Psychological Theories

Social Structural Theories

         The development of the Social Structure Theories dates back to the days of philosopher Karl Marx.  He stated that economics was the underlying drive for social and political structure of a society.  He examined the varying relationship between different developed groups of individuals, and helped to define what today is known as a social structure.

These theories focus on the socio economic status of an individual, and explain that poor people will commit more crimes due to their struggle to obtain financial and social stability.  These individuals may experience roadblocks that hinder them from achieving the “American Dream.”  These roadblocks can be attributed to their ethnicity, and sub cultural standing.  This will result in them seeking success in illegal and deviant ways.  However, serial killers do not fall under this category of explanation.  Generally, they do not belong to any racial or ethnic minority.  They do not tend to be motivated by social or financial gain.  Of course there are exceptions to this theory, such as Aileen Wurnos.  She was a prostitute from Florida who killed and then robbed her victims.  Many of these exceptions are found among female serial killers.  They will kill their husbands, boyfriends, and family members just to improve their lifestyle.  They are generally motivated by financial gain, and therefore are categorized as hedonistic comfort oriented killers (Bartol, 2011).


Social Control Theory

Albert J. Reiss first explained this theory, in 1951.  Classic control theorists have argued that people do not commit crimes because of their fear of punishment.  However, this would obviously not pertain to serial killers.  Homicides are accompanied by severe punishments such as life long prison terms or the death penalty.

Travis Hirschi expanded this idea in 1969, where he divided the causes into four categories.  These included attachment, commitment, involvement and belief.  He explained each category as the way an individual bonds to their surrounding society.  In order for an individual to develop a conscious, it is critical that they form positive attachments to peers and family.  This helps them to gain a general idea of societal norms.  When they have a commitment to goals and education they are less likely to be involved in crimes, as they would risk loosing what they have worked for.  Involvement in activities leaves little time for criminal behavior.  Lastly, if an individual shares similar beliefs with society, it is likely that they will conform to societal expectations.

When examining the childhood of most serial killers, theorists have found that many of them did not have strong attachments or relationships to their families.  It is likely for them to have experienced traumatic events with one or both parents.  They have also appeared to be distant and isolated from peers.  This may be the cause for their delinquent behavior (Hickey, 2010).


Labeling Theory

Eric Goffman first developed the labeling theory in 1961.  He explained a stigma that goes along with an individual that has spent time in an institution such as a prison.  They have now attracted unwanted attention due to abnormal or unacceptable behavior.  This behavior is seen as a process that progresses from primary to secondary deviance.  Primary deviance can be defined as the original act that leads the individual to the institution/prison.  Secondary deviance is seen as any following act that is committed due to the individual’s unwanted label.

By being labeled, the individual is haunted by negative societal views.  This leads to both hostility and aggression that make it easier to commit a second crime, and act against society.  It ultimately affects the offender’s self-concept, and the way they view themselves.  The negative views from society encourage feelings of inadequacy, anger, and low self esteem.  This makes it easier to act out and continually commit crime.  Once someone who is convicted of homicide returns to the outside world, they are very likely to murder again.  This is known as having a high recidivism rate.  Because society already treats them poorly due to their threat, the offender does not feel that they have much to loose (Bartol, 2011).

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