Offenders who have been classified
as serial murderers (Nelson, 2004) are very limited in numbers and
are difficult to study. Yet, due to the shocking nature of these
crimes, there has been substantial research interest placed on
exploring developmental and motivational factors of these offenders
(Ressler, Burgess & Douglas, 1988; Jenkins, 1994; Lester, 1995;
Egger, 1998; Schlesinger, 2004). One area that has received limited
attention in the literature on serial murder is the possible role of
social learning theory as a developmental factor. From the outset
of this paper, it must be noted that one of the largest studies to
explore social variables of serial murderers was published in 1988
and only involved 36 subjects (Ressler et al., 1988). Although
these authors suggest parental influences may affect the development
of criminal thinking patterns, there is not sufficient data
provided, nor was a control group included in the study to support
social learning theory being statistically significant in serial
It should also be noted that the
majority of what has been learned about serial murderers and is
routinely cited in the literature usually refers to the data
collected from as little as four or five offenders and is anecdotal
in nature (see Ressler & Shachtman, 1992 and Douglas & Olshaker,
1999). The offenders most often referenced in the literature are
Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Edmund Kemper III, and
David Berkowitz. These offenders were extremely open to discussing
their crimes and developmental histories and were sought out
extensively by researchers. Thus, it quickly becomes apparent that
any exploration of serial murder and social learning will be limited
by the number of subjects and the reliability of data.
Unfortunately a great deal of our existing knowledge comes from
offenders who are consistently deceptive and manipulative. It is
well documented that many offenders embellish facts about their
lives and their crimes to gain notoriety, status, and in some cases
to mock researchers.
Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory results in
behaviors that are acquired through modeling or via rewards and
punishment (Krohn, 1999; Wright & Hensley, 2003). With regards to
serial murder, social learning theory would suggest these offenders
learned to kill by watching others or through a gradual process of
being rewarded for homicidal behavior. In reviewing the literature
on serial murderers, this author did not find any evidence of an
identified offender who had a serial murderer as a parent,
caregiver, or in an authority role. As this seems to rule out
modeling as a social learning perspective of serial murder, we must
then turn our attention to whether serial murder may be influenced
through reward situations. By studying the childhoods of serial
murderers, a graduation hypothesis has been suggested (Wright
& Hensley, 2003) to explain how previous experiences may have been
rewarded and created an escalation of behaviors that ultimately
resulted in the murdering of human victims.
In viewing the graduation
hypothesis there is usually an emphasis on the role of animal
cruelty and the genesis of similar violence towards humans. One of
the most thoroughly documented cases comes from the files of Jeffrey
Dahmer, who ultimately murdered 17 victims over the course of his
crime series. As a child, Dahmer reports that he captured and
tortured animals for curiosity but this later turned into a source
of pleasure for him (Wright & Hensley, 2003). Dahmer spoke at
length about his development into a serial murderer and how
experimentation with animals in early life led to later
experimentation with human victims. Of major interest in this case
is the fact that Dahmer used acid to strip the flesh from the bones
of animals and later replicated this behavior when he was murdering
humans (Martens & Palermo, 2005). It is also documented that Dahmer
performed experiments on animals (Ressler & Shachtman, 1997) and
later performed experiments on humans. In his experiments on
humans, Dahmer explains that he drilled holes in the victim’s skulls
and experimented on introducing various amounts of acid into their
brains (Ressler & Shachtman, 1997). It was Dahmer’s primary
motivation to create “zombies” to satisfy his sexual desires
(Ressler & Shachtman, 1997) without the need for emotional bonding
and caring that is normally associated with relationships.
Edmund Kemper III
also had a history of killing animals as a child and developed a
strong fantasy of performing these same behaviors toward humans
(Ressler & Shachtman, 1992). Kemper’s childhood experiences
involved the decapitation of animals and then bringing the heads
back to his room as a trophy (Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Martens &
Palermo, 2005). Later in life, Kemper graduated to decapitating
humans and bringing their heads back to his room, where he would
engage in sexual acts with the heads (Ressler & Shachtman, 1992) and
place them on a shelf as a trophy. When the police captured Kemper,
they arrived at his home to find his mother’s head mounted in his
room as a trophy. Kemper explains that the act of killing his
mother was a cathartic moment that satisfied his murderous desires
As can be inferred
from these two examples, there may be a possible link between
childhood animal cruelty and later re-enactment behaviors resulting
in murder. In a study conducted by Wright and Hensley (2003) on 354
serial murderers, it was discovered that 21% offenders had a history
of animal cruelty as a child. In a study conducted by Ressler,
Burgess & Douglas (1988), it was found that out of a sample of 36
subjects 36% reported a significant history of animal cruelty.
