During the unfortunate aftermath of the D.C. Snipers, I was consulted for a psychological profile of these serial killers. In the series, American Gangsters (Black Entertainment Television, 2007), I highlighted the relationship dynamics between John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo as well as the personality traits of serial killers.

One prevalent personality trait of serial killers is being perfectly characterized in the two popular television series American Horror Story: Hotel and How to Get Away with Murder.

Each episode tells of one or more persons with a blatant disregard for the lives or welfare of others; the uncensored fulfillment of personal desires or beliefs; and a disdain for authority, rules, or external order. Combined, these behaviors represent some of the classic traits of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Most serial killer adults have this personality type.

They also usually have these additional personality traits:

  1. A history or tendency toward deceitfulness. They are often habitual liars and have a history of manipulating or conning others.
  2. A consistent failure to conform to social norms. A disregard for laws or rules.
  3. Lack of concern for the physical or emotional safety of others. They are often reckless in their behaviors.
  4. Consistent failure to honor obligations or promises. They usually have a poor school and work history; and in personal relationships – if they maintain any – their intentions and actions are rarely sincere.
  5. Emotional instability that may result in frequent irritability or aggression (verbal or physical).

The most prominent serial killer personality trait is the lack of remorse. The least common personality trait (contrary to blockbuster movie depictions) is high intelligence. Although serial killers may be methodical and persistent in their attacks, very high or superior intelligence is not a consistent trait. They are also equally likely to be unorganized or organized in their killing method.

Other personality factors found when conducting psychological evaluations of serial killers can be identified in their childhood history. Frequently, serial killers will have a history of showing the above five traits as well as a lack of remorse since childhood and, undoubtedly, by the age of 15. They usually have an absent father and a domineering mother; and an unstable home environment. Sadly, they often have been abused physically, emotionally, or sexually by a family member.

As adults, serial killers may have a collection of clippings of newspaper coverage of other serial killers or might report attraction to murder cases or specific movies, books, or cartoons where the killer was either never caught, his/her murders resulted in fame, or the capture of a serial killer was only after the killer successfully outsmarted investigators for an extended period of time.

Although simply watching murderous movies or reading such exploits will not make someone become a serial killer, serial killers commonly partake in these forms of entertainment. I found this to be true in my former work with hospitalized psychiatric patients in forensic units (i.e., persons found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity). Several of my patients reported being “impressed” by the acts of real or fictionalized serial killers.

However, unlike serial killers, forensic psychiatric patients do not plan to kill; and they usually have a total of one killing experience whereas serial killers typically have at least five separate killings.

Also, when comparing serial killers with both forensic psychiatric patients and persons who kill (e.g., during criminal activity), only serial killers are more likely to (1) experience a psychological and/or physical relief OR a feeling of power, lust, or excitement during or after the killing; (2) have a profile of the type of victim they choose; and (3) lack guilt or remorse for inflicting pain or death upon others.

Other prominent characteristics of serial killers (in the United States) include their high probability of being Caucasian, male, and either choosing Caucasian female victims (1st) or choosing Caucasian male victims (2nd).

If you are interested in working with or treating serial killers or in using them as subjects for a movie or book, the number one trait required of you will be the ability to empathize. To achieve the highest success rates with this population you must avoid thinking of the victims. Instead, you have to strongly remember that the serial killer was likely a child who was victimized. If you approach your work with disgust, they will sense your rejection and this will only hinder your outcomes. Also, be sure to have limited exposure to the serial killer and to complete regular self-care. You will undoubtedly be affected by the stories you hear.