Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Joubert, Nebraska Boy Snatcher


Book cover: Murderer Next-Door
Book cover:Murderer Next-Door

In The Murderer Next Door, psychologist David M. Buss, from the University of Texas at Austin, has done an in-depth analysis of factors involved in the development of the many types of murderers.  Factors that correlate with criminality and delinquency (but might not cause them), he says, include:

  • impulsiveness
  • sensation-seeking
  • childhood aggression
  • lack of empathy
  • deficit moral reasoning. 

Photo: David M. Buss
David M. Buss

Males score higher on these traits than females.  Buss also discusses the important role of fantasy.  He calls it "homicidal scenario building," and indicates that it can be a key factor in a situation resolving in murder.  That includes daydreams, internal dialogue, planning, and any type of envisioning of killing another person.  He believes that there is some evolutionary benefit to us to be able to do so, and claims that at some point in their lives most people have fantasized about murdering someone.  That means, says Buss, that our brains have specialized circuits for considering murder as a solution to a problem.  Simulation often works to relieve the tension, but for some people, it becomes a rehearsal for action.

Photo: Center of Forensic Psychiatry
Center of Forensic Psychiatry

In searching through an archive at the Center of Forensic Psychiatry in Michigan of 375 murderers from the past fifteen years, he found that roughly 72% showed evidence that the killer had indulged in homicidal ideation before committing the crime.  A study of serial killers in 1989 by Prentky, Burgess, and others indicated that 86% of them had described having such fantasies on a recurrent basis prior to each murder.  In many cases, they had seen someone at random and begun to draw that person into their fantasies, or they had been the brunt of someone's behavior that they could not tolerate.  Rather than deal with it in a socially appropriate manner, they used it to hone their anger and target the person with specific violent acts.

Joubert certainly experienced this.  He had fantasies about murder at a surprisingly young age, and then began acting on them by stabbing and slashing little girls.  Ressler describes "cognitive mapping" as a concept from psychology that indicates how certain people may become habituated to viewing the world in a specific manner.  "It determines how the individual gives meaning to the events that happen in his world," he writes.  "Deviants may allow themselves to indulge in fantasies as they develop their cognitive mapping procedures.  Antisocial people tend to develop an increasingly more hostile framework for how they deal with others, and others with them.  Thus, their map determines the roads they take, and the roads they take tend to confirm their maps.  So they get used to this and it becomes the foundation for how they fantasize and/or rehearse for murder."

Although he was speaking in general, he also provided perspective specifically on Joubert (both in his book and told to the author of this article, as well as to Pettit).

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