Thursday, 5 March 2015

The psychology of female serial killers

There is a mistaken cultural assumption, say Marissa Harrison and her colleagues, that women are, by their nature, incapable of being serial killers – defined here as murderers of three or more victims, spaced out with at least a week between killings.

This misconception, the psychologists warn, is a "deadly mistake". They point out that one in six serial killers are female. Their crimes tend to go undetected for longer than their male counterparts, likely in part because "our culture is in denial of women's proclivity for aggression."

Harrison and her team have profiled 64 US female serial killers active between the years 1821 to 2008. The researchers used the website to identify these killers and they verified the cases they found using reputable news sources.

The female serial killers had murdered between them at least 331 victims (making an average of 6 victims each). Their victims are of both sexes, but disproportionately male. The women had an average age of 32 at the time of their first killing, and poisoning was the most common method. However, between them, the women used a range of murderous techniques, as the researchers explained:
"Contrary to preconceived notions about women being incapable of these extreme crimes, the women in our study poisoned, smothered, burned, choked, shot, bludgeoned, and shot newborns, children, elderly, and ill people as well as healthy adults; most often those who knew and likely trusted them."
Many of the homicidal women had stereotypically female professions, including being nurses and baby-sitters. They tended to be above average in physical attractiveness, which may have helped to engender trust in their victims.

As to motives, the most common was "hedonistic", a category in forensic psychology that refers to killing for financial gain, lust or thrill, with nearly half the sample fitting this category. The next most common motive was "power-seeking", which includes killing people in one's care.

The researchers urge caution regarding the factors that contributed to these women becoming serial killers. Apart from anything else, the historical records are incomplete and the absence of information does not mean that a given factor was not contributory. Nonetheless, Harrison and her team highlight several noticeable patterns in the data: a greater proportion of the women, as compared with the general population, had: a history of having been physically or sexually abused; drug or alcohol problems; and a diagnosis or signs of mental illness.

Quotes from some of the killers hint at their psychopathological thinking:
"They [the children] bothered me, so I decided to kill them."
"I like to attend funerals. I'm happy when someone is dying."
"That is my ambition, to have killed more people – more helpless people – than any man or woman who has ever lived."
A striking contrast with male serial killers is the relative absence of sexual violence and deviance. Two exceptions were a female serial killer who was a rapist, and another who reportedly barked like a dog during sex. But overall, the researchers highlighted how the women in their study primarily killed for resources, while their male counterparts kill for sex. This follows evolutionary theory, Harrison and her co-authors explained, in the sense that men are said to be motivated more by seeking multiple sexual opportunities, while women are motivated to find a committed partner with sufficient resources. "However," they added, "although an evolutionary framework can offer understanding, we stress that these heinous acts are a vicious extension of unconscious drives and are not therefore 'normal' or 'excused' ... ".

The new analysis points to a worrying trend: a 150 per cent increase in the number of reported cases of female serial killers since 1975. This study has obvious limitations, most obviously the reliance on historical records and news reports, and its exclusive focus on US killers. However, it makes a valuable contribution to a neglected topic.

The researchers concluded: "Increasing our understanding of serial killers may minimise the number of victims potentially lost in the future while maximising the effectiveness of interventions to prevent vulnerable individuals from taking a killing path."


Harrison, M., Murphy, E., Ho, L., Bowers, T., & Flaherty, C. (2015). Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives, and makings The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-24 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1007516

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

Increase in female serial killers could be down to the fact that we have better forensics and crime detection methods now and so they are more likely to be caught.

Research Digest said...

Good use of quotes -- Robert St. Estephe

Research Digest said...

The increase in incidence thesis is based on extremely incomplete research that does not justify such a statistical analysis. Look up "Female Serial Killers of 19th Century America" (all sources are cited, allowing researchers to vet each case as they wish) and you can get a glimpse of the fact that only a fraction of cases were even known to the scholars who came up with the thesis that FSK cases were on the increase.

For the source of the quotes used in this article --- and over 100 more examples, see "Female Serial Killer Quotations: Voices of Violent Women."

Research Digest said...

And I was thinking about dating again?

Research Digest said...

In a business, managers who struggled to connect with their staff would be sent on training courses to improve their interpersonal and communication skills. I guess it would be too much to ask to give Uni professors some similar training instead of all this complex malarkey?

Research Digest said...

One would imagine that serial killers as a group (male and female) would have a clearer motive than the average Joe to over-report childhood abuse (e.g. to try and engender sympathy if facing trial).

Research Digest said...

What we observed from long is called misandria (not sure un English), the second side of misogynia.

Only since few decade did the misandria was reduced.
In French speaking zone, the crimes of the wife of Dutroux started to alarm the consciences.
Then the sadistic manipulator wife of Fourniret, who exploited the sadistic talent of a known sex criminal to fulfil her pleasure, who caught young girls to then torture them and kill them, raised other alarms.
The most strange is that she denounced her husband , by fear of being responsible of his crimes, imagining she would be cleaned as all women are.

In outreaux the role of the wife of the pathological family who accused innocents was reconized, even if in a lesser way.

We start to understand the newborn in freezers mothers as a reality, even if we still treat it as pathology and not yet sadism (psychopathy in fact).

with women taking their due power in the public place, their "born innocence" seems less and less clear and we rediscover women violence, of different kind.
As some victims of men assault explains, sometime there is a girlfriend to push their man, like a man push his knife, or like a sect guru send his believers. even it it is only statistical preference, the wepon you use, gun, knife, fridge, boyfriend, believers, depend on your competences.

Research Digest said...

one point is that many female killers may have been assumed victims of false accusations, which is maybe partially true.

Way to react to female crime, to sexual crime was strange.

for example there is good evidence that the "BĂȘte du Gevaudan" (Beast of the Gevaudan), was not a wolf, but probably a psychopath, his dogs and his family...
People said it was a wolf, but world don't behead, remove skirts, open doors...
Poisoning was a typical accusation against women, that may be unfair, but may be real too.

For long time, femismism and misogynia assumed that women were not violent.
It is partially true, but not totally, and more than that the expression of violence is different.

Research Digest said...

Here is a "complete" (in progress) list of methods and weapons used by FSKs.

Female Serial Killers: Weapons, Poisons & Methods

Research Digest said...

The increase may be due to the more open idea that anyone can be a serial killer, criminal profiling isn't so restrictive. Stereo-typically you assume the majority of killers will be men. This is due to the stereotypes of genders and how men are seen as stronger physically and more daring. But this ignores individual difference, some women are more masculine than others in the first place. Personally I believe the character of a person and their life experiences determine if they become a serial killer, as it is linked to your own morals and how you think you have the power to hurt others. The fact that the women killers tend to be above average in attractiveness may be down to how as humans, we link good attractiveness to good characteristics, so I agree we are more trusting towards them, which is very naive but natural.

Research Digest said...

The ratio of women serial killers in relation to men will increase once they are paid the same as men.

Research Digest said...

The 150% increase isn't an increase per populace, but a total increase, not considering a growth in world population.

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