Psychological Analysis of John Wayne Gacy Using Trait Theories

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2049 |

Pages: 5|

11 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2022

Words: 2049|Pages: 5|11 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2022

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. John Wayne Gacy: Background
  3. Psychological assesment
  4. The Big 5 theory
    Eysenck’s personality theory
  5. Conclusion


John Wayne Gacy was active between 1972 and 1978, He was a murderer/rapist with 33 known homicide victims all identified as young men and boys between the ages of 14 – 21. While Gacy was not slaughtering people, he was an outgoing neighbour every so often dressing up as “Pogo the clown” to amuse children at parties.

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Criminals can be analysed in various ways using Psychological theories. Psychological theories are a tool in explaining the thoughts and actions people have and do, they do so via various developmental, cognitive, social, behavioural and affective mechanisms (Gannon, 2014). Trait theory is commonly used to determine someone’s personality and can help to determine whether someone is a psychopath, sociopath or have antisocial Personality Disorder (Mulcahy, 2017). The psychological aspects of the subject have been explored by a couple of different Trait theories. We will be discussing the Big 5 theory and Eysenck’s personality theory primarily. They would aid in determining the presence of a personality disorder, further it can also analyse if the persons’ Intelligence Quotient has any relevance to the personality disorder. Traits are presumed to be reliable over time, which means traits a child holds will trail with them into their teenage years as well as adulthood. Traits are also internal, in that they do not result from environmental factors, they result from inner features of a person. The Trait theories approach utilizes a collection of traits that are common amid criminals to analyse the person in questions personality.

John Wayne Gacy: Background

John Wayne Gacy lived a seemingly normal life blending into society despite his crimes. If his behaviour can be explained through trait theories is what we will be discussing further. Background He was not one who had the calmest of childhoods, Gacy had an alcoholic father who beat him regularly. He was sexually abused at nine years of age and felt he was powerless to tell anyone in dread his father would have another reason to attack him (Mull, 2017). He was also bullied in school being overweight as well as unable to partake in activities due to having been diagnosed with a heart ailment. He also had a head injury which later lead to black outs from a clot the injury triggered. His father rejected his head injury and whenever he had an issue with his injury his father would abuse him. Gacy had a decent relationship with his mother and siblings but his father also used this as exasperating factor to beat him. In due course he became “apathetic and emotionally hardened” to both beatings and other people (Buchanan-Dunne, 2017). John Gacy lived with his family, had a sound job, was a political activist, and generally upheld what seemed to be an outstanding citizen of Illinois, in the United States of America. The people around him described Gacy as industrious, reliable and argumentative but, he was dispassionate, insensible and apathetic towards other people’s feelings and wants. This immensely dissimilar view that the public had of Gacy is how he managed to hideaway with what he was undertaking for the length of what he did, no person (including the police) alleged he was capable of such heinous things. The police may perhaps have caught Gacy, but the cases were always let off due to witness/victim not appearing in court and other reasons. Ten years before his final arrest he was charged with raping a young employee and was released after 18 months for good behaviour (Taylor, 2003). Gacy was released and went on to remarry, this alliance was not successful and after a few years they separated. The separation lead Gacy to believe he could do whatever he wanted, and so his crimes radically worsened.

The political career he built fell apart as more allegations against him rose of sexual misconduct against young boys (Mull, 2017). A 15-year-old boy who disappeared after going to him for a job was the turning point in raising suspicions at Gacy. This led to an investigation at his house resulting in crucial evidence being found associating Gacy to several missing boys, yet they did not have enough t arrest him. He was under surveillance by detectives who waited on any clue on the missing 15-year-old. At one point he acted obnoxious inviting the officers not his house where they noticed the smell of decaying flesh leading to a search resulting in recovery of the body. He was soon arrested followed by his confession to the police that he had killed a least thirty people and kept them in the crawl space of his house. He then tried to plea insanity in court, that got rejected, his lawyer then tried to claim that the 33 murders were unintentionally caused by erotic asphyxia (Taylor, 2003). In 1980 Gacy was sentenced to death by means of lethal injection and in 1994 he was finally executed.

After 17 days of observation and interviewing in the year 1977 the evidence of Anti-social personality disorder characterised through disregard for others. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) states that there are specific characteristics (Traits) that an individual must possess to be classified having ASPD. A significant characteristic of Gacy which matched the characteristics of ASPD was the Lack of remorse following actions. Gacy’s lack of empathy towards his victims was striking as it would go as far as him blaming his victims for their fate (Taylor, 2003). He believed that “50% of the American families will be single parented, which showed a flaw of the church for not being able to keep families together and children running away from home seeking love in other places” as validation for his actions (Gacy, 1992). Gacy has several traits pointing in the direction of his personality disorder. Failure to conform to social norms, fraudulence and the uncontrolled disregard for the others’ safety. Despite fitting into most aspects of ASPD criteria, he did not fulfil some of them, he planned his actions along with other life events which made him non-impulsive. He had secure work, a seemingly normal life, was not short tempered and for most part was not involved in any violence apart from the crimes he was committing in secret. These serious factors don’t just tally up to ASPD, Gacy was a real psychopath, a difficult disorder to determine in reality, as they lead you with a normal, charming exterior but a manipulative, volatile interior that lacks a conscience and empathy (Cook, 2011).

