Serial Killers Shaped by Society, Study Claims

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Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is seen in a 1982 Milwaukee county sheriff's department mugshot. New research that society shapes serial killers.
AP Photo

Serial murderers are distorted reflections of society's own values, according to new research.

Murder might just work in the same way than an infectious disease does.
AFP/Getty Images

Traditionally the behavior of serial killers has been viewed through a psychological framework, blaming customary factors like bad parenting, maladjusted brain chemistry or past abuse. But Kevin Haggerty, a University of Alberta sociologist and criminologist, argues that society -- not psychology -- is responsible.

"I would say there's minimal evidence that psychological approaches have made more than a small difference in our understanding of this phenomenon," he told Discovery News. "Almost every psychological approach applied to serial murder has been ruled out as a uniform claim to understanding this behavior."

He published his study in the August issue of the journal Crime, Media, Culture.

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Take the example of Robert Pickton, the Canadian pig farmer who boasted of murdering at least 49 women over several decades. Haggerty cites Pickton's choice of victims and the ease with which he was able to find them.

Like many other serial murderers, Pickton's victims were drug-addicted prostitutes he picked up from the same skid row in Vancouver, British Columbia, time and time again.

Haggerty argues that Pickton was aided by the fact that society had marginalized these women and considered them undesirable.

"In the early modern period, prostitutes were much more integrated into a community. They were known, they knew their clients," said Haggerty. "I would say it's probably inconceivable for Pickton to have repeatedly preyed on these people in a very small geographic region and have gotten away with it back then."

He also points out what he calls the media's "unnatural" fascination with serial killers, which began with the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 and hasn't waned.

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The symbiotic relationship between serial killers and the media, where serial killers provide stories and the media provide killers the notoriety many crave, is a distinctly modern phenomenon, says Haggerty.

Rethinking the ways in which the media discusses these murderers may be one avenue that society can explore to combat such brutal behavior.

Taking society's role into account is needed, Haggerty argues, because despite decades of research -- the field of psychology has failed to provide any real insight into what drives serial killers.

But, he may have a hard sell to the criminology community.

Author, sociologist and criminal psychologist Eric Hickey points out that Haggerty's sociological model fails to provide a uniform explanation.

While some serial killers certainly seek out media attention, others, like Jeffrey Dahmer and Gary Ridgway "were or are not interested in the limelight," Hickey told Discovery News.

Josh Clark is a staff writer for HowStuffWorks.com.

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