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CONTRIBUTION OF MENTAL ILLNESS AND SOCIETAL FACTORS TO CRIMINAL BEHAVIOUR



INTRODUCTION

Sociology and Psychology are pertinent to law because framing laws for the society requires an understanding of the way the human mind and the society works. It helps us predict and identify problems in the society and tackle them in an appropriate way. It ensures administration in the smoothest way, and it ensures justice to victims of crimes.

Similar to how we study these subjects and relate them to law, it is also important to study these subjects to get a deeper understanding of crime and criminals. When we see a criminal, all we see is someone who committed a crime. But this criminal is a person who might’ve gone through traumatic experiences that pushed them to develop criminalistic tendencies. The objective of this research paper is not to sympathise with criminals but instead to use case studies to see how social and psychological factors contribute to the making of a criminal and to challenge our traditional views of criminals being born that way.


CONTRIBUTION OF MENTAL ILLNESS AND SOCIETAL FACTORS TO CRIMINAL BEHAVIOUR

  • As suggested by a renowned American sociologist Robert K. Merton in his theory of anomie- criminal behaviour is a result of the criminal’s failure to fulfil his goals by means that are acceptable by the society. When such a person is unable to attain their goal, they resort to using other means- that may not be socially or legally acceptable- to fulfil their initial objectives. The purview of conflict theories holds that those in power tend to obey to the laws in a country in order to serve their own selfish interests.

  • According to Sigmund Freud, human nature contains a large reservoir of instinctual drives (the "id") that demands instant gratification. These desires for instant gratification are tempered by moral and ethical codes (the "superego") that children internalise as a result of their strong commitment to and affection for their parents. Adults create a logical part of their personality (the "ego") that mediates between desires of the id and the superego's constraints. Since the id is a relatively constant drive, crime is thought to be the result of the superego's failure, as a result of its incomplete growth. The empirical evidence for this hypothesis, however, is scant.

  • Various hypotheses have been suggested by researchers to investigate the social and environmental factors that affect or drive individuals to commit crime. Some theories attribute criminal activity to factors such as community dynamics, pressure from societal goals and social institutions, and the emergence of subcultural networks. Some theories attribute criminal influences to factors such as rational choice, feelings of being disproportionately marginalised in comparison to peers, and different biological and social components. There are also hypotheses that investigate why people do not commit crimes, such as relationship strength and trust in the rule of law.

  • A central psychological theory is behavioural theory, which holds that committing a crime is a learned reaction to circumstances. Cognitive theory, which investigates how people solve problems through moral growth and information processing, is another important theory. When investigating criminal behaviour, psychological theories examine personality characteristics such as extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. They also investigate the idea of the psychopathic personality, in which an individual can engage in criminal thrill-seeking behaviour to compensate for low arousal levels. According to research, personality characteristics such as aggression, narcissism, and impulsivity are associated with criminal and delinquent conduct.

  • Taking an extreme case of criminal behaviour portrayed by serial killers, there have been attempts at drawing up a rough psychological profile of serial killers in order to aid the process of catching or at the very least understanding one but it is difficult to objectively draw up a profile since all serial killers cannot be put into a box. However, some serial killers share characteristics such as thrill seeking, a lack of remorse or shame, impulsivity, a desire for dominance, and predatory behaviour. These characteristics and behaviours are representative of a psychopathic personality disorder.

  • Dr. Robert Hare led the modern research initiative to create a set of evaluation methods to measure the personality characteristics and behaviours associated with psychopaths. Dr. Hare and his colleagues created the Psychopathy Check List Revised (PCL-R) and its derivatives, which offer a clinical measure of an individual's level of psychopathy. These instruments assess an individual's distinct set of personality characteristics and socially deviant habits, which are classified into four categories: interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and anti-social. Glibness, false charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological deception, and coercion of others are examples of interpersonal characteristics. A lack of remorse and/or guilt, superficial affect, a lack of empathy, and an inability to take responsibility are among the affective characteristics. Stimulation-seeking behaviour, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasite orientation, and a lack of achievable life goals are examples of lifestyle habits. Bad behavioural controls, early childhood conduct disorders, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility are examples of anti-social activities.

  • The connection between psychopathy and serial killers is especially intriguing. Not all psychopaths become serial killers. Rather, serial killers can exhibit some or all of the characteristics associated with psychopathy. Serial killer psychopaths have little regard for human life and are highly callous in their encounters with their victims. This is especially true of sexually driven serial killers who regularly pursue, stalk, attack, and kill with no remorse. However, psychopathy alone does not justify a serial killer's motives.

  • The serial killer is often neglected during critical stages of childhood, when the formation of the human personality begins. These criminals are also economically disadvantaged when they reach adolescence, mostly as a result of neglect and parental issues. Serial killers also lack self-control and other essential characteristics of a law-abiding citizen. It seems that socialisation plays a significant role in pushing these simply mentally ill people over the edge.

