Friends of the Forensic Science Club, this week we present the paper “Personality Disorder Traits, Rorschach Performance, and Neuropsychological Functioning in the Case of a Serial Killer: The Importance of a Multilevel Approach in the Assessment of Personalities Associated with Extreme and Repetitive Violence”, by Schug, R. A. (2021), in which the author carries out a multilevel analysis, using different techniques used by mental health and forensic science professionals, to know the personality of a serial killer. 

Serial killers are at the extreme end of the violence and therefore draw our attention, because they can represent some of the most serious forms of personality disorders.

For this reason, researchers continually point out the need to correctly evaluate the personality characteristics that may be exclusive to serial killers, since it has been seen in previous studies that there are certain characteristics that seem to be repeated in these cases and can act as clues to the investigation.

Some of the studies focused on this idea use the serial killers’ self-reports or tests for detecting the presence of personality disorders as a tool. This has provided us with very useful data, but what other techniques could be used?

We have, for example, the Rorschach test, which has been used to try to elucidate the psychological functioning and personality of those who kill. When used with murderers and sexual offenders, it has indicated alterations in personality and psychological functioning in several areas, such as the cognitive processing, perception, stress and distress…

There are also neurobiological studies of violence, which can explain how an individual is capable of committing multiple murders; nevertheless, they have to be complemented with some kind of tool to study personality.

Researchers, beginning in the 20th century, spawned a proponent of “layered” conceptualizations of personality, each representing different levels of awareness and accessibility.

Leary was one of those who supported this theory, and five levels in the personality dimension: 1) public communication, 2) conscious descriptions, 3) private symbolization, 4) the unexpressed unconscious and 5) values.

Since then, contemporary researchers have been expanding these concepts with empirical studies. For example, McAdams emphasized the importance of studying the organization and integration of personality, highlighting the theory of multiple layers of information.

Taking all this into account, it seems logical that the tools mentioned above can be combined to carry out a multilevel analysis of personality. This is precisely what the author of this article is trying to achieve: to comprehensively assess the personality of a serial killer, using a real case.

The protagonist of the case was a 66-year-old man who was serving time at the time of writing the article. He underwent a series of telephone interviews and face-to-face visits to the prison.

Basic data about his life was first collected, especially his childhood and youth. For example, he described his father as good, although drunk. He did not speak of his mother, besides, neither of them was especially affectionate with him. He also recorded verbal and physical conflicts between them. He did not suffer sexual abuse, but he did suffer physical abuse from his parents. He used alcohol from the age of 12 on an occasional basis, but not other drugs. Apparently, he did not manifest any mental illness. He killed eight women between the ages of 34 and 39, all of whom were asphyxiated. There seemed to be some sexual component to his crimes, but it wasn’t clear.

When given various personality tests, he met all the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder (for example, a pervasive pattern of disregard and violation of the rights of others appeared).

In addition, he met most of the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (grandiose, lack of empathy, arrogance…), with some for schizoid disorder (does not enjoy or desire close relationships, chooses solitary activities, has no interest in sexual experiences with others …) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (excessive dedication to work, reluctance to delegate work unless others submit to their exact way of doing things, rigidity, stubbornness…) and great difficulty in controlling anger.

The Rorschach test suggested a defensive attitude towards life, an effort to please others, and poor psychological boundaries. In addition, his responses indicated emotional avoidance, very limited emotional reactivity, and a preference for reflection and reason, which the author translated into a preference for “living in his head” and not “living in reality.”

The multilevel analysis provided, as we can see, many keys to discover the subject’s personality. All this shows that the evaluation methods used, combined, could bring benefits for the diagnosis.

Authors mention, as a guideline for the future, that these methods should be improved, and find out what is the most appropriate way to combine the different tools.

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