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An Apparently "Motiveless" Attack

The forensic psychologist’s role as a detective of the mind

Key points

  • Are there really only four motives for murder — lust, love, loot and loathing?
  • The forensic psychologist must act as a detective of the mind, revealing layers of complexity.
  • People must not confuse a greater understanding of the motivation for violence with excusing violence.
Faris Mohammed/Unsplash
Source: Faris Mohammed/Unsplash

If you type ‘apparently motiveless attack’ into an internet search engine, you get around 280,000 results; yet, from a psychological point of view, there is almost certainly no such thing as a crime without motive. What people really seem to be saying that the crime does not have a motive that is immediately apparent, or that the perpetrator of a violent crime has a motive that contains insufficient rationality or intensity (or provocation) to justify the enormity of the act that has been committed.

Models for violent crime motives tend to include either financial greed, sexual lust, or the pursuit of power. Sometimes these motives are described as the four L’s: lust, love, lucre (or loot) and loathing. Whilst media depictions of serious crime may well follow this simple thematic pattern, it feels insufficient as an explanation, failing as it does to capture the infinite variation in human experience and the nuances of situations in which individuals resort to the destruction of others.

Detective novels are an excellent way of beginning to understand how a psychologically informed understanding of violent crime can be developed, with the psychologist as a kind of detective of the mind. Let us take Agatha Christie murder mysteries, simply as a classic example of an approach to detective story development that is widely admired and has arguably stood the test of time. Plucking two of the more well-known novels – Murder on the Orient Express, and The A.B.C. Murders - we can see that Ms Christie has woven intricate plots around two of the four L’s – loathing in terms of Murder on the Orient Express, and loot/lucre in terms of The A.B.C. Murders. However, the novels only come to life when the narrative creates the nuances of person and situation that underpin the pathway to murder. These components include, in various order:

  • Setting the scene, by contextualizing the setting and the build-up to the murder.
  • Describing the death of the victim (and/or the act of killing) with an analysis of the crime scene and the clues that may shed light on the motives of the perpetrator.
  • An elaboration of the key players in terms of their personal history, the quality of their relationship with each other, and the emerging details of complexities in their life experience.
  • The denouement, in terms of the identification of the murderer, with a compelling explanatory account that makes sense of all that has gone before.

Forensic psychologists adopt this approach when seeking meaning in the apparently meaningless. The account of the violent act – the location, the triggers, the details about the victim and his or her relationship to the perpetrator – all provide some early clues as to what might have happened. However, before the violence can be properly understood, psychologists need to bring to life the key characters in the background; this usually includes early care givers whose role in influencing the individual’s pathway into violence may be crucial; adversity, trauma and negative peer influences in teenage years shape the direction the individual travels although by no means determine the outcome.

Let us take an apparently straightforward armed robbery in which the perpetrator – a man with a crack cocaine habit requiring money - is reported as having committed a ‘motiveless murder’, stabbing the shop attendant who he is robbing with no discernible provocation. At first glance it seems that this is a selfish act by a callous individual who came prepared for violence to feed a drug habit; true and yet not quite the whole truth. As the narrative develops, and the man’s personal story unfolds, the layers are peeled away to reveal complexity. First, an intriguing clue – from a psychological point of view — emerges in the moment of the crime; the robber perceived the victim to look at him with utter contempt as though ‘I was nothing, a nobody’. Second, we learn of the breakdown of his relationship in the six months prior to the robbery leading to homelessness, no contact with his children, and a growing feeling of despair. Finally, we learn of the impact of underlying trauma associated with a brutalising childhood of victimisation at the hands of a violent father who ‘tried to beat any weakness out of me’.

As the individual’s narrative begins to develop, bringing coherence to the pathway that he has taken in life, and meaning to the violent act he has committed, we should not confuse understanding with excusing. Acknowledging vulnerability in the perpetrator of a violent act should not obscure the destructive impact of that act on the victim.

My next post will begin to explore the ways in which the perpetrator and the victim make sense of the crime from entirely disparate perspectives.