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What psychology tells us about the minds of cold-blooded killers

Updated on: 08 June,2023 07:14 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Ainie Rizvi |

Cold-blooded murders of parallel fashion have unfolded in India’s metropolitan cities, jolting the collective sanity of the nation. Psychologists breakdown the traits, triggers, and mental state of cold-blooded killers that enable them to perform gruesome acts of murder

What psychology tells us about the minds of cold-blooded killers

Image for representational purposes only. Photo Courtesy: iStock

When Aftab Poonawalla crafted the murder chronicle of Shraddha Walkar, he nonchalantly accepted that he did so in a ‘fit of rage’. The body was chopped into 35 pieces, bones were reduced to powder, and the remains were disposed of in Delhi’s Mehrauli jungle over a span of a few months. Forward to March 2023 in Mumbai, a murder of similar style has been reported; torso and head wrapped in a saree, limbs stored in a steel drum, and perfumes sprayed for months to cover the foul smell. This time, the murderer was a 23-year-old girl.

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. A rise of spine-chilling murder cases where bodies have been disposed of in an undignified manner makes us wonder about the mental state of cold-blooded murderers. What is the striking commonality in all three cases? The victims were killed by their closest kin, i.e., a boyfriend, a daughter, and a lover. spoke to Mumbai-based psychologists Trisha Daruwala and Juveriya Syed, who decode the behaviour patterns, triggers, and mental states of killers who commit bone-chilling acts of murder.

Psychopaths, sociopaths, and psychotics

How does one classify a cold-blooded murderer with no fear of consequence? Trisha, the co-founder of the psychotherapy group Farishhta, highlights a few terms that come to our mind when we link psychology and crime: psychopath, sociopath, and psychotic. It becomes imperative to avoid labelling and deliberate on what psychology tells us about a killer given the context of crime.

The terms psychopaths and sociopaths are used interchangeably. These terms are employed for individuals who experience psychopathy - a set of personality traits and behaviours that are frequently associated with

1. Lack of emotional sensitivity and empathy
2. Impulsiveness
3. Superficial charm
4. Not sensitive to consequences

The term psychopath is sometimes confused with “psychotic”. However, they are not the same. Psychotics are individuals who are experiencing psychosis - a mental illness where they have lost contact with reality and are experiencing hallucinations, paranoia, or other delusional patterns of thoughts and changes in speech, and behaviour.

If we look into the context of criminal behaviour and compare these two terms - unlike psychotic patients, psychopaths have the ability to rationalise thought and are not plagued by experiences of hallucinations or paranoia. “In fact, what psychopaths are experiencing is “moral insanity”- feeling justified in committing crimes along with an inherent inability to feel remorse”, says Trisha.

Traits of a cold-blooded killer

A city-based counselling psychologist, Juveriya believes that observable traits differ for each person as each case is unique to the circumstances of the murder. People who commit such crimes may have a history of exhibiting violent and antisocial behaviour. Certain observable traits are:

1. Engaging in impulsive acts of road rage and violent fights
2. No control over impulse and temper
3. Reduced ability to regulate emotions
4. Seeking sensory stimulation through a substance or deviant acts
5. Lack of empathy or remorse for the other’s pain
6. Lack of respect for other’s dignity
7. Suffering from personality disorders or other mental health issues
8. Inability to connect with their social or familial circles

Clinical diagnosis for psychopathy

Adding to the complexity, psychopathy is a concept that is multifaceted. What Trisha implies here is that the set of behaviours mentioned above is present in individuals with varying degrees. Psychopathy is on a spectrum. Additionally, every culture interprets psychopathy in different ways, making it extremely variable. Hence, the takeaway is that not all individuals who fit the criteria of psychopathy are violent criminals.

Psychopaths indulge in criminal behaviour. For this reason, the mental health community has had a hard time standardising this term. The diagnostic manuals that psychologists follow, don’t mention psychopathy as a clinical diagnosis. It has been spoken about through two important clinical diagnoses in the manual.

Antisocial Personality Disorder: This diagnosis majorly focuses on the behavioural traits of psychopathy - aggression, impulsivity, and violations of others’ rights and minimally on callousness, lack of remorse, and narcissism.

Conduct disorder with limited prosocial emotion (for youth): This is the closest diagnosis to psychopathy. It encompasses the behavioural and emotional aspects of psychopathy.

What neuroscience has to say about the mind of a killer

Researchers have been studying the behaviour of people with violent tendencies for a long time. They have come up with three main theories about why people act violently. Experts shed light on the theories:

Biological influences - A range of studies have shown that neurological abnormalities have been found in the minds of cold-blooded killers. Some of the major brain areas that have been seen to have played a role are the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. The former’s subpart – the neocortex, possibly lacks cortical density or thickness of persons with psychopathy, which are brain regions implicated in processing and recognising emotions. This explains the symptom of an inability to feel remorse. Additionally, they had a lesser level of activation in the amygdala which can make a person fearless. Hence, amygdala disinhibition can explain the low moral evaluations, and normalcy while committing a gruesome crime. However, the extent to which biological factors are involved highly depends on the kind of environmental exposure the individual has experienced.