Psychological assesment

Gacy is classified as a psychopath and not a sociopath. This is because despite the similarities between the two, Gacy had a stable seeming life and was meticulous in planning his attacks. The psychologist who assessed Gacy in 1977 could not make a complete assessment on his personality, as Gacy was not only astute and manipulative, but he was effectively trying to hide who he truthfully was. A proficient serial killer. (Mull, 2017). Once Gacy was finally captured he had more observations and interviews conducted on him. Medical experts testified that he suffered from borderline schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and antisocial behaviour (Mull, 2017). Schizophrenia is a chronic mental disorder, which causes a patient to have a distorted sense of reality, mixture of hallucinations, delusion and distorted thinking which affects daily functioning. The severity can considerably increase in the lack of proper medication (Mayo, 2017). The cause of schizophrenia is unknown, several researchers believe it is from imbalance of naturally present brain chemical dopamine and glutamate, so it could happen to anyone at any stage in their life (Mayo, 2017). Multiple personality disorder is a form of intensive dissociation, it is a course where the brain does not link a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of identity. This disorder is often a result of acute trauma during early childhood. Gacy experienced severe trauma as a young child and was at a risk of developing these disorders unsurprisingly. His mental disorders diminished his capacity to comprehend the depth of his own crimes. He was not a sane, neither an able minded person and was consequently proven to have been criminally insane at the time the murders were committed (Mull, 2017).

The Big 5 theory

The Big 5 is a significant method used in trait theories to aid understanding a person’s personality and why they made the decisions they did. The Big % namely consists of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. There are certain correlations between the big 5 and crime, convicted child sex offenders are found likely to have the following traits; High Neuroticism, Low extraversion, Low conscientiousness and low openness. Trait Neuroticism is often associated with depression and anxiety, High neuroticism means a person is sensitive to stressors, likelier to have frequent activations of negative emotions, reactions are prone to be intense; and will last longer and taking longer to return to baseline (Henriques, 2017). Having Low extraversion makes you an introvert, they prosper on being alone and get uncomfortable when surrounded by people. People with low conscientiousness tend to act on impulse, they are not driven by goals and are spontaneous, impulsive and non-conforming (McGreal, 2014). Low openness will pursue familiarity, they try not venture out to the unfamiliar, they are to be expected to pass up opportunities, try new activities, or a new job, they tend to be accustomed to predictive lives.

Gacy, being a convicted child sex offender had several personality traits correlating him with the above. Gacy lived most part of his life himself after his divorces, he did attend social gatherings, but not as Gacy, but as Pogo the Clown, this was a warning of his split personality disorder. Pogo the clown was Gacy’s method of being extraverted. Gacy seldom travelled, he was raised in Illinois, lived majority of his adult life in Illinois and Died in Illinois (Buchanan-Dunne, M. 2017). He also had no distinct life Goals or ambitions, he faked what he felt was necessary to be a normal family man yet he sexually attacked teenagers even when things were going well with his family.

Eysenck’s personality theory

Another commonly used theory is Eysenck’s personality theory, it is relatively like the big 5 method, but has three parts; Psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism. Psychoticism is the only factor that isn’t a part of the big 5 method. Psychoticism is related to frontal lobe deficits, people with psychoticism lack empathy and have poor social judgement, both factors were present in Gacy. Furthermore, Gacy was a pathological liar, he lied to his family and friends about his criminal acts, continually lied in custody up until ample evidence was found and he momentarily confessed, gloating about his actions, yet he never admitted guilt for his actions. He had zero remorse as his last words were “Kiss My Ass” (Buchanan-Dunne, M. 2017). Gacy was a manipulative and cunning man who lured most of his victims with the promise of employment, drugs, or by manipulating them as their employer who they knew and could trust. IQ is amalgamated from many different measures in theories, Gacy’s IQ was 118 which puts him in the standard range meaning the association between IQ and crime don’t apply to Gacy’s case. Standard statistics tell us people who commit crimes have a lower IQ, delinquent friends, live with their parents and have experienced long term unemployment, these do not apply to Gacy as he seemed functionally norma.

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There are benefits in using trait theories to assess personalities, but it is not the perfect method and with it certain problems surface. The validity and reliability of personality tests is a matter that cannot be controlled easily, the volume of crime that goes unreported also makes it difficult to compile precise data. Dormant traits make it hard to understand anyone truly, no one fathomed Gacy was capable of what he did. If the police employed trait theory in analysing Gacy in 1977, then his crimes would have been taken seriously and he would not have gotten away with the petty crimes he did before starting his murderous journey. It is not known whether John Wayne Gacy was the person he became if it weren’t for his childhood abuse and neglect. Traits that he developed stayed for life with him. Trait theory is a useful tool in identifying correlating traits with psychological aspects. Like most of the Psychological theories, there are shortcomings that need to be discussed when relying on this theory. Trait theories help define who John Wayne Gacy was, albeit they provide very little insight into why he did the things he committed.

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Analysis of John Wayne Gacy Psychology Using Trait Theories. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“Analysis of John Wayne Gacy Psychology Using Trait Theories.” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2022,
Analysis of John Wayne Gacy Psychology Using Trait Theories. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2023].
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