BRIEF CASE STUDY OF TED BUNDY

  • Between 1974 and 1978 in the United States of America, Ted Bundy was a cunning and charismatic psychopath who abducted, raped, and murdered more than 30 women in seven states. He would usually approach his victims in public places, pretending to be injured or disabled or impersonating an authority figure, before overpowering and attacking them in secluded areas. He returned to his victims on occasion, grooming and performing sexual acts on their decomposing bodies until putrefaction and degradation by wild animals rendered any further interaction impossible.

  • Bundy had a simple childhood as per him, but taking a closer look at some odd anecdotes told by those around him is important as it gives us a peek at his psyche. One of his aunts had once reported waking up in the middle of the night to find that her nephew was placing knives around her. A psychologist, when asked about this, was of the opinion that such behaviour is usually only exhibited by those who have either experienced first-hand abuse or witnessed some sort of trauma. He had a strained relationship with his stepfather and he had a strong sense of dislike for him, and would often be hit when he acted out. He was also not particularly fond of his mother because there were rumours that he was an illegitimate child and he felt humiliated because of this fact. He didn’t fit in at school and was described as a loner, he didn’t get picked for the sports teams, and experienced mediocrity in the sphere of academics. Moreover, he depicted signs of his violent streak from an early age; he liked to dig holes that doubled as traps so people could fall into them, and also hit a Boy Scout on the head with a stick once. He enjoyed books filled gore and descriptive rape and murder. He had shoplifted, forged tickets, and gotten involved in theft in his teenage years. What is perhaps most concerning is that fact that he started spying on strangers, and such voyeurism is often considered a precursor to sexual violence.

  • He was incapable of feeling pity or regret because he lacked interpersonal empathy. He had little regard for human life and was unconcerned about the repercussions of his actions. In his encounters with his victims, he was callous, indifferent, and incredibly violent. The prime objective of a killer like him is to control his victims. Bundy found sexual arousal in torturing his prey, but the act of murder was his most rewarding and final show of power and control over his victims. Raping his victims was a way to dominate and control them, but the very act was not motivated by lust. Bundy was driven to kill by obsessive homicidal hallucinations, and he was forced to do so repeatedly to fulfil his awful urges. However, the cruel and messy experience of murder never completely fulfilled Bundy's imagination. In reality, the aftermath of murder normally resulted in an emotional let-down for him, but the fantasy remained because it was so deeply rooted in his mind and psyche.

  • Both psychological (obsession with porn, lack of empathy, etc) and sociological factors (disturbed home, inability to fit in, etc), as we can see from the discussion above, played a key role in making Ted Bundy the criminal he was. The question that arises next is; what impact did Bundy have on the society and the psychology of the people? An obvious response, is the steep rise in fear in the mind of people because of the horrible crimes committed by him. However, another phenomenon was witnessed in the society during and after Bundy’s court trial. Swayed by his good looks and charm, many women were willing to ignore his crimes and others genuinely believed he was innocent, even in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This led to the formulization of something known as the Bundy Effect, which is the uncanny ability to represent yourself in different ways, fluidly and convincingly, in order to achieve what you want. Aside from the anxiety in the minds of the people and the romanticization of a seemingly charming serial killer, the American society underwent a change in the 1970s. Before the 1970s, the society was relatively safer and people seldom locked their doors or windows and happenings of rape or murder weren’t that often. However, in the same period as Bundy, with the increase in number of hitchhikers and thus the increase in ease of finding vulnerable victims, several serial killers came to power. The society became mistrusting of others, and the anxiety and fear were at an all-time high. People started locking their doors and being careful of those around them, women had to stop going out after a certain time to ensure their safety. Though it seems like a minute, unsubstantial change- it changed the dynamic of the American society from that moment forth.

BRIEF CASE STUDY OF THE NIGHT STALKER

  • Richard Ramirez, more popularly known as the Night Stalker, was a notorious serial killer and serial rapist. He was known to break into houses at night, and murder and rape the residents of that house. He claimed 13 victims before he was captured in August of the year 1985 and was later convicted on all 13 murder charges, 5 attempted murder charged, 11 charges of sexual assault and 14 burglaries. He was sentenced to die in a gas chamber in California and passed away due to complications from lymphoma while awaiting execution on death row.

  • Ramirez suffered from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. He, according to a well-known psychiatrist, also suffered from several head injuries before the age of 6 years that led to development of temporal lobe epilepsy, aggressivity and hypersexuality. Moreover, Ramirez as a child was trapped in an abusive environment wherein, he had to bear witness to his father’s bursts temper and physical and mental attacks on him and his family. Ramirez revealed to an interviewer once that he often slept in a cemetery to escape his father’s temper.

