Born a killer or made a killer?

Charles Manson, the 1960s cult leader whose followers committed heinous murders that terrorized Los Angeles and shocked the nation, died on Nov. 19 of natural causes, according to the California Department of Corrections. He was one of America's most notorious serial killers. According to the Oxford Dictionary website, a serial killer is defined as a person who kills three or more people, often with no apparent motive and typically following a characteristic, predictable behavior pattern.

Dr. Helen Morrison is a forensic psychologist who focuses on the minds of serial killers and has interviewed over 135 serial killers in her career. Morrison aims to identify what causes someone to become a serial killer and how these people develop overtime. She has found what she calls “a cookie cutter syndrome”, a striking similarity in serial killers: they tend to be white males who are charming, remorseless hypochondriacs and see their victims as inanimate objects.

“No matter what country, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic background, education, familial background, they are all exactly the same,” Morrison said, according to CBS News.

The burning question many psychologists and criminologists have been trying to answer is whether these murderers are born with a need to kill or if they develop the traits through their upbringing. Unfortunately, there is no definite answer to this question. Many people argue that their tendency to kill is a mix of both their genetics and family upbringing.

“Both nature and nurture are at play. There isn’t a huge sample size to compare serial killers to so the answer to whether it is nature or nurture is mostly based off theory,” Criminal and Civil Law teacher Leslie Hosgood said.

NATURE: Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist, has discovered that the brains of serial killers have low activity in the orbital cortex which is responsible for ethical behavior, moral decision making and impulse control. This means that serial killers have less than normal suppression of behaviors such as rage, violence, sex and drinking. Fallon also tested DNA for genes associated with violence and his research led to zeroing in on the MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A), also known as the “warrior gene”. This gene regulates serotonin in the brain which affects a person's mood. Many researchers believe that a certain version of the “warrior gene” is unable to respond to the calming effects of serotonin and therefore leads to violence.

“Research has been done into the brains of some serial killers and other non-serial killers born with antisocial personality disorder and it has been found that they have smaller frontal lobes. However, we do not know as to why that is,” AP Psychology teacher Jamie Paoloni said.

NURTURE: Just like Manson, most serial killers grow up lonely or isolated and do not have strong, positive relationships in their life. According to Dr. Morrison, many were victims of abuse whether it be emotionally, physically or sexually when they were children. They also never developed a sense of attachment and belonging to the world and are therefore unable to empathize with their victims. According to the FBI’s statistics, the childhood homes of more than 70 percent of serial killers experienced problems related to alcohol and substance abuse.

“Many serial killers share similar factors such as low IQ, poverty, abuse and ADHD. They are often antisocial and lack positive turning points in their life,” Hosgood said.


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