Psychological theories about deviant behaviour have various aims. Some of them try to understand variables that relate to such behaviour, while others try to understand what maintains such behaviour.

Learning theories: Within these theories in the context of criminal behaviour, there is the theory of differential association. It posits that criminal behaviour is a result of what we have learned from our environment about deviant behaviours and how frequently those behaviours were reinforced when they were performed or exhibited by someone else in the environment.

Personality theories: A popular model called Five-Factor-Model (FFM), also called Big Give can be employed to understand the personality profile of psychopaths. As per research, their profile shows low scores on conscientiousness (cautious, dutiful, self-discipline, self-efficacy) and agreeableness (cooperation, morality, sympathy, and others). There are mid-range scores on neuroticism (emotional dysregulation, vulnerability, moderation and others). Another important personality construct is narcissism including arrogance, social boldness, and dominance.

Substance use: As per research, long-term substance use is seen as an independent risk factor for violence and the diagnosis of substance abuse disorder places an individual at risk of violence more than any other mental illness.

Social Factors: Research reports the following factors can exacerbate their tendencies towards physical expression: Living within psychotic households and witnessing psychotic parental rages, a history of physical abuse, and patriarchal culture holds views related to favouring violent behaviours in boys as a means of compensating when their virilities are threatened.

Specific to Partner Killing: Major reasons research suggests especially for male offenders: Anger due to instances of infidelity, estrangement, desire to control, and their loss of control can trigger violent crimes. The social learning theory posits that individuals accept violence as a means to achieve desires, through observing violent behaviours, especially in childhood. Children often learn through modeling, and when men witness such behaviour from their fathers in childhood, their likelihood of abusing their wives in adulthood increases.

What happens in the brain when one kills

When a person commits an unplanned murder in a fit of rage, they tend to feel powerful and in control of the events while performing those acts. The kill may potentially induce a rush of excitement or even euphoria. Adrenaline as well as dopamine is released by the brain which enhances their energy levels and gives them a heightened experience of being in the moment, without regrets.

Juveriya shares that this feeling, however, is usually very short-lived and is often followed by feelings of guilt and regret, as the act of violence was impulsive. The murderer may have been in a rage when they committed the act, but this does not guarantee a lack of consequential thought process post-murder.

What makes killers dispose of bodies in an undignified manner

The act of cutting, tearing, ripping, etc. in psychology is referred to as dismemberment. This can be of two types:

Offensive dismemberment in which dismemberment is the primary motivation, and defensive dismemberment in which the motivation is to destroy or hide evidence. Various factors such as sexual gratification, sensation, and thrill-seeking, grandiosity contribute to a killer’s drive to dismember a body.

Juveriya reveals that the act of dismemberment empowers a killer’s instincts. “It could be a way for them to exhibit power and establish that they are in control over the victim even after death.” Sometimes, the killer might feel an emotional attachment to the victim, and cutting up their body serves as an emotionally cathartic act.

Pre-symptoms and identifiers of deviants in the society

To understand the pre-symptoms, Juveriya stresses the need to make a distinction between planned murders and unplanned ‘fit of rage’ murders. Planned murders can be linked with Antisocial Personality Disorder and studies have shown that the traits of antisocial personality disorder can be observed from childhood itself.

Usually, an adult with ASPD has conduct disorder as a child. When a child engages in acts such as mercilessly throwing stones at a street dog or pulling the tail of a street cat just for fun, it tells us something very important: the child is gaining pleasure from the pain of others. This needs to be taken seriously, and the child should be taken for therapy. Often, a child might engage in these gruesome acts to relieve frustration caused by family issues. Since a child has no power at home, he may demonstrate his power wherever he can, such as with street animals and physically weaker classmates.

“It's important to note that not all murders happen in a planned manner; some occur in a fit of rage, such as the cases highlighted in today’s discussion. People who commit such murders usually have issues controlling their impulses. This stems from a deficit in a neurotransmitter called dopamine in the frontal cortex of the brain”, reveals Juveriya.

Impulse control can be observed in daily life, such as in people with addiction issues, gambling issues, road rage issues, and even binge-eating or binge-watching. All of these situations demonstrate a deficit in controlling one’s impulse or desire to do something. They exhibit a pattern of behaviour wherein they know something is unhealthy, yet they go ahead failing to reason out the malaise associated with those acts.

Professional therapies for people with Antisocial Personality Disorder

Considering the severity of the crimes committed, it is essential to consider the welfare of the victims' families as well as the perpetrators themselves. Seeking professional counselling and therapy can be a significant step in helping the murderers acknowledge and comprehend their actions, identify the underlying causes of their behaviour, and acquire healthy emotional management skills.

Depending on the specifics of each case, Juveriya shares different forms of therapy that may be suitable, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, family therapy, or trauma-focused therapy. It is also crucial to ensure that the murderers are held accountable for their deeds and face appropriate legal consequences. The primary goal of counselling should be to support the murderers in their rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society while prioritising the safety and well-being of others.

Also Read: Lalbaug murder case: Why Rimple couldn’t dispose of corpse

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