Psychology Essays – Criminal Media Psychology

Criminal Media Psychology

In media depictions, “criminal psychology is frequently portrayed in a very favourable light, almost as if it were a sort of ‘secret science’” (Hale et al, 2005). Critically evaluate media (mis)representations relating to the intersection of psychology and crime. Within your answer make particular reference to a filmic depiction of an offending behaviour. Ensure you utilize both mainstream and critical literature within your discussion.

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The term ‘Serial Killer’ strikes fear deep into the hearts of most, however it is often thought that fear is what drives some curiosities, thus finding it appropriate to understand why serial killers commit horrific acts of violence repetitively. Finkelhor (1984) four-factor model, social learning theory, psychodynamic theory, ‘Nature V Nurture’ and treatment programmes for offending behaviour all play a part in understanding and treating psychopathological behavior.

We all experience rage and inappropriate sexual instincts, yet we have some sort of internal cage that keeps our inner monsters locked up. These internal blockades have long since been trampled down in the psychopathic killer. Not only have they let loose the monster within; they are virtual slaves to its beastly appetites. Why men and women develop into serial killers has been one of the foremost questions guiding research on severe deviant behaviour in the 21st century.

The film titled ‘Natural Born Killers’ is based upon two fictional serial killers who go on a rampage, slaughtering their way across the south-west of United States and ultimately claiming fifty-two victims who are then made famous by the media. The film captures specific behaviours by the two serial killers that can be psychologically explained with regards to how they are first modelled to act in the way that they do and how this behaviour was shaped from early childhood. Serial killers can be influenced from the early stages of life from as early childhood.

Finkelhor (1984) proposed a four-factor model of the preconditions to child sexual abuse, which integrate the various theories about why individuals begin to participate in sexually deviant behaviour. Finkelhor constructed an organisational framework consisting of four separate underlying factors that explain not only why offenders abuse, but also why the abuse continues. The factors known to contribute to child sexual abuse are grouped into four pre-conditions; such as, motivation, internal inhibitions, external inhibitions, and blockage.

Mallory’s father would have had to produce motivation to sexually abuse. Morals and taboos would have to be ignored, otherwise, argues Finkelhor, sexual abuse wouldn’t occur. Mallory’s father found his wife to be of less satisfactory of sexual satisfaction, which led him to release his sexual frustration upon Mallory. This provided the ‘motivation’ needed to carry out this type of abuse. In correlation with motivation, the fact that women are a physically weaker target than me explains why he chooses women as there is much more chance to succeed.

Psychologists assert that internal controls are not developed because of deficient or deviant values of a person. It is obvious that a man with strong and right values does not even think of such a humiliation of an innocent woman and of ruining her life. With no internal inhibitions, the abuser can proceed with little care for the emotions of the victim and he’s own. This led Mallory’s father to sexually abuse Mallory.

Mallory’s father had no external inhibitions to stop him from carrying act this abnormal act. In Mallory’s case, the sexual abuser, her father, had no obstacles preventing him from sexually abusing Mallory, thus sexual abuse occurred. Thus, children who are sexually abused learn sex through inappropriate means, and if exposed enough, children may internalise this learned behaviour. When this occurs after a long period of time, the offender begins to behave accordingly. Thus this leads the sexually abused child to develop chronic low grade depression, low self-esteem, due to being ridiculed their entire life thus distorting her view of the world. This distorted view upon the world, perhaps, had influenced her extreme violence upon her victims.

Blockage essentially deals with the abuser’s ability to have his sexual and emotional needs met in adult relationships. The potential abuser has to overcome a child’s ‘resistance’, a form of blockage to being sexually abused. Abusers pick a vulnerable child who show little or no signs that they may resist the offender. In Mallory’s case, as a child, she covertly displayed a confident and assertive manner which conveyed a strong message to her abuser not to try fear of detection against her, but nevertheless, still sexually abusing her by being co-coerced by her father.

Psychodynamic theory asserts that the human psyche is composed of three primary elements; the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the unconscious domain from which all the instinctual human drives originate (i.e. sex, aggression). The id is ruled by the pleasure principle that demands instant gratification of these urges. The second part of Freud’s model, the ego, is the conscious part of the human psyche that serves as the mediation between the id and the external environment. The final element, the superego, is more commonly referred to as the conscience. Thus, serial killers seem to be overwhelmed by their id. This theory appears to have corresponding relations to Mickey and Mallory’s sexual abuse and later why Mickey raped and sexually abused himself towards his own victims. In this respect, the environment plays an important part in the up-bringing of a child and life-long effects. Studies have suggested that anywhere from 30% to 80% of offenders have been sexually abused themselves in the past, and this information may offer credible evidence to support this theory.

