to the FBI.

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Jack the Ripper drawing

Jack the Ripper is known as the world’s first modern serial killer. (Art images via Getty Images)

Are serial killers mentally ill?

Serial killers, as a group, have been diagnosed with a variety of different personality disorders, according to the FBI. Some serial killers have shown symptoms of psychosis, according to Psychology Today.

“Psychosis refers to a set of symptoms that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “During an episode of psychosis, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are altered and they may have difficulty recognizing what is real and what is not.”

Others are diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder. The disorder is “a mental illness that causes unusual changes in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels and concentration,” according to the source.

Jeffrey Dahmer in court

Jeffrey Dahmer was murdered by inmate Christopher Scarver in November 1994. (Curt Borgwardt/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

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Some serial killers display traits that are consistent with psychopathy, which is defined as “a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by impaired emotional responses, lack of empathy, and impaired behavioral controls, often resulting in persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behavior” by National Institutes of Health. . The FBI notes that serial killers often experience a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, a need for control, and predatory behavior, all of which are consistent with the disorder.

Although mental illness is present in certain cases, most serial killers are not considered insane by law, according to the FBI.

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