Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation


"My mother and I were very happy, extremely happy, more than happy," Alan Bates in Psycho (1961), who years before, murdered his mother in a jealous rage.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock's
classic film, Psycho

When we use the term "psycho", many people conjure up the image of Anthony Perkins as the murderous innkeeper in Hitchcock's film classic Psycho,(1961), which scared the hell out of audiences in the 1960s. But the reality of a psychopathic personality is much different than the Alan Bates character in the movie. The psychopath is most often not a killer or a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. The majority of psychopaths lead somewhat normal lives and never commit an act of violence, though they may wreak havoc wherever they go.

Psychological theories assume that crime is a result of poorly conditioned behavior or a dysfunctional personality. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) developed a set of psychological concepts that profoundly affected the criminological world. Freud believed that human behavior is best understood through psychoanalysis which probes the innermost thoughts of the individual. Freudian psychologists believe that a dysfunctional personality can have a wide array of causes, such as improper learning or early childhood trauma, which result in an adult mental imbalance. In an extensive study of serial killers, researchers found that they suffered from varying degrees and types of trauma in their youth.

A painting done by serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, executed in Texas
A painting done by
serial killer Henry Lee
Lucas, executed in

Psychologists say that a childhood psychological disturbance can be so overwhelming that it can cause later deviant behavior. Mental anguish of this severity manifests itself in many modern-day serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz. After their capture, some of these killers have produced paintings and drawings in prison which, some say, display further evidence of their emotional scars. Serial killer art has appeared on eBay and some of this controversial work has turned up in the nation's auction houses. Arthur Shawcross, the "Genesee River Killer," convicted of 16 murders in upstate New York, had his paint privileges revoked in 1999 when it was discovered that one of his paintings was being sold on the Internet.

Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey McDonald convicted of the murders of his wife and two daughters in 1970. (AP)
Green Beret Capt.
Jeffrey McDonald con-
victed of the murders
of his wife and two
daughters in 1970.

The psychopath, also called a sociopath, is a personality that is characterized by cruelty, egotism, impulsive conduct and no remorse for his or her actions. Other traits include selfishness and an inability to give love and affection to others. True loyalty, warmth and compassion are foreign to psychopaths and they usually do not respond to acts of kindness. They have a remarkable disregard for truth and often become pathological or compulsive liars. Antisocial personalities usually do not perceive their behavior as dysfunctional because they see themselves as normal and often feel persecuted by society. They do not anticipate personal consequences and, even under high-pressure conditions, they remain cool and calm in their demeanor. They have been called moral idiots and their conduct is usually motivated by an excessive physiological need for thrills and excitement. O.J. Simpson has been described as a sociopathic personality. So has Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and Captain Jeffrey McDonald, the Green Beret doctor who murdered his family in 1970. Studies indicate that 3% of the male population may have an antisocial personality (Encarta '99). Psychopaths frequently violate the rights of others and as such, they usually come into contact with the police. They will continue their criminal careers throughout their lives, unlike other criminals who usually burn out as they get older. Ultimately, psychopaths frequently wind up in jail or prison. It has been estimated that as much as 30% of the prison population can be classified as sociopathic.

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