Both Mallory and Mickey did not receive proper care as an infant, thus they were both negatively affected into adulthood. In short, serial killers seem to manifest their feelings of oppression from childhood in the form of brutal murders. The Superego (or the conscience) of rapists is not strong enough to countervail the wild inborn instincts of the Id. Freud claims that the sexual instinct is the most powerful in people’s decisions, but the Superego manages to control it. But when the Superego is weak, sexual abusers listen to this wild instinct to satisfy the sexual wish. Moreover, it is quite possible that many sex offenders are very self centred people who are very selfish, and were only looking to satisfy their own yearnings. Thus id, ego and superego become relevant to the argument.

According to Bandura, observational learning is achieved by viewing and then systematically rehearsing the modeled behaviour and then finally reenacted in reality. With regards to the depicted film ‘Natural Born Killers’ the messages injected into the public can sometimes pass the wrong messages to the wrong viewers. For example, On March 5 1995 Sarah Turnondson and Ben Darrus in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, watched the film ‘Natural Born Killers’ repeatedly and fantasized about recreating the scenes by randomly killing people. On the 7th March, near Hernando, Mississippi, Ben entered an office and shot Bill Savage twice in the head at point-blank range. Sarah explains later to the police that: “it was as if he was fantasizing from the movie”. In this case, Ben ‘learned’ the modeled behavior and reenacted the characteristics of a serial killer.

The social learning theory states that particular individuals, especially children, are influenced by the environment and thus imitate this behavior, especially modeled behavior from the mass media which completely ignores an individual’s biological state. Also, the social learning theory rejects differences formed in individuals that are due to genetic, brain, and learning differences. For example, if a child witnessed a crime or murder, he or she might respond in a variety of ways. Biological psychologists believe that the responses would be normal and they come from the autonomic nervous system. In addition, the social learning theory rejects the classical and operant conditioning processes.

The ‘Social Learning’ theory can be broken down into four learning techniques, such as; Attention, Retention, Motor Reproduction, and Reinforcements. In Attention, individuals cannot learn much by observation unless they retain what they viewed and then act out significant modeled behavior, such as Mickey’s murdering rampage by Ben Darrison. In order to reproduce this behavior, the individual must code this information into long-term memory. Therefore, the information will be retrieved for later use. For example, verbal descriptions acted out by copy cat killers by witty one liners such as “you poor darling, you’re not dead yet” by Mallory is known as retention.

‘Motor reproduction’ is concerned with the fact that the observer must be able to reproduce the model’s behavior. The observer must learn and posses the physical capabilities to produce the aggressive act. However, in this case, Ben Darrison used the gun method to act out this particular murder. Ben watched the film repeatedly to learn the modeled behavior to try and perfect the same behavior and physical movement of the fictional serial killer.

The final process in observational learning is reinforcements. In this process, the observer expects to receive positive reinforcements for the modeled behavior. For example, the serial killers in ‘Natural Born Killers’ were portrayed as super-stars by the imaginary American public for their killing spree reputation, as well as being portrayed as a form of, yet again, secret science. Ben Darrison would thus assume that such behavior would be reflected in ‘reality’ because of the positive reinforcements determined by the media (Bandura, 1977). In addition to learning behavior by influence of the environment and the mass media, it is important to address the possibilities of genetic factors that may contribute to criminal behavior.

Classical Conditioning (Watson, 1913) argues that behavior could be understood in the term of conditioned responses. He also argued that learning could be studied by observing behavior of people, in the same way that rats, cats and dogs were observed. With regards to the murder carried out by Ben Darrison, Ben had viewed and studied the film several times before carrying out the murderous rampage. After viewing the film several times, a form of classical conditioning, he modeled this new behavior to carry out criminal activities.

Classical conditioning causes the process of behavior modification by when the subject, Ben Darrison, begins to respond in a desired manner to a previously neutral stimulus that has been repeatedly paired with an unconditioned stimulus. Such unconditioned stimulus is the viewed material of ‘Natural born Killers’. The neutral stimulus then becomes conditioned and causes the conditioned response, such as, Ben Darrison reenacting the new modeled behavior and killing relentlessly.

