Despite the horrific nature of mass murder, many people can’t help but wonder how the mind of a killer operates. What’s their thought process before, during and after the crime? It can be hard to fathom the gruesome details seen in famous true crime cases, which is why many may quick to label mass killers as mentally unstable or sociopaths. However, sociopath is a broad term that can refer to many mental health disorders and is often used interchangeably with psychopath, despite their differences.
What Is a Sociopath?
The term sociopath refers to someone with a flawed moral compass and lack of conscience. They may exhibit significant deficits when it comes to social norms, such as breaking established rules or ignoring the feelings of others. In general, a sociopath tends to lack empathy and display a high degree of antisocial behavior with no remorse. This behavior is usually shaped by environmental factors, such as growing up in an abusive or violent home.
Sociopathic behavior doesn’t inherently lead to criminal actions. However, there’s a link between the two based on the behavior patterns commonly associated with sociopaths, including:
- Acting impulsively
- Lying for personal gain
- Being threatening or aggressive toward others
- Not learning from mistakes or punishment
- Being charming or charismatic to manipulate others
- Maintaining superficial relationships
- Difficulty handling daily responsibilities, such as paying bills or going to work
- Stealing or committing other crimes
Sociopaths may find it difficult to feel or regulate their emotions. They might experience rage or anger without being violent. They may also feel guilt or remorse for their actions, but this usually won’t deter them from acting inappropriately.
What Is a Psychopath?
The term psychopath is used to describe someone who’s unemotional, morally depraved and mentally unstable. Psychopaths typically feel a lack of remorse for their actions and often engage in criminal activities. However, psychopathic behavior can vary depending on the individual, and some people may exhibit psychopathic traits without being a psychopath.
To be considered a psychopath, an individual must display psychopathic traits alongside antisocial behavior. Psychopathic traits include:
- Lack of empathy or remorse
- Inability to distinguish right from wrong
- Disregard for safety or responsibility
- Superficial charm
- Manipulative or abusive behavior that conflicts with social norms
Many psychopathic traits overlap with symptoms of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a mental health condition characterized by irresponsible, impulsive and criminal behavior. Despite the symptom overlap, only a small percentage of those with ASPD are considered psychopaths.
Common Mental Disorders of Serial Killers
The term mass murderer is broadly defined as a person who kills at least three or four people, depending on the source. According to the FBI, a serial killer is defined as someone who commits at least two murders at different times. The murders must be separate events to distinguish serial killing from mass murder. Although these definitions account for the number of victims, they leave out the motivation behind the killings and whether the perpetrator has a mental disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) doesn’t contain a psychological killing disorder, but there are several mental illnesses that famous serial killers have been diagnosed with.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
People with ASPD are usually reckless, deceitful, manipulative and apathetic toward others. They may act out violently or break the law without showing any guilt or remorse. Genetics and traumatic childhood experiences, such as neglect or abuse, are thought to play a role in the development of ASPD. Those with the disorder are also at a higher risk of misusing drugs and alcohol as an adult and of dying prematurely due to reckless behavior.
Research suggests that ASPD affects about 2% to 4% of men and 0.5% to 1% of women. An individual must be at least 18 years old to be diagnosed. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson were all diagnosed with ASPD.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) severely impacts a person’s ability to regulate their emotions, resulting in intense mood swings and unstable relationships. People with BPD may often engage in reckless behaviors, such as substance abuse, unsafe sex, spending sprees or binge eating. Their feelings for others can change quickly, and they often struggle with distorted self-perception, leading to self-harming behaviors, dissociative episodes and chronic feelings of emptiness.
It’s estimated that 1.4% of the U.S. population struggles with BPD, and a significant number of these diagnoses are among women. Aileen Wuornos, Kristen H. Gilbert and Jeffrey Dahmer were all diagnosed with BPD.
People with schizophrenia often struggle with a distorted perception of reality that affects how they think, feel and behave. The disorder is characterized by auditory and visual hallucinations or delusions that may influence individuals to hurt others out of an irrational fear of being in danger. They may become socially withdrawn, experience difficulty showing emotion and lose interest or enjoyment in daily activities.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that schizophrenia affects less than 1% of the U.S. population. Despite the low percentage, schizophrenia is in the top 15 leading causes of disability worldwide. Many people with schizophrenia aren’t violent, but it’s been diagnosed in some serial killers, such as Ed Gein and David Berkowitz, also known as the “Son of Sam.”
How to Treat Individuals Who Are Mentally Unstable
Serial killer behavior isn’t based solely on sociopathic or psychopathic traits but also social and environmental influences, traumatic or abusive experiences and mental illness. Being diagnosed with ASPD, BPD or schizophrenia doesn’t mean an individual is a sociopath or psychopath. There are many people with these mental health diagnoses who are nonviolent and never hurt or kill anyone.
Although each mental health condition has its own set of signs and symptoms, professional help may be needed if someone shares thoughts or statements about harming others or displays excessively angry, hostile or violent behavior. Consistent treatment, such as a combination of medication and psychotherapy, can help mentally unstable individuals manage their symptoms and live meaningful, productive lives.
If you or a loved one is struggling with their mental health, help is available. Restore Mental Health offers services designed to treat various mental illnesses, helping individuals get the care and emotional support they need. Contact us today to speak to a trained mental health professional and learn more about our services.