Although a notable percentage of serial murderers reported acts of
animal cruelty, a far larger number of serial murderers do not have
or have not reported such a history. Thus, from a social learning
perspective it would appear more evidence is required to support a
causal relationship between animal cruelty and serial murder.
Animal cruelty as it relates to other possible developmental
factors will be covered in a later section of this paper.
Returning to the social learning
theory, it has been suggested by some authors that a military
experience may contribute to the development of serial murder
dynamics (Castle & Hensley, 2002). From this perspective it is
believed that the concept of killing humans is learned during
military training or actual acts during wartime. For the serial
murderer this becomes a pleasurable experience and is continued with
the initiation and continuation of a crime series. Again, there is
very limited support for this hypothesis since there are not a large
number of serial murderers with military experience. In a study
conducted by Castle (2001) of 354 serial murderers, only 7% were
found to have a military background. Again, with such a small
number, it is difficult to accept learning to kill through military
experiences as a strong explanation for the development of serial
Punishment or Abuse
According to social learning theory
there is also a possible aspect of rewards and punishment that may
hold some significance in explaining resulting behavior (Burgess,
Hartman, Ressler, Douglas, & McCormack, 1986). This would seem more
appropriate to a discussion on classical conditioning, but does have
some merit in regards to the serial murderer. Many serial murderers
disclose being humiliated by parents or women (Holmes & De Burger,
1988; Ressler et al., 1988; Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Egger, 1998)
during their development and explain their series of murders as a
reflection of their anger. Again, Edmund Kemper is an example of a
serial murderer who developed anger toward his caregivers and went
on to kill them. Kemper first killed his grandparents at the age of
15 and later killed his mother (Hickey, 1993; Giannangelo, 1996).
With the exception of his grandfather, all of Kemper’s victims were
women, who were killed and degraded after death, which allowed
Kemper to enact behaviors he wanted to direct toward his mother. He
later performed the same ritualistic murder and degrading behaviors
on his mother.
In this case it would appear as
though Kemper’s severe childhood punishments, which included being
locked in the basement for months in addition to severe mental and
verbal abuse (Hickey, 1997; Giannangelo, 1996) isolated Kemper thus
creating the opportunity for him to formulate violent fantasies and
deprived him of his socialization skills. In the process Kemper
seemed to lose his ability to be emotionally connected with others
and he began to practice the ritualistic killing of animals and
role-playing being an executioner as a form of playfully satisfying
his desire to kill (Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Giannangelo, 1996).
When Kemper graduated to killing humans, he would take the heads of
his victims to his room and keep them for short periods (Hickey,
1997; Giannangelo, 1996). From a symbolic perspective, Kemper
seemed to kill his victims to destroy his mother and release his
anger while saving parts of his victims as a means of maintaining
some form of connection with another human. The most obvious and
disturbing aspect about this “relationship” was the requirement that
interactions must take place with a deceased person.
Social learning has
also been suggested in firesetting behaviors, which according to
Slavkin (2001) may be associated with animal cruelty and as was just
discussed may be associated with serial murder. This association is
best known as being explored and explained through the McDonald
Triad (McDonald, 1961), which has been explored in many contexts
of violence development and prediction. This triad includes animal
cruelty, firesetting, and enuresis beyond the age of 5 years. The
validity of the triad as a predictor of future violence has been
called into question and although there have been serial murderers
who have demonstrated the triad of behaviors, there is not a
significant number to clearly indicate an association.
Like animal cruelty,
firesetting seems to hold a foundation in acquiring control (Singer
& Hensley, 2004) and both may be reinforced by increased arousal and
gratification of sexual (Ressler et al., 1988), biological (Raine,
1993), or psychological needs (Keppel, 1997). The histories of many
serial murderers provide an abundance of physical, sexual, and
emotional abuse at the hands of caregivers (Ressler et al., 1988;
Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005). Under this
theory, serial murderers develop homicidal aggression patterns in an
attempt to gain control over their victims, which is reflective of
their lack of control in childhood or even into adulthood (Burgess
et al., 1986; Ressler et al., 1988; Schlesinger, 2004). Abuse can
lead to a sense of normalization for aggression and the acquisition
of a deviant value system. A value system that includes the use of
aggression and devaluation to meet psychological needs can become
habitual and escalate in intensity, which is very close to the
diagnostic explanation of Sexual Sadism in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1994). This progression
of intensity can eventually lead to the murder of a human out of
anger and a series of murders if the psychological needs are met
through the murders.
