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The Impact of Nature and Nurture on The Development of a Serial Killer

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Using the social conflict theory to have a deeper understanding on how a serial killer is made. Through many conflicts in a person’s life, a person has to choose whether to live a normal life or a life of a criminal. Also this theory proves how nurture has a big part of how a person will act when they are older. By looking at the characteristics of a serial killer and the different types one will be able to see what society says an average serial killer looks like. Society creates roles they want people to fit in and if someone doesn’t fit right, conflict arises which causes people to act out of the norm.    

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The United States has approximately 3,204 serial killers, which is seventy percent of the world’s serial killers (Aamodt, 2016​)​.​ What is a serial killer? A serial killer is a person who has killed two or more people over a period of time (​Beirne, 2015​)​.​ Most of the time a serial killer has a “cooling off stage” in between kills (if there is no pause between kills they become known a mass murderer)​.​ Some of America’s most notorious serial killers include; Jeffery Dahmer (known for cannibalism, accounted for seventeen kills), Ted Bundy (accounted for thirty plus kills), Charles Manson (a known cult leader, accounted for seven kills) and John Wayne Gacy (accounted for thirty three kills)​.​ Society (as in family, friends, religious settings…etc.) has a lot of affect on how a person grows and the path they choose. Society create roles for a person to be a part of and sometimes a person is molded perfectly to fit into society nonetheless there will always be those people who push against the mold and act out. The way that they act out is important though. Looking at societal conflicts and how they affect a person’s life choices, one could understand how a mentally healthy person could become a serial killer who commits heinous acts against another person.    

What most people think of when they hear serial killer is an average aged white male​.​ As this is somewhat true, only fifty percent of America’s serial killers are white males (Aamodt, 2016​)​.​ That leaves a lot of wiggle room for what the other percentage looks like​.​ The FBI stated that, ”​contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups​.​ There are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers​.​ The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population” (Mortan, 2005)​.​ ​Media and movies make serial killers a fascination for people and portray the killers in a way that makes people entranced in them​.​ They create fascinating movies on real life scenarios​.​ They portray the offender as having the perfect life and then one day a flip switches and they go on a crazy killing spree​. That’s not always the case though​.​ How a child grows up has a huge impact on how they will act when they are older​.​ If a child grows up with two loving parents who are goal driven and push them towards education​,​ there is a good chance that child will go to college​.​ If a child grows up in a broken home, with a father who continuously beats them day after day, there is a high chance that the child will grow up angry at the world and feel the need to take some type of control back.    

Thirty-two percent of the United States’ serial killers​,​ had a motive that was enjoyment (lust, power or thrill) (Aamodt, 2016​)​.​ When an offender kills for lust or thrill, they are known as a hedonistic killer (Chase, 2015)​.​ Hedonistic killers like to take time with their victim in order to get the full gratification of the kill​.​ ​These types of murderers get addicted to killing like a person would get addicted to drugs​.​ The other type of serial killer is a power or control killer, this is when an offender will kill when they feel they have lost power (Chase​,​ 2015)​.​ Both types of serial killers can get sexual gratification from the domination and humiliation of the victims, “​there are many other motivations for serial murders including anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking (Mortan​, ​2005)​.​ ​These types of serial killers are similar because their main goal is to take control and feel more powerful than they did before. Power and control is key to understanding why these offenders continue to murder​.​ In the mind of a serial killer, they thrive off the fear of the victim and the feeling of dominance gives them the want to kill more (​Beirne​, 2015)​.​ Once the killer has felt the intensity and weight of the kill​,​ they want to do it progressively​,​ thus creating a serial killer​.​ ​In serial murders, typically there is no relationship between the offender and the victims​.​ A killer will usually pick a victim randomly that fits their needed criteria​.​ In most cases a killer will look for victims with similar appearances to each other (height, race, hair color, age,​…​etc​.​)​.​ These victims are chosen because they share a sort of similarity to someone who took power away from the offender in his past (Williams, 2017)​.​ The offender wants to feel powerful again and will do anything to achieve this goal.​   

The number of male serial killers greatly outweighs the number of female serial killers by a landslide​.​ In the United States ninety point eight percent of serial killings are done by a male offender and only nine point two percent of these types of killings are done by a female offender (Aamodt​,​ 2016​). ​But when looking at the gender of the victims, it is very female heavy​.​ There could be many reasons why females are mainly the victims of serious crimes​.​ One reason for this could be that males feel a power struggle between them and females and as a result they resort to killing​. ​Females are mainly the victim to serial killings but there are numerous times where there are children or male victims​.​ A reason for this could be that the offender was hurt or abused as a child and as he grew older the only way he could feel better was to take his anger out on people who remind him of his past​.​ No one really knows the motive for the killings until the offender is caught (sadly a lot of serial killers are good at hiding from the law)​.​ The idea of nature versus nurture is a big argument behind why murderers are the way they are​.​ In some cases nature is the reason, usually for people with mental disabilities​.​ But for a perfectly healthy person to commit such heinous acts, one must believe that the cause is nurture​.​ So​,​ what happens in society that causes a person to become a serial killer?    

