These criminals have certain psychological traits in common, but their motives vary.

By Maggie O'Neill
July 09, 2021
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Considering all the documentaries and podcasts about serial killers available these days, it's clear people have a dark fascination with this type of criminal and the crimes he commits. The horrific details and random nature of these murders terrify us, and trying to understand the motives behind them keeps us enthralled. What makes a serial killer commit such heinous acts, and what are the psychological underpinnings driving them to repeatedly kill?

Casey Jordan, a criminologist and investigative profiler, tells Health that serial killers can be driven by varying motives, and they can be classified into four different categories based on their MO. "Visionary killers" usually suffer from a mental illness, while "power and control killers" kill to feel power or because of a deep insecurity. "Mission-oriented killers" point to a specific purpose to justify their killings, which is to rid the world of a specific person or group of people. Finally, "hedonistic killers" kill for the "thrill" of killing, according to Jordan, and a subtype exists within this group: "hedonistic comfort killers," who kill to access comforts, such as money.

While their motives may vary, all serial killers do have certain things in common. One is what's called the "serial killer trifecta," Casey Jordan explains: three actions they exhibit during their lives that sets them apart from other types of criminals. The first is animal torture, the second is bedwetting, and the third is a tendency to start fires.

Serial killers also tend to stick to a pattern, and we can look to that pattern to possibly get clues as to when they'll strike next, Casey Jordan says. "With serial killers, they are killing their victims over time," she explains, "usually with an emerging pattern that reveals a profile, a consistency that you can actually identify variables that make their actions a bit more predictable."

Another unique characteristic of serial killers is their desire for stimulation. "They're very stimulation seeking," Texas-based clinical psychologist Krista Jordan, PsyD, tells Health. "They can tolerate high levels of arousal in the nervous system and feel kind of bored if something's not really redlining for them." Serial killers are also unable to feel empathy. "They lack empathy, so they can't really imagine what it feels like to be in somebody else's shoes," she says.

Part of our fascination with serial killers could be that we're trying to understand them so we can keep ourselves from becoming their next victim. But rather than fear serial killers, it's important to remember that we're more likely to die at the hands of someone we're close to. "You are always most likely to be killed by someone you know," Casey Jordan says.

Watch the video above to find out more about the psychology of serial killers.

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