In a famous study ‘Little Albert’ he demonstrated how specific fears might be conditioned in humans. Their subject was an 11 month old infant named Albert. ‘Little Albert’ like most infants, feared loud noises, but not white rats. So Watson and Rayner (1920) presented him with a white rat and as he reached out to touch it, struck a hammer against a steel bar just behind his head. After seven repetitions of seeing the rat and hearing the frightening noise, Albert burst into tears at the mere sight of the rat. Also 5 days later Albert showed generalization of his conditioned response to the rat by reacting with fear when presented with a rabbit and a dog. Watson concludes that classical conditioning is one way that all living organisms learn to adapt to their environment once specific changes are made to their environment are witnessed and received.

Operant Conditioning (Skinner, 1989) argues that Operant conditioning is sufficient to explain all learning. Skinner argued that’ “behavior operates on the environment to generate consequences”. Thus the copy cat killer, Ben Darrison, was influenced by the criminal behavior of the viewed media source, and because this behavior was favored in a favorable light by the filmic depiction of the two serial killers receiving glamour and support by the fictionist American public, Ben thought that he would be ‘rewarded’ for such behavior and be glamorized. The subject here, Ben, increased his behavior on the note that he would be rewarded for such behavior, if however, the film depicted the behavior by the two serial killers as negative and damning the behavior that they committed, could have had a different lasting impression on the modeled individual.

According to Freud (1912) all humans have natural drives and urges repressed in the unconscious. More importantly he also claims that all humans have criminal tendencies. It is through the process of socialisation that these tendencies are curbed by the development of inner controls that are learned through childhood experiences by being influenced by the environment. (Eysenck, 1977). Thus the debate concerning ‘Nature V Nurture’ was proposed to argue which factor imposes the real reason ‘why’ certain individuals commit crime.

According to Gibbons (1968), the genetic theory (nature) indicates that inherited traits are specific in nature, i.e. a person inherits green eyes and blonde hair. What some people do find difficult is the thought that a gene or chromosome may cause the difference between a criminal and a non-criminal (Eysenck, 1977). There have been numerous studies carried out on twins to determine whether genetic influence plays a part in criminal behaviour. Christiansen (1977) reported on the criminality of a total population of 3, 586 twin pairs from Denmark. He found that 52% of the twins were concordance for criminal behaviour for identical twin pairs, whilst 22% of the twins were concordant for fraternal twin pairs. These results suggest that identical twins carry some form of biological characteristics that increases their risk of becoming involved in criminal behaviour (McLaughlin, 2003).

Nature is also concerned with not only genetic attributes but also the effects of brain damage. Many scientists believe brain damage creates a change in human behaviour. The frontal lobe is considered to be responsible for human behaviour that makes us stable and have adequate social relations. Damage to the limbic system can also be a cause of serial killers ‘dysfunction’. The limbic system controls one’s emotions as well as motivations; some serial killers are believed to have limbic system in the brain damaged. When the limbic brain is damaged, it may account for uncontrollable aggression.

Environmental factors (nurture) also can cause severe damages and contribute to deviant behaviour, and sometimes leading to serial killer status. With regards to ‘Natural Born Killers’ Mallory was brought up in a hostile environment with her repulsive, abusive father who traumatised her into committing mass murder. Mallory was also environmentally influenced by Mickey to convince her to kill her parents and to ‘run free’ with him to escape her current hostile environment. Also in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, who had an apparently normal upbringing, environment does not seem able to explain the behaviour displayed. If there is a genetic explanation, it is difficult to explain, as we do not see entire families of, in this case, serial killers.

No one study carried out can be said to provide conclusive evidence for either genetic factors or environmental factors (Christionsen, 1983). “There must be something in the child himself which the environment brings out in the form of delinquency” (Gibbons, 1968). This quote demonstrates the importance of both nature and nurture acting together. It would appear that it takes a combination of both nature and nurture to understand how and why serial killers turn to sinister means. However if genetics were to be seen as the cause of criminality, this would post future problems, it may lead to genetic screening for the interest of risk assessment. This could lead to genetic discrimination, thus if crime was due to genes, the individual would not be to blame yet they would be punished.

Understanding how and why offenders stop committing offences is critical for the development of effective crime prevention and criminal justice practises. Thus developing treatment programmes to treat all criminals, and specifically serial killers, is critical to our society

The psychology of the serial killer is intriguing yet frightening. There is no concrete theory to explain neither the psychology nor the actions of serial killers. The phenomenon of serial killing dates back to persons such as Jack the ripper in 1887 and have continued into the present in reality as well as reflected in the media as a form of ‘secret science’. Through criminological and sociological research perhaps a better understanding of serial killers will develop, thus producing a way to deter such criminal actions.


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