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What Motivates Psychopathic Killers?

Misogyny can drive sociopaths to kill.

Rodnae Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., who came to be known as “the Great Imposter,” posed at various times of his life as a trauma surgeon, a sheriff’s deputy, an assistant prison warden, a civil engineer, a hospital orderly, a doctor of applied psychology, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. He often borrowed the names and credentials of living people; he forged documents and once faked his own suicide.

During his most famous stint as a trauma surgeon and medical doctor aboard a navy ship during the Korean War, he successfully performed major surgery, including amputations and major chest surgery, on some 16 Korean combat casualties.

Demara had already performed a handful of surgeries on his fellow crew mates during his first few months on the navy ship. But when he received news of the wounded Korean combatants, he knew the task ahead of him would be significantly more difficult. To buy some time, he ordered the personnel to transport the patients into the operating room and prep them for surgery.

Gifted with a high IQ and a photographic memory, he was able to speed-read a textbook on the various surgeries he needed to perform. He then went to work on the patients. One of the surgeries, which required removing a bullet close to the heart, brought him local fame when it was reported in a regional newspaper.

Demara, who died in 1982 at the age of 60, was a psychopath. In popular culture, psychopaths are often portrayed as serial killers. But in reality, few psychopaths are killers, let alone serial killers. Some are the CEOs of large companies. Others are blue-collar office bullies. Yet others are doctors or lawyers who never earned a degree.

The DSM-5 does not recognize psychopathy as a disorder in its own right, but it is mentioned as a specifier (or subtype) of antisocial personality disorder. The latter is characterized by its persistent pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others since age 15, manifested in one of seven ways:

  1. A failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts which are grounds for arrest
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
  5. A reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by a repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

Psychopathy is linked to thrill-seeking, impaired capacities for empathy and remorse, low neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and proneness to hatred and contempt. This form of psychopathy is also known as true, or primary, psychopathy. When people speak of psychopathy, it is usually this variety of psychopathy they have in mind. People with extreme variants of primary psychopathy often have all the traits of the "Dark Tetrad," including Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism.

Secondary psychopathy, one of the vulnerable dark traits, overlaps considerably with borderline personality disorder and vulnerable narcissism. While linked to antisocial behavior, low conscientiousness, and proneness to hatred and hostility, it is also associated with high neuroticism and hypersensitivity to negative feedback.

A special inventory for (primary) psychopathy, the so-called Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), originally developed in the 1970s by Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare, lists 20 characteristics of (primary) psychopaths, including some narcissistic and Machiavellian traits:

  1. Excess glibness or superficial charm
  2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
  3. Excess need for stimulation or proneness to boredom
  4. Pathological lying
  5. Cunning and manipulative behavior
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt.
  7. Shallow affect, for instance, in the form of superficial emotional responsiveness
  8. Callousness and a lack of empathy
  9. A preference for a parasitic lifestyle, for example, living off of borrowed money
  10. Poor behavioral control
  11. A history of sexually promiscuous behavior, such as a long list of one-night stands
  12. A history of early behavior problems
  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. Excessive impulsivity
  15. A high level of irresponsible behavior, for instance, not keeping promises or consistently showing up late for work
  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions, for instance, by blaming others or circumstances
  17. Many short-term romantic relationships or marriages
  18. Juvenile delinquency
  19. Punishment fails to deter repeat offenses
  20. A history of versatile criminal behavior, for instance, animal torture, theft, rape, murder

Primary psychopaths have an unusually high need for excitement and thrills because of an impairment in their ability to feel arousal and anxiety. Only the most extreme among high-risk activities are able to make the psychopath feel bodily arousal. Moderately high-risk activities bring neither delight nor vicissitude.

Psychopaths are able to plan high-risk actions in meticulous detail, but they lack the emotional capacity needed to avoid taking high risks or to worry about the outcome. Their attitudes toward risky activities are more akin to the value judgments of a disengaged spectator than the visceral bodily reactions of fear or excitement experienced by their fellow human beings. If a psychopath just lost a lot of money on the stock market after a risky investment, she would regard it as a negative outcome, but she wouldn't feel any anguish related to the loss or any regret related to her decision.

If psychopaths cannot feel bodily arousal unless they engage in unusually high-risk activities, that explains their addiction to dangerous activities. But it doesn’t explain why they tend to commit violent crimes, sometimes even sadistic murders. If they are addicted to unusually high-risk activities, why not do what other adrenaline junkies do? Why not go bull riding, free climbing, or big-wave surfing?

There is probably no one answer to this question. But psychologists seem to agree that psychopaths committing sexual homicide are motivated by hatred, broadly construed.

Despite the sexual component, sexual homicide is not primarily about sex. Even sexual sadistic tendencies can be satisfied in safe and legal ways. But sadistic sex done safely is lacking that one ingredient the sex killer is after: Safe sadistic sex doesn’t involve real control of the kind that the killer craves.

Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy has argued that many sexual homicides are displaced matricides, driven by maternal hatred. This, he argues, is suggested by the risk factors for sexual homicidal tendencies, which include a history of mistreatment of women or fantasies of assaulting women, hatred, contempt, or fear of women, and fetishism for female underclothing and the destruction of female clothes.

This appears to be what motivated the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. Despite his claim that he simply was unable to resist his urge to kill, the loudness of his actions leaves little doubt about his hatred for women—or at least certain types of women.

Bundy’s hatred for women was likely planted in early childhood. Bundy grew up thinking that his mother was his sister and his grandparents were his parents. By the age of 10, he had had three different names and three different houses in three different states. He only discovered that his “sister” was really his mom when in college, or perhaps the end of high school. He never knew who anyone around him was. The people closest to him had lied to him his entire life.

Bundy’s killing sprees look like misogyny run amok, but misogyny of a personal nature. His hatred seems to have been targeted at women who reminded him of his mother, and perhaps other women in his life who had betrayed him.

Many other serial killers seem to have been driven by misogyny. The television series Mindhunter highlights this motive behind the murders of famous psychopaths, such as Richard Speck, an American mass murderer who systematically tortured, raped, and murdered eight student nurses from South Chicago Community Hospital on the night of July 13 into the early morning hours of July 14, 1966; Monte Rissell, an American serial killer and rapist who raped and murdered five women between 1976 and 1977 in Alexandria, Virginia; Jerry Brudos, an American serial killer and necrophile who committed the murders of at least four women in Oregon between 1968 and 1969; and Ed Kemper, an American serial killer and necrophile who murdered 10 people, including his paternal grandparents and his mother.


Crichton, R. (1959). The Great Impostor: The Amazing Career of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who Posed as a Surgeon, a Prison Warden, a Doctor of Philosophy, A Trappist Monk and Many, Many Others, New York: Random House.

Hare, R D., Hart, S D., Harpur, T J. (1991). “Psychopathy and the DSM–IV Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(3): 391-398.

Meloy, JR. (2000). “The Nature and Dynamics of Sexual Homicide: An Integrative Review,” Aggression and Violent Behavior, 5, 1: 1–22.