  • Ramirez became estranged from his immediate family when he was 12 years old, and he grew closer to his older cousin Miguel Ramirez, who had fought as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Mike returned with hundreds of war stories and gruesome Polaroids — trophies from his own escapades beating, raping, and murdering people. One of Ramirez's favourites was a gruesome picture of Mike holding a rape victim's severed head up to his crotch, which Ramirez allegedly used to pleasure himself. He also witnessed Mike shooting his wife Jessie in the head, that resulted in her death. Mike even introduced Richard to drugs, prostitution and they often went on burglary expeditions together.

  • From the incidence of Ramirez using the Polaroid of Mike holding a rape victim’s severed head to his groin to pleasure himself- it is evident that he harboured violent sexual fantasies. Mike’s influence and presence in Ramirez’s life introduced him to the violence and made him think that power and violence are not only acceptable, but also desirable. This phenomenon is referred to by psychologists as Social Learning Theory, and it occurs when a combination of environmental and cognitive stimuli reinforces observational learning, resulting in new behaviours, habits, and attitudes. Ramirez eased into his violent side because of what he witnessed all around him and psychologically, that played a major role in making him the criminal he was.

  • As a teenager, Ramirez attempted to rape a woman at the Holiday Inn he was working at but was not successful because her husband beat him and drove him away. He claimed his first victim in April of 1984- a 9-year-old girl, Mei Leung, whose body was found hanging in the basement of the hotel he was residing in. In addition to his assaults on adults, he would abduct and rape children. He would yank them from their beds, take them to a remote location, assault them, and then abandon them. Anastasia Hronas, one of the 6-year-old survivors, would later be critical in finding him in a line-up after he was captured.

  • As he caused more harm, Ramirez became more fascinated by and involved in Satanism. Crime scenes began to be vandalised further, with inverted pentagrams drawn on walls with a victim's lipstick, the same pentagrams drawn on victims' bodies, and he'd also compel victims to "swear on Satan" that they wouldn't scream or hide valuables from him.

  • Several psychological studies and research have shown that adults who were abused as children are three times more likely to act aggressively, and that male serial killers are more likely to be abused or rejected as children, and this was backed by the particulars of Richard Ramirez’s life. Ramirez, according to psychiatrist Michael H. Stone, is a 'made' psychopath rather than a 'born' psychopath. He claims that Ramirez's schizoid personality disorder led to his indifference to his victims' suffering and his untreatable condition.

  • In an interview with A&E, criminologist and serial killer researcher Dr. Scott Bonn said that "sex and crime were all a grand adventure for him." He went on to say that there is no real "one-size-fits-all" nature to characterise serial killers, but Ramirez was clearly a "thrill killer" who made his decision on the spot with no forethought or preparation — only a desire for aggression.

  • Ramirez reportedly scored 31 out of a possible 40 on the Hare test, placing him at the higher end of the scale used to assess typical psychopathic behaviours such as lack of empathy, impulsivity, deception, and sexual deviance, among others.

  • Richard Ramirez, as can be seen from the discussion above, was forged into a criminal because of the several social and psychological factors present throughout his life. His ADHD made him impulsive, his abusive family and surroundings predisposed him to violent behaviour, his cousin Mike exposed him to a mixture of violence and sex, and as Dr. Stone said- his schizoid personality disorder made him indifferent to his victims’ suffering. Richard was a psychopath who indulged in criminal behaviour as a result of the various key factors that pushed him to that life and the trauma he experienced in his childhood. His fascination with sex and violence from a young age were transformed into fantasies because of his cousin’s influence and because of all the criminal activity they indulged in together Ramirez gained the confidence and will to transform his violently sexual fantasies to actual crimes of murdering and raping people.


CONCLUSION These brief case studies on two of the most notorious and terrifying serial killers of all time make us ponder upon whether if these people would have been on a different path if they had had a different social environment in their lives. Would Ramirez still have been a serial killer if his father wasn’t abusive and if Mike was a normal, loving cousin instead of a soldier who enjoyed raping and drugs? Would Bundy still have killed all those women if he didn’t have easy access to porn from a young age and if he didn’t have a disturbed home?


Most research papers tend to answer questions. However, the objective of this research paper was to present information that would challenge our traditional view on criminals and make us ask questions. Serial killers have done horrible and terrifying things, and are thus evil. But what makes them evil? Can the interrelation of sociology and psychology be studied in depth and used in real life to maybe prevent people who are predisposed to violence from indulging in criminal activity?


These questions are constantly being answered and re-answered by scholars, but it is important that everyone recognises the importance of social and psychological factors in making of a criminal. Modifying parenting styles, ensuring increased access to mental healthcare, and simply being kind to those around us- are some simple ways that may change a person’s life, and help them build a good life for themselves.


By Deepanshita Singh

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