Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers

A Paper On Analysis

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Psychology Research & Review

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Nature vs. nurture is a hot topic of debate in the psychological community. One of the best targets for study in this area is serial killers. This is because they are so mysterious in their behavior and it is common for people to want to know why they are who they are. Here that question will attempt to be answered. Three serial killers are looked at and nature and nurture is applied to each one to try to attempt answer this age old question.

The debate dealing with nature vs. nurture has been ongoing since the beginnings of psychology with no definitive answer as to which one plays the largest role. Some psychologists claim that nature is the deciding factor in how a person turns out. Some say it is nurture that is the deciding factor, while others still, say that it is a mixture of each. This paper will examine nature vs. nurture in some of the most intense cases that people have studied in length to attempt to pinpoint which factor played the most important role. Three cases will be examined. One that points mostly to nature; one that points mostly to nurture; and one that point to a mixture of the two. There will still be no definitive answer as to which one plays the biggest role. That will be for the reader to decide as even scientists have no idea.

Nature and Nurture

The debate of nature versus nurture is an ageless debate among the psychological community. Is it one or the other? Or, is it a mixture of the two? Nature is defined by the genetic code of the person. It takes into consideration DNA and biological connections. “Theories that base their understanding of human behavior on "nature," focus on characteristics that we are born with, like our genetic make-up, stable personality traits, and physical predispositions.” (Hartney, 2010). Nurture is quite the opposite. People on the side of nurture are of the opinion that it is the environment that determines who a person is and becomes. “theories that base their understanding of human behavior on "nurture," emphasize those experiences that mold and change us throughout our lives, such as how our parents raised us, what we were taught at school, and our culture. (Hartney, 2010). Nature and nurture can be studied in various ways on many different types of people. The extreme classification though is when these theories are applied to a group of people who are hard to examine at best. Serial killers, for example, are so complex that the nature vs. nurture debate seems to have just gravitated towards them in the hopes of answering the age old question; do they kill because of nature or because of nurture?

All serial killers are murderers but not all murderers are serial killers. There are key differences between murderers and serial killers. “A serial killer is someone who kills at least three victims one by one in a series of sequential murders, with a form of psychological gratification as the primary motive.”(Smith, 2003). Therein lays the key difference. A serial killer is mainly motivated by the psychological gratification of the act while an average murder may be committed for reasons such as revenge or robbery. The typical serial killer profile is that of a white male between the ages of 20 and 30 who commonly target their victims within the vicinity of their living space. There is usually a cooling off period before another killing occurs but as the crimes get closer together then it is apparent that the killer has hit a peak and needs more to fuel his psychological desires. While this is the typical profile there are exceptions to the rules as will be seen in this article. Not all serial killers fit this profile and this is obvious through history as women have been known to become serial killers themselves. No matter what sex, age, or race a serial killer is, is it feasible to think that it can be determined how they became serial killers? Was it nature or what it nurture? Maybe it was both.

Nature: The Son of Sam
When looking for a serial killer whose profile leans mainly towards nature, David Berkowitz, AKA Son of Sam, is one that stands out above most others. David described as quiet and polite by all who knew him, is one of New York’s most infamous serial killers to date. Going by the alias Son of Sam, David went on a crime spree that lasted from July 1976 till July 1977 killing 6, and wounding (some very seriously) at least 8, leaving one paralyzed for life. It was later found that the attacks were rather random. The big question is what caused this polite and quiet young man to become a monster in the night? Evidence points to nature.

Nature deals with genetics. This makes good sense in David’s case as the nurturing that he received, by all appearances, seemed to be appropriate. David was raised by his adopted parents Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz. “He had a normal childhood in the Bronx with no clear warning signs of what was yet to come.” (Bardsley, 2011). By all accounts, even by David himself, his adoptive parents were loving and kind to him, supporting him each step of the way. Thought they were not a rich family they gave David what he needed and treated him with the love of a real parent. Growing up in an environment that was conducive to good mental health and an overall happiness was not enough to override David’s natural propensity for violence and it began to be noticeable by friends and neighbors that David had a violent streak. Because his nurturing was of standard quality the nature of his inner self must be examined.

When Pearl Berkowitz died David’s mental health seemed to quickly decline. Not knowing who he was or where to turn, he searched for and found his birth mother. He found that she had conceived him with her married lover who forced her to put David up for adoption using the threat of leaving her for good. While this writer could find no record of David’s biological families mental health conditions or criminal history, it is assumed, for the purpose of this paper, that there were biological factors from his real family that contributed greatly to his condition and behavior. While it is a leap to make such an assumption, it is clear that the nurturing he received from his adopted parents could not have possibly played a role in the killer he came to be.

Nurture: Nannie Doss
While there are many cases where nurture plays an obvious role in the making of a serial killer, Nannie Doss stood out greatly to this writer. Nannie was, even as a small child, infatuated with the idea of love and it was the one thing she craved her entire life. Her childhood was a very unhappy one where she was forced to do heavy and laborious work and play time was not permitted. Her father was not the ideal loving parent who dotted on his little girls. It was said of him that “After all, James Hazle was the boss and, if rumors are correct, he wouldn't spare the switch — on his daughters or his wife — to get what he wanted.”(Geringer, 2011). By most accounts, her father was abusive and did not show love in any way. This is one theory on why Nannie was so obsessed with the idea of being loved. When she did finally find a man to marry she quickly found that in losing her demanding and abusive father she had gained the same in her new mother-in-law. Unhappy with her new situation of having to live with a woman like her father and a husband who cowered to her, Nannie had many affairs. She was not promiscuous for the sake of sexual gratification but in the search to find the feeling of being loved even if only for a brief time.

