In Cold Blood: Characteristics of Criminal Homicides as a Function of Psychopathy
Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter Dalhousie University
This study investigated the relationship between psychopathy and the characteristics of criminal homi- cides committed by a sample of 125 Canadian offenders. It was hypothesized that the homicides committed by psychopathic offenders would be more likely to be primarily instrumental (i.e., associated with premeditation, motivated by an external goal, and not preceded by a potent affective reaction) or “cold-blooded” in nature, whereas homicides committed by nonpsychopaths often would be “crimes of passion” associated with a high level of impulsivity/reactivity and emotionality. The results confirmed these predictions; homicides committed by psychopathic offenders were significantly more instrumental than homicides by nonpsychopaths. Nearly all (93.3%) of the homicides by psychopaths were primarily instrumental in nature compared with 48.4% of the homicides by nonpsychopaths.
In terms of its impact on the victim, the victim’s family and friends, and the financial resources devoted to its investigation, homicide is the most severe form of antisocial behavior. Despite its extreme negative consequences, homicide is also one of the least studied and most poorly understood forms of antisocial conduct. An obvious reason for the lack of research on the psychology of homicide is that it is uncommon compared with other forms of antisocial and violent behavior. However, it remains a significant problem within all cultures and nations (e.g., Daly & Wilson, 1988). Homicide is a heterogeneous phenomenon, associated with different contexts, motivations, and types of perpetrators. For example, some homicides are highly calculated, instrumental acts, whereas others are characterized by an apparent lack of premedi- tation, occurring in the context of an emotion-laden dispute or in response to a situational provocation. Research leading to a more thorough understanding of the factors associated with different forms of homicidal violence could have both basic and applied implications. As an example of the latter, if specific psychological characteristics in offenders were found to be associated with characteristics of the crime itself, it could allow investigators to
reduce the large field of suspects in many homicide cases (e.g., Woodworth & Porter, 1999). The present research focuses on one psychological construct
that is highly relevant to the criminal justice system (see Hart & Hare, 1997). Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a profound affective deficit accompanied by a lack of respect for the rights of others and societal rules (e.g., Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1996, 1998; Porter, 1996). The current state-of-the-art diag- nostic tool (see Fulero, 1995) in the assessment and identification of psychopathy is the Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL–R; Hare, 1991). As operationalized by the PCL–R, psychopaths are manipulative, callous, remorseless, impulsive, irresponsible indi- viduals who often engage in diverse antisocial behaviors. With a prevalence of 15%–25% in the federal offender population, psy- chopathy is an important risk factor for recidivism and, more specifically, for violence (e.g., Grann, Langstroem, Tengstroem, & Kullgren, 1999; Hemphill, Hare, & Wong, 1998; Kosson, Smith, & Newman, 1990; Lyon, Hart, & Webster, 2001; Salekin, Rogers, & Sewell, 1997). For example, Serin and Amos (1995) found that psychopaths were about five times more likely than nonpsycho- paths to engage in violent recidivism within 5 years of release. Porter, Birt, and Boer (2001) investigated the complete criminal career and community release profiles of 317 federal offenders. They found that psychopathic offenders consistently committed more violent and nonviolent crimes than their nonpsychopathic counterparts from late adolescence to their late 40s (also see Harpur & Hare, 1994). Important from a risk management per- spective, although the release performance of nonpsychopaths improved with age, it got worse for psychopaths as they got older. Psychopathy also is associated with more severe forms of sexual violence (e.g., Brown & Forth, 1997; Hare, Cooke, & Hart, 1999; Kosson, Kelly, & White, 1997; Serin, Mailloux, & Malcolm, 2001) and targeting multiple victim types (Porter, Campbell, Woodworth, & Birt, in press; Porter et al., 2000). Overall, therefore, the dominant clinical conception of a psy-
chopath is a dangerous person who preys on others across the life span (e.g., Hare 1998; Simourd & Hodge, 2000). Given this observation, a relationship between psychopathy and some forms
Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter, Department of Psychology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. This research was graciously supported by an operating grant to Stephen
