Thinking About Killing

I have always been interested in forensic psychology. What I find most intriguing are serial killers. What makes them different from those of us that aren’t serial killers? Is the brain physically different? Is it social factors, such as bullying and abuse, that lead these people to murder? Or is it something else?

A study done by Dr. Jean Decety at the University of Chicago looked at just that. For the past 10 years, he has been studying empathy in psychopaths versus the “normal” population. He states that psychopaths do not have the same affective arousal that others do when someone is in distress. In order to see what parts of the brain causes a lack in empathy in psychopaths, Dr. Decety scanned brains of psychopaths and non-psychopaths in an MRI machine while watching a series of violent video clips. He saw a difference in empathetic reactions in the areas of the insula, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex.

So what does this lack of empathy have to do with the cognition of murder? A common idea of what causes serial killers to kill is that the don’t feel a sense of guilt for murdering, hence why it is easy for them to kill a multitude of people.

This feeling of disconnect from the victim could be caused by cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a when a person becomes psychologically uncomfortable because they hold two contradictory beliefs. So, in the instance of a serial killer, they hold the belief that murder is wrong but also the belief that they will get pleasure out of killing (creepy, I know). So, in order to overcome this uncomfortable feeling, the person has to choose between the two beliefs and decide which one will make them feel better. When that person chooses the pleasure of killing over the knowledge that killing is wrong, they lose all sense of guilt and remorse for wanting to kill people. The result? A serial killer is born. They disconnect from their victims in order to fully bask in the pleasure they receive from their heinous acts.

Decety says that there is no way to cure those people who have chosen the path of killing, but he is hoping that his future research can help bring to light different possibilities of treating people with cognitive dissonance over killing.

Serial killersDo you all think that cognitive dissonance is a valid answer to why people become killers? Or are there other possibilities?


4 thoughts on “Thinking About Killing

  1. Kendra Ganser

    This is so fascinating. I think it’s hard for most people to understand why anyone would want to kill someone else and the idea that cognitive dissonance could play a role makes sense. It’s interesting to think that there are two ideas the person grapples with…sadly it seems that with serial killers the pleasure they get from killing people outweighs the fact they know it’s wrong to kill 🙁

  2. alliebranum

    This was a really interesting post! I was always really confused about how someone can be okay with killing someone. This article reminds me a lot of what criminal minds is based off of. Its frustrating that once they’ve reached the point of killing there is no way to go back from that.

  3. Erica

    I think cognitive dissonance is a legit reason for some but not all serial killers. Since everyone is different I am just guessing there may be multiple triggers. It is just hard for me to believe anyone could ever really be ok with killing someone, and not feel any type of remorse or connection of human life. I guess this is why we have to get into a serial killers mind to solve some of their crimes. Their reasoning makes no sense to someone that is not a serial killers. For them it is like a battle between good and evil. This is their reality, and they probably do not know any other way as being normal. I hope there is a way in the future to cure people of this way of thinking.

  4. missfitz

    First of all, go forensic psychology! It’s the best. Second, I really like that you touched on the brain regions and provided that viewpoint as a possible explanation of actions. But I do not think that all serial killers can be classified as psychopaths. I think that there are a variety of reasons people serially kill, but to make the assumption that they are all psychopaths may be a little premature. I think that people kill serially for reasons of power and perhaps even sexual gratification. So although I think you made really good points, I think that there is a broader scope of reasons to explain the different type of serial killers.

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