Learning theory from
a sexual perspective includes the possible modeling of domestic
sexual violence or anger about parental sexual behaviors, including
abuse (Lester, 1995; Hickey, 1997; Egger, 1998). Again, abuse is at
the core of this learning model and serial murderers with these
histories seem to have paired sexuality and violence. According to
many experts on serial murder, sexuality plays a critical role in
the majority of these crimes (Burgess et al., 1986; Ressler et al,
1988; Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Geberth, 1993; Douglas & Olshaker,
1999). Several serial murderers have reported that parental
promiscuity, deviant sexual practices, or involvement in
prostitution influenced their development toward being a serial
murderer (Jenkins, 1994; Lester, 1995). These offenders went on to
explain that their early introduction to indiscriminate or deviant
sexuality led to a normalization of such practices and the later
escalation of violent sexuality. Some authors have suggested that
serial murder is considered a paraphilia of violent sexuality
(Money, 1986; Purcell & Arrigo, 2006) called erotophonophilia
with the same etiological and developmental pathways.
lectures about criminal sexuality and describes the role of
pornography in the development of violent offenders. Within these
discussions are examples of serial murderers who have explained that
pornography was highly influential in their development of violent
fantasies and later enactment behaviors. Hazelwood makes it clear
however that he does not believe that there is a direct causal
effect between the viewing of pornography and violence. As
Hazelwood explains, pornography is a medium that teaches offenders
to view people and thus later victims as objects to be used for
their sexual gratification (personal communication). In relation to
serial murderers this can also be seen in the research as 81% of
serial murderers report prominent pornography involvement in their
lives (Ressler et al., 1988). In regards to pornography, serial
murderer Ted Bundy made the statement, “The last vestiges of
restraint; the barriers to actually doing something were being
tested constantly…through the kind of fantasy life that was fueled
largely by pornography.” (Dobson, 2007) This statement speaks
loudly for further study about the extent of pornography use with
serial murderers and the possible role of sexual violence.
There have many very successful
books and movies about serial murderers over the years that seem to
have brought with them a fascination and glorification of these
offenders. This writer is not aware of any studies that have been
conducted on the prevalence of serial murderers who may have been
extensively involved in the viewing or reading of materials
featuring serial murder themes, but there are examples providing
some evidence. For example, the serial murderer BTK explained in
his letters to authorities that he was an active reader of books
about serial murderers. When Dennis Rader was captured for the BTK
murders he spoke extensively about his research and knowledge
concerning serial murder dynamics from reading textbooks and true
crime accounts pertaining to other serial murderers.
Dennis Rader may be
suggestive of how media influences can affect the behaviors of a
serial murderer. Other serial murderers have also suggested a
social learning component through the reading or watching of news
accounts about their crimes and changing aspects of their crimes in
response to what has been written or said. In the investigative
process, the modus operandi, or functional behaviors of an
offender may change to successfully complete a crime. In many cases
offenders will increase precautionary efforts in response to news
accounts about their crimes that report evidence being obtained by
investigators. In a crime series such as serial murder, social
learning may also occur in response to the investigation or public
reaction. Many serial murderers become excited by the infamy and
the feeling of power they receive through media accounts. In some
cases this causes offenders to escalate the frequency of their
attacks or the intensity of their violent behaviors. In order to
maintain their infamy or public fear, some offenders have begun
committing murders days apart or have become more brutal in their
killing methods. In this way, the seeking of notoriety may be
viewed as a social learning process with an addictive thrill-seeking
component being a catalyst.
In exploring the
literature on serial murder, there seems to be a theme that is in
direct opposition to the social learning theory in the development
of the serial murderer. According to much of the literature, serial
murderers commonly develop most of their desires and plans to kill
through isolation rather than social processes (Burgess et al.,
1986; Ressler et al., 1988; Sears, 1991). It is suggested that
there is some level of conditioning that may occur during this
process in the form of deviant fantasy followed by masturbatory
rewards (Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Keppel, 1997). There are many
references of serial murderers reporting a high incidence of a
feedback process involving isolation, fantasy that eroticizes
violence, rehearsal behaviors, leading to the initial crime (Burgess
et al., 1986; Ressler et al, 1988; Hickey, 1997; Schlesinger,
2004). It has been suggested by this author that fantasy plays a
critical role in both the development of the serial murderer as well
as the continuation of these crimes (Nelson, 2006) and creates a
qualitative difference concerning the development of these
Fantasy is a
cognitive process that holds some level of significance for each
individual and for many is a personal and private experience. At
some level fantasy assists in developing our sexual interests and
arousal patterns, which are then enacted through our sexual
expressions. In serial murder, the fantasy process involves the
killing of a human as an aspect of the arousal pattern and fulfills
a psychological need of the offender. In healthy development,
fantasies continue to be bound by social mores. Although it is
common for individuals to have fantasies involving bondage or even
rape sequences, they are either not acted upon, or are enacted in a
role-play situation with a consenting partner (Hazelwood & Burgess,
2001). In serial murder the fantasy of killing another human has
become a source of arousal (Nelson, 2006; Purcell & Arrigo, 2006)
and may or may not have sexual undertones. As discussed previously,
fantasy can be influenced by the external world such as pornography,
television, movies, or books, but there has been insufficient
research completed with regards to an interaction between social
learning, fantasy, and serial murder to be labeled anything more
than speculative and anecdotal at this time.
