The criminologist Burgess carried out a study of sexually motivated serial killers in 1986. In this study, he was able to develop a theory relating to the kinds of childhood such individuals typically experience. I summarize his main findings below:
Burgess suggested that four main categories of childhood experiences contributed to the individuals in the study becoming serial killers. These were:
1 – they grew up in an ineffective social environment
2 – they experienced negative formative events during their childhoods
3 – they developed destructive behaviours
4 – breakdown of interpersonal relationships
5 – they developed certain critical personality traits during their childhoods
Let’s look at these in a little more detail:
1- INEFFECTIVE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT :
Burgess’ study (1986) found that those who went on to become serial killers showed a pattern of failing to bond in a healthy way to their primary caregivers, as well as a failure to bond with others in general.
Also, as children, the future serial killers’ negative behaviours very frequently remained completely unaddressed by their primary caregivers.
2 – TRAUMATIC FORMATIVE EVENTS :
It was also found in the study that, as children, the future serial killers experienced far more trauma than the ‘average’ child. These trauma s included :
– severe illness
– divorce of parents
– abandonment/rejection by parent/s
– death of parent/primary caregiver
– abuse by parent/primary caregiver (physical, sexual, emotional,or a combination of these)
It was also found that the negative effects of the above traumas were compounded by the fact that the children in the study tended to have NO SOCIAL SUPPORT SYSTEM (e.g. friends and wider family) and NO OTHER PROTECTIVE FACTORS IN THEIR LIVES (e.g. a skill or ability which raised their self-esteem).
In part as a result of the above, Burgess found that the children tended to become :
– suffered overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
3 – DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOURS :
In the group studied by Burgess, these destructive behaviours included :
– setting fires
– cruelty to animals
– destroying property
4 – BREAKDOWN OF INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS :
As the children got older, their problematic relationships with their primary caregivers tended to deteriorate further.
Many of the children, too, experienced continued EMOTIONAL NEGLECT.
Furthermore, the children were found to LACK POSITIVE ROLE MODELS and had nobody in their lives who might encourage them to act in a pro-social way.
5 – NEGATIVE PERSONALITY TRAITS :
The way in which the future serial killers were brought up tended to lend itself to the children developing negative personality traits and emotions; in Burgess’ study these were found to include :
– prone to anger, hostility and aggression
– prone to criminal and deviant behaviour
– sense of entitlement
– criminal/deviant behaviour
– a sense of having been rejected by society
– cynical and negative view of self, others and of the world in general (sometimes referred to as a NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD).
– social isolation
– lack of confidence, particularly in connection to forming relationships
– chronic/pathological lying
– tendency to retreat into a world of fantasy (see below)
THE ROLE OF A FANTASY LIFE :
Importantly, Burgess’ study found that the young people had a marked tendency to retreat into a FANTASY WORLD; this was thought to be in part due to their social isolation.
This retreat into fantasy tended to become deeper as the children grew up.
It is theorized that because these future serial killers lacked control and power in their own lives, they obtained it through the fantasies that they wove in their imaginations. In other words, they used their fantasy lives to compensate them for their inadequacies and shortcomings in the real world.
In interviews it was found that their fantasies tended to revolve around the following :
Tragically, eventually fantasy alone could not keep these individuals’ anxiety levels at bay (it is thought such fantasies serve to reduce intolerable anxiety) and they acted them out in lethal fashion.
DISTRIBUTION OF SERIAL KILLERS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD :
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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