The marital relationship steadily declined and when two of their children died (the deaths were ruled accidental but there was little doubt that they were poisoned by Nannie) her husband left with their remaining children except for their newborn daughter. Nannie was left behind with the newborn and her mother-in-law (who died of natural causes before her son returned). Upon his return he brought with him a new woman and her child. Nannie packed up herself and her children and left cursing her husband for what he had done to her life. Still obsessed with finding love and never wanting to be alone, Nannie began her search for another husband and found on in 1929. This time she thought she had the perfect man just to find out that he was a heavy drinker with a criminal record.

Though her new husband beat her and abused her children she stayed on for 16 years. The marriage only ended because her husband died. Nannie, taking his liquor jar, poured in some rat poison and he died quickly. Nannie married once again in 1947, again thinking she had found the perfect man. However, once again she had married a man who liked woman and drinking too much. Her affairs began once again and it would not be long till her new husband would meet the same fate as her first. This happened again with a third husband who also met his death after marrying Nannie. After killing all these husbands (it is still not understood what motivated her to kill her children) it became apparent that she was moved by nurture to commit these crimes. Her father showed no love, only coldness, hardness, and abuse. The men she married gave her more of the same. Being treated badly sent her over the edge. Maybe she was predisposed to these traits and her nurturing just triggered her behavior. Maybe she only killed out of sheer anger at the hand life dealt her. Either way, the case of Nannie Doss points more towards nurture than anything else.

Nature and Nurture: Carl Panzram
Of all the serial killers documented throughout history, Carl Panzram is quite possibly the hardest to study. This man was, as history tells us, as close to inhuman as one can get. His crimes began at the age of 8 and carried on throughout his entire free life. Nothing was off limits to this killer. He raped, burned, and brutally beat men, women, and children. Because of these heinous crimes he was dubbed by the world as too evil to live. He even agreed with this statement himself being quoted as saying “I was so full of hate that there was no room in me for such feelings as love, pity, kindness or honor or decency," he said, "my only regret is that I wasn't born dead or not at all.” (Gado, 2011). What caused a human being to not only harm others in such horrible ways but to also hate themselves with such a burning passion? Was it nature or nurture? With Carl Panzram it was clearly a mixture of the two.

As far a childhood went, it appeared to be a typical upbringing for young Carl. Born in 1951 on a farm in Minnesota, hard work and little play were common for children. “His parents were of German descent, hard-working, stern and like most other immigrants of that era, dirt poor. Carl eventually had five brothers and one sister.” (Gado, 2011). Though this was the life they all led, his brothers and sisters were known to have grown up to be honest and decent people, the very traits that passed Carl by completely. At the age of 11, his parents could no longer handle his violent and criminal behavior and sent him to a boarding school, which in those days, was more like a prison for grown up men. In this facility, he was horribly abused, sexually, physically, and verbally. This treatment had a profound effect on Carl. “The more beatings he endured, the more hateful he became. He was hit with wooden planks, thick leather straps, whips and heavy paddles. But during all that time, Carl was planning revenge.” (Gado, 2011).

Once he was realeased from the school and went back to his home, his mother tried to make things better for him and the family as a whole, but Carl was past saving having incurred too much damage in his short life. “He knew nothing else in his brief life except suffering, beatings and torture. His youthful mind dwelled on things of which most children knew little.” (Gado, 2011). There was to be no happy family reconciliation and it would not be long before Carl would leave his family home for good. He has been quoted as saying “I fully decided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill everywhere I went and everybody I could as long as I lived.” (Gado, 2011). Carl lived up to this statement very well. He went to his death with a taunting smile on his lips and never once showed any remorse or regret for any choices he made during his life.

This is nature and nurture mixing at its most clear. From his own accounts, Carl was born bad. He had always known that he would be a monster. Once he was put in boarding school and the abuse and torture began, those genetic traits within him were further triggered. No matter how much his mother tried to love him, Carl would be a killer. Between his nature (propensity to violence) and his nurturing (the abuse he suffered at the boarding school), Carl’s fate was sealed.

There will never be an end to the debate over nature and nurture. Having examined the three cases of different serial killers it does however become clear that in certain cases one take over more than the other. For David, nature was stronger then nature. For Nannie, nurture was stronger than nature. And for Carl, both were equally powerful. It is this writer’s conclusion that both nature and nurture play a significant role in who we become, though the pull may be stronger on one end or the other. There are no rules here. Who we become due to genetics and environment can only be decided on a case by case basis. That is clear by the studies on serial killers.

Bardsley, M. (Designer). (2011). Son of sam. [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/berkowitz/letter_1.html
Gado, M. (2011). Carl panzram: too evil to live part 1 [Television series episode]. In Tru tv.

Geringer, J. (Designer). (2011). Nannie doss the lonely hearts lady who loved her man to death. [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/women/doss/1.html
Hartney, E. (2010, April 1). What is the nature vs nurture debate? Retrieved from http://addictions.about.com/od/howaddictionhappens/f/naturevsnurture.htm
Smith, S.E. (2003). What is a serial killer [Web log message]. Retrieved from


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