The Troubling Psychology of Female Serial Killers

Serial killers loom large in American pop culture, a breed of criminal that forever fascinates us as a society. There are several common stereotypes and misconceptions about the sociopathic murderers, perhaps none more pronounced than the idea that all serial killers are men.

The “deadly” misconception ignores the fact that one in six serial killers is actually female, according to the British Psychological Society. Possibly as a result of this belief, female serial killers often remain undetected for longer than their male counterparts.

Psychologist Marissa Harrison and her colleagues recently profiled 64 American female serial killers, active from 1821 to 2008, to examine the psychological trends among them. They based their research on Murderpedia, an internet crime database, using reputable news sources to verify the information.

“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,” the researchers said, “most often those who knew and likely trusted them.”

A few of their findings:

  • Their victims are both male and female.
  • The group of serial killers are known to have murdered 331 people total, making for an average of six murders each.
  • Many of the women had professions stereotypically associated with females. They were nurses, teachers, babysitters, etc. These professions usually create an atmosphere of trust that likely made it easier for the women to kill undetected.
  • Their motives were generally classified as “hedonistic,” motivated by financial gain, lust or thrill. Nearly half the samples fit this category. The next most common motive was “power-seeking.”
  • Though it’s difficult to highlight common elements in the killers’ past, the researchers note that these women, in comparison with the general population, were more often affected by physical or sexual abuse, drug or alcohol problems and mental illness.
  • In sharp contrast with male serial killers, the female murderers’ crimes were rarely sexual in nature. To generalize the two groups, men kill for sex and women kill for resources. Harrison and her colleagues note that this plays into evolutionary theories that men are motivated to seek sexual encounters while women seek a committed partner with sufficient resources. “However,” they said, “we stress that these heinous acts are a vicious extension of unconscious drives and are not therefore ‘normal’ or ‘excused.'”

Since 1975, there’s been a 150 percent uptick in reported instances of female serial killers since 1975. This study, while limited in scope, aims to shed more light on an often neglected topic in psychology and criminal justice.

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