Murder mysteries: 5 things that may make a killer

Predicting which people will commit murder is an extremely difficult task, according to a new study by criminologists.

In fact, the when it comes to murder causes, researchers found only five factors that were able to distinguish people who commit homicide from people who don’t.

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Murder causes: 5 things that may make a killer

Dr Alex Piquero, Ashbel Smith Professor of criminology and co-author of the paper, says he and his fellow researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas were motivated by the lack of scientific literature on distinguishing people who will commit homicide from those who will not.

According to the study, the similarities outweigh the differences between the two groups.

“Based on a whole slew of characteristics that we know predict and differentiate criminal behavior — a wide variety of criminal behavior: theft, violence, drug use — can we distinguish from those characteristics the individuals who are charged with a homicide and those who are not?” Piquero asks.

“We found only five factors that were able to distinguish people who commit homicide from people who don’t.”

>> Actively engage your kids to help stop teen violence

The study, published during 2014 in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, used data from Pathways to Desistance, a study of 1,354 youths who were charged with serious crimes. The researchers examined how eight demographic characteristics and 35 risk factors distinguished the 18 juveniles charged with homicide from those who were not.

Why do people respond differently to the same drug?

One demographic measure — age — and four risk factors were significantly different across the two groups.

Homicide offenders had:
  • Significantly lower IQ
  • Higher exposure to violence
  • Higher perceptions of living in a neighborhood characterized by disorder
  • Higher prevalence of gun-carrying

When those five factors were considered simultaneously, only two were statistically significant. The youths charged with homicide had lower IQs and more exposure to violence.

Who will kill, and who won’t?

Exposure to violence is measured by how much violence the juveniles report they have seen in their neighborhoods. Piquero says the finding is interesting because research shows homicide is patterned in certain parts of cities.

One belief is that conditions in an environment set the ground rules for what is and is not acceptable, Piquero says. In more disadvantaged, high-violence communities, more crime occurs.

>> How minor early problems may cascade into teen violence

“For instance, adolescents who are continually exposed to violence in their neighborhoods may learn that it is acceptable to handle their problems through violence,” says doctoral criminology student Stephanie M Cardwell, a co-author of the paper. “If these adolescents find themselves in situations where violence is a possibility, they might take that option, because they have learned it is acceptable to do so, or that it may be necessary to do so in that context.”

Skip the stereotypes

Piquero says the results of the study may dispel stereotypes about homicide perpetrators, such as claims they are psychopaths or drug addicts with severe mental illness.

Neanderthal DNA is still among us

In fact, most homicides tend to be “assaults gone bad.” They are more driven by situations and emotions than being a product of demographic characteristics, planning or risk factors.

“From a policy perspective and a theory perspective, we shouldn’t think about the world as, ‘There are homicide offenders, and then there’s everybody else,” and we should not try to think about policy programs that are going to prevent people from becoming homicide offenders,” says Piquero.

“We should be in the business of preventing antisocial behavior, because we do know very well that these risk factors predict all sorts of anti-social behavior.”

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