The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

"Sure, I Regret It . . .But He Started It"

Lies Psychopathic Killers Tell About Their Crimes

Contrary to popular belief, most convicted murderers are not psychopaths. In fact, not only are psychopathic killers a minority of convicted first degree murder inmates, they are often distinguishable by the crimes they commit. For example, most murders are reactive in nature, i.e., the homicide occurs either as a response to provocation (such as a fight or argument) or frustration (the person finally "loses it" and lashes out).  

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are more likely to coolly view murder as just another means to a desired end. We're not talking about a crime of passion here; we're talking about a premeditated murder in order to gain money, freedom, or some other desired goal. The wife who buys an insurance policy before overdosing her husband with insulin, or the husband who hires a hit man to avoid paying alimony; these are the kinds of misdeeds we are talking about.

Blaming (or Helping) the Victim

Not only are psychopathic killers more likely to plan their murder, a study of 50 convicted murderers found that those who "tested positive" for psychopathy were more likely to give distorted accounts of what happened.  Even when evidence clearly points to a prehomicide plan, psychopathic murderers will often leave out incriminating details (such as a sexual assault at gunpoint) and/or exaggerates the desperate or emotional nature of the murder (if she hadn't worn what she did, I wouldn't have done it) or the victim (she was suffering anyway).

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A classic example was the Menendez brothers. Although their primary murder target was their father, they also decided to take their mother out because "she wouldn't be able to live without Dad."  You see, they were doing her a favor. What they omitted was the tiny detail that their mother would be the one to inherit their father's substantial estate if she were not laid to rest as well.

It Happened a Long Time Ago - and for a Good Reason

In another study, psychopaths, in contrast to their nonpsychopathic compadres, were far more likely to say they committed the crime because of a legitimate personal need, like food and money, than own up to their aggressive intentions and behaviors.

They also framed their deeds in the distant past, suggesting it happened a long time ago and there was little that the perpetrator could do to prevent it.They seemed emotionally detached from the murder, and as might be expected, they showed no remorse. The psychopathic convicts saw themselves as victims of circumstances that they could not control, and they unemotionally described the crimes in the past tense -- gone but not forgotten.

The Honesty Dupe

Given that manipulation and deception characterize many psychopaths interactions with others, this is not exactly front page news. Many psychopaths have a longstanding history of using others to gain money, sex, drugs or power. But what's interesting is that these were convicted felons who had little to gain by exaggerating the spontaneous nature, or the role of the victim, in the crime. It seems as if the psychopath is able to feel pleasure merely at the ability to control and manipulate someone else, a term described by Dr. Paul Ekman as "duping delight."

The Bottom Line

Anyone who gets close to a psychopath will be stabbed in the back sooner or later. Psychopathic murderers do it literally, and then find lots of ways to rationalize it.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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