26 Jun 2016

Dr Park Dietz - the psychology of murder

From Sunday Morning, 10:06 am on 26 June 2016

Dr Park Dietz has been named as one of the top ten psychiatrists of all time. He talks with Wallace Chapman about his career in criminology, what makes people kill, and why the media sometimes doesn't help by reporting mass shootings.

Dr Park Dietz

Dr Park Dietz is a forensic psychiatrist who has consulted and testified in some of the US's highest profile criminal cases including Jeffery Dahmer, The Unabomber, Andrea Yates and John Hinckley Junior, who attempted to assassinate then-president Ronald Reagan. He has also consulted in the area of mass shootings - looking into the motivations behind such attacks as the Columbine shootings - and the most recent shooting in Orlando.

Interview highlights

Dr Park Dietz: What I’m really trying to learn [from the murderers] is the whole battery of motives that caused them to act as they did. While that can be fairly simple in a beating or a rape or a robbery, when it comes to mass murder the motives are often more complex. It’s never spur of the moment. These are highly planned, often scripted and mentally rehearsed events for which there may have been surveillance and a lot of preparation.

[Jeffrey Dahmer] had been primed to believe (and I hope it was true) that I was someone who could help him understand why he did what he did, which he was very curious about. He knew he wasn’t ever going to be free so he was quite forthcoming. We talked about his life story and every one of the victims, but even about his hopes and dreams, his favourite pornography and everything else under the sun. He really identified with power figures and there was symbolism in Star Wars he aspired to. He wanted to have a big chair just like Darth Vader’s.

I certainly felt safe [with Jeffrey Dahmer] because I knew I wasn’t his type. It was a very comfortable chat with a gentle, nice man. He was the most honest criminal I can remember evaluating. And I’m used to being lied to hour after hour after hour. People fake mental illnesses, they fake retardation, they fake being mute, they tell all kinds of lies about their crimes. He didn’t.

It’s not uncommon – even when I’m seeing someone for the prosecution – for me to find some redeeming qualities in very bad people. Usually there’s something good about the person as well all the dreadful things. There are exceptions – people who are bad and only bad and have no redeeming features whatsoever.

There was a particular serial killer who I found absolutely chilling. He’s the only one I’ve kept shackled the whole time I was with him. His lawyers fired me very quickly when they heard what I had to say. It was as close as I’ve seen to pure evil. He even verbally attacked me the moment I entered the room, in a smart way. He’d done his homework and spotted what he hoped would be a weakness and went right for it. That’s something that psychopaths are very talented at doing. He just radiated psychopath.

There are people who have such a strong genetic loading of psychopathy, really, that even with a good upbringing and loving parents who try to do the right thing, the kid turns out to be a bad seed and never gets straightened out. But that’s a rarity. It is much more common for people to become career criminals because they’ve got parents who are inadequate in a variety of ways, who mistreat them, who teach them all the wrong lessons and who allow them to escape the influences that could tame the beast. The influences, classically, that have tamed humanity are education and religion and social mores.

Mass murderers are uniformly suicidal. They are all willing to die that day and more than half do. That suicidal part of mass murder motivation is the critical point. We know for each form of suicide that’s been studied it’s possible to market it and promote it to a larger number of people. This is why journalists have at various points recognised that it’s a bad idea to cover certain forms of suicide. If you publicise that form of suicide you will get more of that form of suicide.

There are a whole bunch of motives for which people kill. If we were to make diagrams of which motives are ture of men and which are true of women there’d be lots of overlap but obvious differences. For example, it’s really rare for women to kill out of sexual desire, but that’s seen plenty in men. It’s really rare to see women kill out of some social slight or mild insult, but that’s really common among men. On the other hand women kill their own children more than men do – particularly new-borns – and for many years it was true that women poisoned more than men do. The motives overlap and the methods overlap – it’s not a clear distinction.

When you take a long view, everything is getting better, not worse. To live in the 18th century was to live in a much more violent time than we live in today, in at least the western nations.

I think t’s really easy to understand the attraction to any terrorist group you might consider. Depending on your personal characteristics, your political leanings and ethnic affiliations there is some group out there that says something extreme that resonates just a little with you.

And all you have to imagine to understand this is a person who doesn’t feel accepted by their family or their peers, who feels like a misfit or who doesn’t know how they fit into the world, who stumbles on to a website that seems to offer people like them power and glory and fulfilment of their greatest fantasies of heroism or martyrdom or success or power. If you resonate with something in that group that seems to offer you that promise, that’s really attractive. The people who won’t be attracted to it are people who have better options… It’s people who’ve got crappy options.