How Childhood Experiences Affects Adulthood of the Most Killers

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Offender profiling is the process of inferring the characteristics of an offender from the way that offender acted when committing a crime Canter (Salfati & Canter, 1999). This helps give us a better understanding into the driving factors that lead to the unusual and gruesome behavior of these perpetrators. According to Canter and Salfati (1999), social behavior is controlled to a great extent by responses that have been learned during a person’s early development and experiences. The function of killer profiling is not to justify the actions of the killers but to make use of pre-existing knowledge on early childhood development and apply it in order to explain how certain experiences may have contributed to thought process behind those actions.

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Early childhood development focuses on a period of remarkable physical, cognitive, social, and emotional change. The emotional, social and physical development of young children has a direct effect on their overall development and on the adult they will become. According to Piaget, schemas are cognitive frameworks or concepts that help people organize and interpret information. As experiences happen, this new information is used to modify, add to, or completely change previously existing schemas. Abuse, strain, bullying and isolation are traumatic childhood experiences that effect unconscious personality development.

Repeated physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, witnessing the abuse of loved ones and bullying, are traumatic childhood experiences that are common to most killers. In an idealistic setting, victims of such experiences would attend counseling and learn to overcome their traumatic experiences. Victims who experience physical abuse during early childhood development tend to be aggressive and are likely to become perpetrators during adulthood. Hostile (expressive) aggression occurs in response to anger-inducing condition such as insults, physical attack or personal failures. It was also suggested that most violent episodes can be traced to well learnt, systemic strategies of violence that some people have found effective of dealing with conflictual, interpersonal relationship (Toch,1969 cited in Salfati and Canter, 1999).

According to Levin and Madfis (Blums & Jaworski, 2016) the combination of chronic strain, uncontrolled strain and acute strain form a mindset for shooters that suggests that strain is persistent, never-ending and catastrophic. This belief system of the killers, or rather some of them, leads them to begin to plan ways in which they could mitigate or put an end to the strain either through violence against themselves, which is rare, or by inflicting pain or harm onto others.

Chronic strain is the range of negative experiences or disappointing events in social relationships at home or school (Blums & Jakworski, 2016). The case study of a perpetrator, Lanza, that was used by Blums and Jakwoski (2016), focuses on a young man who committed mass murder at a local school. Lanza acted by exerting revenge against a place similar to where he had been bullied, a school, even though none of the people there had any connections to those who bullied him.

According to Howe (1995) as cited in Typical Development in Infancy (slide 3), “what is on the social outside eventually establishes itself on the psychological inside”. Therefore, it is through our social interactions and relationships with others that we find ourselves and develop our own personalities but also gain an understanding of other people, their emotions and different social situations, thus allowing us to integrate into society. It has been theorized that social integration, or the lack of social integration, may contribute to the serial killing phenomenon as isolated individuals dissociate and compartmentalize to such an extent that they can completely depersonalize others.

One of the first ideas that come to one’s mind about the psychology of a killer is that they lack morality which is defined as the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour according to the Collins English Dictionary. Vujošević (2015) argues that the reflective capacity for moral self-assessment in killers is impaired and this causes a lack of self-evaluative emotions where one will assess their actions and attitudes and decipher whether they are morally right or wrong. This can be attributed to the lack of the development of emotional intelligence during middle and late childhood development where the killer has a diminished sense of self awareness and cannot separate his/her feelings from his actions. Killers are also perceived to lack a conscience which is understood as a special moral sense that dictates what is right and wrong (Vujošević, 2015). Guilt is a component of conscience that killers do not exhibit due to a shift in their moral development from heteronomous to autonomous morality. As a child, one obeys the laws because they fear the repercussion of punishment from a parent or caregiver, further development into autonomous morality sees the child observing that the laws can be modified to their benefit (lecture slide no 11). When exaggerated, due to a lack of punishment during childhood and further on into adult life, this can produce killers with reduced self-restraint who are guiltless because the gross taboo of murder is inapplicable to them.

According to Sigmund Freud the development of the unconscious personality early in childhood will influence behavior for the rest of one’s life (Developmental Theories in Psychoanalytic, slide 7). In short, negative experiences act as” residue” from early childhood. Freud believes that the human develops, early in life, three aspects of their personality. These include the id, the ego and the superego. The id is considered to be primitive, supplying unconscious drives for food and sex. The ego is formed as sort of a guide to remain aligned with societies norms. Finally, the superego develops incorporating values and morals. Thus, killers such as serial killers seem to be overwhelmed by their id. This would explain why Ben (Abramsky M, Kamoo R, Hibbard S & Porcerelii, 2001) would become a serial killer. He did not receive proper care as an infant and child, most likely due to his adoption inattentive mother prior to this, thus he was negatively affected into adulthood. According to the psychodynamic theory crime occurs when a person displays a weak ego. In short, killers, often serial killers, seem to be manifesting their feelings of oppression from childhood in the form of brutal murders.

Psychiatric disorders cause significant distress and impairment to personal functioning. To deliberately kill someone requires crossing a profound boundary. Most of us couldn’t do it. We couldn’t even think about it. But they can. They do. Anderson (2014) describes psychopathy as a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by deficient emotional responses, lack of empathy, and poor behavioral controls, commonly resulting in persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behavior. Psychopathy as well as some other neuropsychiatric disorders are discussed below in relation to early childhood development and how they are associated with the development of some characteristic traits common in killers.

