Possibly, the act of taking another human being’s life is one of the most mediatic and repudiated in our society, and one of the most difficult to understand. In this article we are going to try to give an answer to which internal psychological processes guide the commission of a murder, which motivations “move” serial killers and why such homicidal behaviors are maintained ; although it must be taken into account that in each case these motivations will vary to a greater or lesser degree.

The concept of homicidal motivation

The homicidal motivation is a multidimensional construct , this means that there are several classic concepts to be taken into account linked to the motivation of serial killers, such as: modeling (learning or improving a behavior by imitation), trial and error techniques (perfecting their modus operandi), vicarious learning (seeing a behavior in order to learn from it), self-reinforcement and conditioning of the behavior and the killer’s own justifications that perpetuate the commission of these murders.

This way, killers can learn and model their behaviors. In fact, one of the “problems” that exist in prisons is that many convicted prisoners come to learn how to commit murders more accurately through the explanations of other criminals.

The 3 types of motivation in homicide

Although the basic motivational processes are similar to those of other non-homicidal people, killers often have specific goals, different attributions and, above all, erroneous or biased cognitions. Let us say that the cognitive processes associated with some acts are re-evaluated by means of the same distorted cognitive processes .

Killers in general, and especially serial killers (a concept introduced by Robert K. Ressler in the 1970s), often do what satisfies their needs, and use violence as a means to achieve their ends. This statement fits within the basic motivational processes of any person, but instead of using violence as a method of action, non-homicidal people employ other strategies.

The focus for knowing the criminal motivation in homicides is on the type of violence used. The way and means used will provide us with crucial clues about their motivation . This is why the analysis of the crime scene is so important, because it reflects the mood of the aggressor and his feelings, which may give us clues as to why he has committed the crime.

Below we will describe the three basic types of homicidal motivation . Obviously, they are not mutually exclusive, but in some aggressors one or the other may be more intense.

1. Revenge and justification

The main motivation of these murderers is to take revenge more or less specifically on those who they believe have contributed to their misfortunes.

These murderers justify their acts as lawful and just; for them , murder is a natural consequence of the mistreatment or unjustified rejection they have suffered. They feel that they should punish a profile of people for something they have done or for what they represent (e.g., an aggressor who as a young man has been rejected several times by women, years later he will take revenge for these acts by killing several women who have nothing to do with the matter, but who resemble those who initially rejected him).

2. Control and power

If there’s one thing that’s totally reinforcing for a killer, it’s the feeling of power, even if it’s fleeting. They have absolute control and power over the victim, over his life or his death . The feeling of being “omnipotent” is common, that is, being like a kind of God. This is an experience that can become totally addictive for the aggressor, becoming a very powerful source of personal satisfaction. It can make up for the emptiness they feel in other spheres of their lives, such as boredom, going unnoticed, being “one of the people”…

This feeling of control-power reinforces and maintains aggressive behaviour , so it is very likely that if the killer moves by this type of motivation he will return to action.

3. Ecstasy-Relief

When faced with a general state of unease or unrelieved excitement , an attempt is made to find a behaviour or activity that will free them from that tension. They present a state of anxiety, nervousness and restlessness that in many occasions manifests itself in alcoholism or in antisocial behaviour, and other times ends up in a homicidal act.

The cathartic moment of expression of feelings and anger is murder itself, and an intense feeling of euphoria and ecstasy is common. After the murderous act comes a feeling of intense and pleasant calm, of relief. However, this feeling of relief does not last forever, and the most common thing is the appearance after a while of new feelings of restlessness, anxiety, tension, accumulated anger… They have learned that to “relieve” these feelings an infallible way is the commission of a murder.

Final Reflection on Motivation in Killing

We must make some nuances about criminal motivation in homicides: a killer’s motivation is implicit, individual and unjustified. We will find as many motivations as there are killers: it is difficult to identify all the motivations of killers within the three types mentioned above, although such a classification may be of initial help in understanding their motivations.

In this sense, the motivations for committing an assassination have always been very heterogeneous: there are ideological, religious motivations (proof of this is the ISIS terrorism), passionate, selfish, economic motivations, revenge, etc. Obviously, the best way to know the motivations of serial killers is to talk directly to them, conduct a meticulous interview by a trained professional and draw conclusions. Some very famous interviews in this field are the one conducted with Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy.

The most important thing, more than being able to fit the killer into one type of motivation or another within the classification, is being able to predict what is important to him and why he does it, being able to understand what his personal criminal motivation is, what his story is. In this way we can predict his behaviour with greater certainty, analyse his behaviour in greater detail and be able to stop it.