Porter from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and a grant to Michael Woodworth from the American Psychology–Law Society (AP-LS). This study was conducted as part of Michael Woodworth’s graduate thesis under the supervision of Stephen Porter. We express appreciation to the Correctional Service of Canada for
allowing and helping us to collect the data for this study. In particular, we thank Doug Boer, Jeff Drugge, and Jeff Earle very much for their invalu- able assistance. Thanks to Jeff Hancock, Mary Ann Campbell, and Angela Birt for comments on an earlier draft of this article. Thanks also go to Peyton Harris, Mary Ann Campbell, Naomi Doucette, Kris Peace, and Matt Lafond for their assistance in coding the data. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Stephen
Porter, Department of Psychology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Abnormal Psychology Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 2002, Vol. 111, No. 3, 436–445 0021-843X/02/$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0021-843X.111.3.436
of homicide seems likely. For example, based on their pathological personality traits, and in light of previous research on psychopathic aggression in general (e.g., Cornell et al., 1996; Serin, 1991), it is plausible that psychopaths engage in more instrumental, goal- driven (e.g., to obtain money or drugs) homicidal violence relative to nonpsychopathic offenders who may engage in predominantly reactive, spontaneous violence (e.g., in the context of a heated argument). No research to date has examined this issue.
Although there are various conceptions of violent behavior, many authors have noted that violence may be best understood by considering the external goals of the perpetrator. Bandura (1983) viewed aggression primarily as an instrumental and goal-driven behavior contingent on external rewards and reinforcement. He suggested that most aggression is committed with the “pull” of various resources or gains in mind. In general, instrumental or “proactive” violence occurs when the injury of an individual is secondary to the acquisition of some other external goal. For example, this form of aggression typifies the activities of orga- nized crime groups who often commit strategic and planned vio- lence as a means to achieve an otherwise nonviolent goal, such as money or drugs (e.g., Amir, 1995). Other researchers have argued that emotional or “internal” factors play an important role in violent behavior. In Berkowitz’s (1983) conception, aggression can be conceived as a hostile and angry reaction to a perceived threat or dangerous situation. Accordingly, the primary goal of aggression is to defend oneself from a perceived threat or to react against a perceived environmental frustration. Such reactive ag- gression encompasses impulsive, immediate, and emotion-driven acts in response to a perceived threat, danger, or insult.
More recently, some have observed that this dichotomy, al- though theoretically important, may oversimplify a highly com- plex behavior with multiple motivations and manifestations. That is, it has been argued that violence may contain elements of both instrumentality and emotionality/reactivity (e.g., Bushman & Anderson, 2001; Cornell et al., 1996; Poulin & Boivin, 2000) in both children (e.g., Crick & Dodge, 1996; Dodge, 1991; Poulin & Boivin, 2000; Vitiello & Stoff, 1997) and adults (e.g., Block & Block, 1992). Block and Block (1992) observed that the “expressive–instrumental extremes are ‘ideal types’ that seldom occur in pure form” (p. 65). Further, Kingsbury, Lambert, and Hendrickse (1997) noted that often there is an overlap between the two major types of violence. In fact, Bushman and Anderson (2001) argued that the instrumental/reactive dichotomy is of ques- tionable validity in categorizing all acts of aggression by incor- rectly assuming that all acts of reactive and/or hostile aggression are “automatic” whereas all acts of instrumental aggression are “controlled.” Nonetheless, according to a number of researchers (e.g., Eaves, Douglas, Webster, Ogloff, & Hart, 2000), a determi- nation of whether violence is primarily instrumental or reactive may be one of the most relevant criteria in assessing risk for future violence and for treatment prognosis in criminal offenders (also see Heilbrun et al., 1998).
The main purpose of the present study was to examine possible differences between homicidal violence committed by psycho- pathic and nonpsychopathic offenders and to focus primarily on the instrumental and reactive elements of the crime. According to Cleckley’s (1976) classic conception, the behavior of the psycho- pathic individual often is motivated by a clear external goal rather than the powerful emotions of rage or despair associated with