Psychopaths are commonly portrayed as people without consciences, however recent studies have weakened the claim by stating that psychopaths have an underdeveloped conscience. How does this affect their competence to judge moral issues and what is their motivation to act morally? This has led to the assumption that there is a certain overlap between underdeveloped conscience and, most obviously, absence of guilt. Based on the work of Kant, psychopath’s reflective capacity for moral self-assessment, which triggers self-evaluative emotions, is significantly impaired. Psychopaths are well known for their unrealistic self-assessment and absence of guilt. Stating that psychopaths possess dysfunctional consciences does not imply that they have difficulty with having moral intuitions or that their moral sense is impaired. Strictly speaking, neither does this say that they lack feelings of guilt or remorse, although absence of such feelings may be seen as an indication that there is something wrong with their conscience. The claim that their conscience does not function properly rather means that their capacity for moral self-assessment is deficient. It also means that the problem psychopaths consistently exhibit in experiencing moral self-evaluative feelings is caused by problems with self-reflection. Furthermore, psychopaths have even been reported to gain significantly higher scores than non-psychopaths on the Kohlberg scale of moral judgment (Link, Sherer, & Byrne, 1977).

The lack of self- restraint may not solely be a result of altered emotional development but also neuropsychiatric disorder that manifest during childhood. Some psychopaths may murder impulsively. Impulsivity, a tendency to act on a whim with little forethought, reflection or consideration of consequences (Merriam-Webster Dictionary n.d.) is a trait of many neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities (Anckarsäter Henrik, 2005). These diseases cause the sufferer to have a limited ability to conduct themselves well with others as young children. Playing with peers and family members can teach sufferers to be more considerate, increase peer affiliations, help with adjusting to other humans (lecture slide no 12) and teach children to resolve conflicts as well as decrease tension, which can lead to aggression and conflicts. Psychopaths may have had poor moral development with family members and peers in terms of play, which causes them to have a poor self- regulation of negative emotions such as aggression (lecture slide no 12). This can translate to increased vulnerability for disorganized behaviour and stress intolerance (Anckarsäter Henrik, 2005) and the inability to control aggression and act impulsively.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who experience more violence in their virtual worlds—television, movies, and video games—are more likely to display aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior, and angry feelings in the real world.

Is it wrong to kill other people in a virtual world? Mildenberger (2016) argues that killing people online is wrong if it is an instance of deliberately and non-consensually evoking disagreeable emotions in others. Virtual worlds are computer-created environments that visually mimic complex physical spaces, where people interact with each other and with virtual objects (Bainbridge 2007). The users do all kinds of things online. They explore the environment, they trade objects, they make friends, which is very similar to what happens in the physical world. And sometimes they kill each other.

Virtual worlds, unlike classic single-player computer games, rarely feature such clear, predetermined goals. Typically, users cannot ‘‘win’’ a virtual world at all. All they can do is to continuously participate. Unlike children playing a game of make-believe, in virtual worlds ‘‘participants do not generally attribute attitudes to their avatars …; they simply have thoughts and feelings about the world of the game, and they act on that world through their avatars but under the motivational force of their own attitudes’’ (Velleman, 2013; Mildenberger, 2016). For Velleman (2013), avatars are a prosthetic extension of our body (as cited in Mildenberger, 2016). They are tools, like a tennis racket is. Just like skilled tennis players do not intend to maneuver their racket so that it hits the ball over the net, but use the racket as a part of their body, so do skilled users use their avatar as if it were under their direct control. Virtual worlds users frequently attribute the actions of their avatars to themselves. Nobody says ‘‘My avatar went there and killed him’’. Everybody just says ‘‘I went there and killed him’’.

Stress, a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017). Stress is an undesirable state because it can have harmful effects on the body, such as cardiovascular disease (Weiten, Dunn, & Hammer, 2011). Violent video games intentionally expose players to stressful situations. Although some video games can have a relaxing effect on players (Russoniello, O’Brien, & Parks, 2009; Whitaker & Bushman, 2012), violent video games have the opposite effect (as cited in Hasan, Begue & Bushman, 2013). Research has shown that violent video games increases physiological arousal, such as heart rate (Barlett & Rodeheffer, 2009; Hasan, Begue & Bushman, 2013), blood pressure and skin conductance (Arriaga, Esteves, Carneiro, & Monteiro, 2006; Hasan, Begue & Bushman, 2013), and stress hormones such as epinephrine and nor-epinephrine (Lynch, 1999; Hasan, Begue & Bushman, 2013). Although nobody actually dies, violent players may still experience stress. It is well known that violent video games increase aggression, as stressful situations increase aggression (Hasan, Begue, & Bushman, 2013).

Early childhood development is a widely and highly researched topic in psychology with a multitude of theories that explain the cognitive and physical development during early childhood and how events occurring during this period affect the proceeding life stages and childhood experiences really affect adulthood. It is acknowledged that the above-mentioned individuals (killers) are fully accountable for their actions, however it is also taken into account that their early childhood experiences were a crucial contributing factor in the decision making and moral reasoning that has led to their actions. 



  1. Blum, D., & Jaworski, C. G. (2016). From Suicide and Strain to Mass Murder. Social Science and Public Policy, 408-413.
  2. Hasan, Y., Begue, L., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). Violent Video Games Stress People Out and Make Them More Aggressive. Agressive Behaviour, 64-70.
  3. Mildenberger, C. D. (2016, April 12). Virtual Killing. Springer.
  4. Oxford English Dictionary. (2017).
  5. Salfati, G. C., & Canter, D. V. (1999). Differentiating Stranger Murders: Pro®ling O€ender Characteristics from Behavioral Styles. Behavioural Sciencs and the Law, 391-406.
  6. Soderstrom, A. H. (2005). Clinical neuropsychiatric symptoms in perpetrators of severe crimes against persons. Nord J Psychiatry , 246-252.
  7. Vujosevic, M. (2015). Conscience as the rational deficit of psychopaths. Philosophical Psychology, 1219-1240.   

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