Skip to Main Content

Student Research Guide WQ23/ Understanding the Psychology of Serial Killers

By Isadora White

Major Findings From This Research


What spurs a serial killer to start killing (what happened in their childhood)? 

Research has shown that serial killers often have a history of childhood abuse, neglect and trauma. This type of early life experience can lead to the development of personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a severe mental disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of instability in affect, impulse control, interpersonal relationships and behavior. ASPD is characterized by a lack of empathy, impulsivity and a disregard for the rights and feelings and emotions of others.


What typical subtypes and patterns are found in serial killers?

Serial killers exhibit specific behavioral patterns that can help law enforcement officials identify them. For example, a common pattern found among serial killers is the use of a specific modius operandi (MO). The MO is the killer's method of operation, or the way in which they carry out their crimes. Serial killers often have a consistent MO, which can help law enforcement officials link crimes together and identify the killer.

Researchers have also identified several subtypes of serial killers based on their characteristics, behavior patterns, and motivations. Some of the most commonly recognized subtypes of serial killers are the following: visionaries. These serial killers are driven by auditory or visual hallucinations and believe they are carrying out a mission or receiving instructions from a higher power. They often experience delusions and may suffer from severe mental illness. Mission oriented killers: those who are motivated by a desire to rid the world of a specific group of people, such as prostitutes or members of a certain race religion. They believe that their killings are justified and may see themselves as vigilantes. Hedonistic killers are motivated by the pleasure they derive from killing.


Why are Americans enthralled by prolific killers (what draws them to serial killers)?

Serial killers have caught the public’s eye for decades, with numerous books, films, and television shows depicting the horrific crimes committed by these individuals while also spreading misinformation. The media has provided serial killers a platform, giving them a celebrity-like status. Egger (2002) reveals in his analysis of seven of the most notorious American serial killers, the majority ‘seemed to enjoy their celebrity status and thrive on the attention they received’.

Research Advice and Reflection


Advice for future researchers:

When starting out my research, I struggled to find keywords that fit my topic (make sure to always try keyword searches without the quotation marks around a statement like "serial killer"). There were many keywords that I thought would work, but actually led me down a different path, so when researching, take note of keywords written in journal descriptions that give you resourceful information about your topic, instead of blindly messing around with keywords. ScienceDirect was a database I used often, it gave me factual information, and suppled the most about the findings of the psychology of serial killers. Also, many journals I found went into specific categories, such as specific disorders in serial killers, or a specific pattern researched in serial killers. While you may not find it a good use of your time to read about something that is specific and doesn't entirely relate to your research thesis, I suggest looking at articles like that. I found that I could center much of my research around those specific alleyways that the articles provided, and they ended up becoming very useful and a bulk of my research. 


Reflection on research experience:

I chose to write about this topic because it will be pertaining to my future career, and I enjoyed diving into the bountiful information about why serial killers think the way they do. I found a book that I would really like to read, James Fallon's The Psychopath Inside. 

I struggled at the beginning to find footing in the specific topic (psychology of a serial killer) because there were so many different topics that could branch out from serial killers. I also didn't know what my keywords should've been besides psychology and serial killer*, but once I understood what to search for, I found sources more easily. I had a fun time researching my topic and am looking forwards to learning more about serial killers in my future career.

All Content CC-BY.