Society’s roles on people have a huge impact on who they are. If one were to believe that nurture is the cause of crimes​,​ a sociological theory might help understand how that happens. The social theory that best explains this criminal behavior is the conflict theory​.​ The conflict theory states that “tensions and conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are unevenly distributed between groups in society and that these conflicts become the engine for social change” (Crossman​,​ 2019)​.​ ​To be able to understand the connection between serial murderers and the conflict theory​,​ one must know the foundations of the theory​.​ Social conflict theory is a marxist-based social theory which argues that individuals and groups within society interact on the basis of conflict rather than consensus ​(Crossman​,​ 2019)​. ​Through various forms of conflict, groups will tend to attain different amounts of material and non-material resources​.​ More powerful groups will tend to use their power in order to retain power and exploit groups with less power​.​ Conflict theorists view conflict as an engine of change, since conflict produces contradictions which are sometimes resolved, creating new conflicts and contradictions in an ongoing dialectic​.​ Conflict can take many forms and involve struggle over many different types of resources​.​ ​(Crossman​,​ 2019)​.    

A person doesn’t just one day wake up and decide that they want to become a serial killer. There are a series of events that lead up to this criminal life choice​.​ ​The conflict theory is used to understand the growth of a serial killer due to life experiences. These life experiences are what cause the individual to choose their criminal path​.​ Consequently​,​ “[the criminal] acknowledges certain life events that may predict criminal behavior over time such as, later attachments to significant others or to work​,​ which will prevent those with low self-control from offending” (Arrigo​,​ 2004)​.​ If a person becomes distant or different in work environments, these might be red flags​.​ People who commit murders usually get triggered by something before thier first murder​.​ The offender could be living a normal life and a death or something else could happen in their life that flashes them back to their childhood trauma​,​ this is called a trigger​.​ In a case study done by James Beasley​,​ one of the serial killers that he interviewed stated that, “his actions were influenced by several factors​,​ among them family instability​,​ the death of his father two years prior to the first murder​,​ social isolation​,​ and a deep resentment toward young women” (Beasley​,​ 2004)​.​ This offenders life events caused a lot of unresolved conflict and instead of dealing with his conflict correctly​,​ he dealt with hit by resorting to murdering women​.​ He lived in an unstable home and had a trigger that sent him on a killing spree​.​ This offender commented that he felt no remorse after the murders and that they became more of a hobby to him then anything else (Beasley​,​ 2004)​. ​This is an example of how societal conflicts lead a person to a life of crime​.​ Most serial offenders live conflict after conflict which leads to a life of unequal opportunity​,​ this shows how nurture is the reason serial killers are made.    

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There are many serial killers in the United States, ​3,204 that are accounted for. The two main types of serial killers are power/control killers and hedonistic killers. These types of serial killers thrive of dominance over a victim and act out when they have lost control of their own lives. The social conflict theory explains why these types of serial killers act out. These types of offenders have had a build up of conflict in their lives and feel as if their last resort is to inflict pain onto someone else. ​The importance of this topic is to talk about the idea of how nurture creates a serial killer​. ​Societal pressures (conflicts) cause a person to choose wrong life paths​. These conflicts happen in everyone’s everyday lives but those with lower self control and some kind of childhood trauma​,​ turn to crime for a solution for their powerlessness​.​ Nature vs nurture is a very controversial topic and looking at it while talking about serial killers gives the topic a new prospective. Another reason this topic was chosen is because other types of crime is widely talked about and recently serial killers became a popular topic (with the release of the Ted Bundy Tapes). This topic sheds light on how society has a huge impact on people’s lives and if too much pressure is put on one person, bad things could happen. 


  • Aamodt, M. G. (2016). ​Serial Killer Statistics.
  • Arrigo, B., & Griffin, A. (2004). ​Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos: Attachment Theory, Psychopathy, and Predatory Aggression. ​Wiley Interscience, Behavioral Sciences and the Law. ​
  • Beasley II, J. O. (2004). Serial murder in America: case studies of seven offenders. ​Behavioral Sciences & the Law​, ​22​(3), 395–414.
  • Beirne, P. & Messerschmidt, J.S. (2015). ​Criminology: A Sociological Approach ​(6th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Chase, J. (2015). ​Examining Four Types of Serial Killers​. ​WordPress.
  • Crossman, A. (2019). Understanding Conflict Theory. ​ThoughCo.
  • Mortan, R. (2005). Serial Murder. ​FBI: Reports and Publications. ​FBI.

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