One of the more
interesting findings discovered during the preparation for this
paper is the suggestion that serial murderer development is better
explained by a lack of socialization and social learning (Ressler et
al., 1988; Sears, 1991). It has been well established that many
serial murderers were socially isolated in childhood and did not
develop appropriate skills for interacting with others. As a result
of poor social skills, these individuals were ostracized by their
peers, rejected by females, and developed strong feelings of
resentment and anger toward others. This social isolation continued
into adulthood leading to loneliness and lowered self-esteem
(Burgess et al., 1986; Ressler et al., 1988; Sears, 1991). It is
suggested that loneliness and lowered self-esteem lead to an
increase in reliance upon isolation, fantasy, and violent behaviors
to maintain a level of ego functioning and an outward appearance of
In the motivational
models of serial sexual offenders, including the serial murderer, it
is suggested that these offenders act due to two fundamental
motivational factors. These motivating factors are suggested to be
power, anger, or a combination of the two (Burgess et al., 1986;
Hazelwood & Burgess, 2001). The development of these motivational
factors seems to be directly related to the eventual crimes and has
been studied extensively by researchers (Burgess et al., 1986;
Ressler et al., 1988; Hazelwood & Burgess, 2001; Turvey, 2002)
attempting to explain the development of serial murderers and
formulate typologies for the offenders (Holmes & De Burger, 1988).
The most relevant aspect of understanding the significance of
motivation and serial murder is the fact that motivations are a
reflection of the intrinsic desires of the offender rather than a
result of learning. Future research may wish to explore bullying
dynamics and hostile sexism in relation to the motivations and
developmental pathways of serial murderers.
relies on subjects learning behaviors from someone of authority or
in a respected role. Again, this author did not find a single
example of a serial murderer who may have learned the act of killing
from a caretaker who was also a serial murderer. In fact, many
serial murderers report that they did not have a strong male role
model in their lives. Many times this was the case due to
caretakers, especially fathers, being involved in a form of
criminality other than murder (Ressler et al., 1988). This criminal
lifestyle of the fathers often made them absent from the family due
to incarceration or a disregard for responsibility to their
families. The complete absence of a father is in direct opposition
to the social learning concept of learned aggression (Sears, 1991)
that suggests serial murderers developed their aggressive tendencies
by watching their male role-models. Future research in the area of
the graduation hypothesis seems to hold the most promise for finding
a relationship between learned aggression and later violence.
In viewing serial
murder in this manner, although a great deal of additional research
is necessary, it may be possible that an absence, rather than a
presence of a role model could be a better indicator of the future
murderer. As was just suggested, many serial murderers report poor
relationships with parents or absent parents, which can be
reasonably understood as possibly leading to problems with
delinquency and other criminal behavior. More research seems to be
required in learning more about peer or other sources of social
influences. On the other hand, another argument could also be
proposed based on the fact that many serial murderers and their
families report strong healthy role-models. Bundy and Dahmer are
perfect examples of two serial murderers who grew up in loving and
supportive environments with parents who were not violent and
reportedly provided adequate care. With support for and against
each of these possible developmental pathways, it can best be stated
that the role of caregiver involvement and relationship with a child
may have an effect on a future serial murderer.
murderer research seems to suggest that attachment deficits may also
play a role in an inability to be socially competent. Attachments
can affect the development of an individual in many areas such as
empathetic responses to others and the ability to form and maintain
relationships. Empathetic responses and a lack of an ability to
initiate and maintain relationships can clearly be seen as possible
factors in serial murderer dynamics. Additional research exploring
attachment style as compared to caregiver role-model relationships
and behaviors may provide the context for serial murderer
development. Yet, any such research on attachment must also
incorporate biological factors such as abnormalities of the limbic
regions of the brain that might affect attachment development
(Meloy, 1988; Raine, 1993).
theory traditionally relies heavily upon behavioral modeling and
conditioning. It would be ideal if the development of the serial
murderer could be fully explained by this theory. Not only would it
allow us to formulate a basic understanding of these offenders and
their crimes, but it could possibly allow for preventative
measures. Serial murderers are a focus of attention because their
development and crimes are not understood. They are a source of
fear for most due to the extreme level of violence often attributed
to their crimes and the seemingly random selection of victims.
Although several of the previous topics are found cited in the
literature and seem to support serial murderer development on a
limited basis, from a purely social learning theory perspective
these arguments are weak. Limited research has been done in this
area due to the relative rarity of serial murder offenders and none
of the previously mentioned social learning perspectives have been
strongly supported by the research. Certainly there are possible
correlations that may exist, but there is stronger support from
psychological perspectives to explain serial murderer development
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