It isn’t news that society is fascinated with serial killers and their motives. So … what exactly makes a murderer? According to FBI.gov, “Serial murderers, like all human beings, are the product of their heredity, their upbringing, and the choices they make throughout development.” But even with this knowledge, mothers of notorious killers reported their children showed no violent behavior growing up, so it’s all still kind of a mystery.
Here, we explain what you and an infamous serial killer could have in common.
Bradley Waldroup had the MAOA gene — could you?
An NPR Talk of the Nation details how neuroscientists are utilizing brain scans and research to identify similarities between killers. James Fallon, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, came to a conclusion after decades of studying brain activity in serial killers.
Fallon’s research involved three factors, two of which were brain function and genes. He believes serial killers have a less active orbital frontal cortex (the part of the brain that is involved in moral decision making) and may possess the MAOA gene. This gene, also called the “warrior gene,” can predispose serial killers to violent behavior.
Donald Henry Gaskins had a complicated family history
Some of the most notorious serial killers of our time have sketchy family histories; Ted Bundy, Donald Henry Gaskins, and Ed Gein. Even the fictional, “constructive” killer Dexter Morgan from Showtime’s Dexter was abandoned by his mother at age 3. This complicated history, often a result of neglectful parenting and divisive family structure, can contribute to a serial killer’s actions.
The tendencies of a serial killer can be transmitted generationally as a result of poor parenting, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found.
Charles Manson was a victim of child abuse
Abuse takes many forms; physical, verbal, and psychological. The emotional damage children of abuse carry with them is a significant factor that contributes to their violent behavior as an adult, according to FBI research on the subject.
A Radford University study reported that, “over 40% of the [serial] murderers reported being physically beaten and abused in their childhoods” whether by neglect, emotional trauma, or sexual misconduct. The Crime Museum found that this abuse often perpetuates humiliation and helplessness. These children may grow up with the motivation to instill these feelings in their victims.
Tiago Gomes da Rocha killed when rage struck
Violence is often a result of anger and additional factors — and Tiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha is no exception. The Brazilian serial killer confessed to killing over 39 victims, saying, “When the anger comes, you have to do it.”
A Harvard study on reducing murder found statistics that support the idea of anger as a motivational factor in a serial murderer. The study drew connections between violent, recurring murder offenses and prior restraining orders, domestic violence, and police records in their subjects. These charges all indicate an inability to effectively manage anger on the part of the offender.
Ted Bundy was infamous for his charm
Another trait of many psychopaths (and as a result, many serial killers) is their manipulative, charming demeanor to the public. They have an uncanny ability to mimic appropriate social behaviors and empathy that they don’t actually feel.
Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer are two famous serial killers who were notoriously endearing. Bundy would feign injuries to lure in his victims, and Dahmer was a class clown known around school for his antics. This superficial charm aids perpetrators in developing trustworthy relationships with their potential victims without any qualms of lying.
Harold Shipman was a high-ranking doctor
Power addiction is an attribute many people in today’s political and economic climate face. However, this desire for power may affect potential criminals in terrifying ways. A serial killer may choose to act based on the lack of power they felt in childhood or in their relationships.
TIME lists CEO as the profession with the most psychopaths. By killing, a murderer may feel they’ve finally attained the power they strive for in other areas of their life.
The one commonality: They are all psychopaths
We often generalize the term “psycho” when we refer to an ex-partner or fair-weather friend. While there are many common misconceptions about what truly makes someone a psychopath — this is the one personality trait all serial killers have in common to some degree. While all psychopaths don’t become serial killers, research indicates that all killers possess the traits consistent with psychopathy.
Forensic psychologist Michael Stone says serial killers are what he calls the profoundly psychopathic, or “those who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity, but most importantly cunning and manipulativeness.” As Stone puts it, “They have no remorse for what they’ve done to other people.”