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Roughly 1 in 15,000 people is murdered in the United States each year (Stolinsky and Stolinsky 2000). Computed over a seventy-five year life span, this equates to a 1 in 200 chance of being murdered at some point in an American’s lifetime (Ghiglieri 1999). Homicide rates vary predictably from culture to culture (Wilson and Daly 1997). In the United States the rates of killing are much higher than in many industrialized nations, exceeding those in Canada, many western European nations, and Japan. In many other countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, and South Africa, homicide rates exceed those in the United States by as much as a factor of ten (United Nations 1998). Among those nations that currently exhibit low homicide rates, murder rates were much higher in the recent past, suggesting that the relative absence of homicide is a fairly new societal invention (Ruff 2001; Dower and George 1995). All of these within-culture rates of homicide do not include casualties of warfare or genocide.
The homicide rates in industrialized nations are much lower than in many non-industrialized cultures. Homicides account for roughly one in ten deaths of adult men among the Huli of Papua New Guinea; one in four deaths among the Mae Enga also of Papua New Guinea; and one in three deaths among the Dugum Dani of the Highlands of West New Guinea and the Yanomamo of central Brazil (Chagnon 1988). In a 1993 study Douglas T. Kenrick and Virgil Sheets found that homicidal fantasies among people in the general population are even more frequent than actual killings.
Despite the fact that tens of thousands of murders are committed worldwide each year, the psychology of homicide is not well understood. For our understanding of homicide to be complete, we must explain, for example: (1) why men are vastly overrepresented among murderers (87 percent); (2) why men are also overrepresented among murder victims (75 percent); (3) why women commit some kinds of homicide more than men (e.g., infanticide of own children); (4) why people kill in qualitatively distinct conditions, leading to predictable motives for murder; and (5) why people experience murder fantasies in circumstances that turn out to correspond closely to the contexts in which people actually commit murder.
The majority of theories that have been used to explain homicide were not designed specifically for that purpose. They are general theories of behavior regarding all crimes, or all violent crimes. For this entry these explanations will be considered as they apply to murder specifically. Unfortunately space limitations prevent an exploration of all relevant theories of murder.
Cultural and Social Theories of Homicide
Different theories of homicide need not be competing. They often address different levels of explanation and are often complementary, capable of contributing unique insight to the explanation of why a person commits murder.
According to 1973 and 1977 studies by Albert Bandura cultural and social theories of homicide rely on fundamental principles of learning theory. These theories propose that learning from the social environment is responsible for differences in homicide rates between groups, including differences in men’s and women’s propensities to kill. The specific environmental source identified as the causal force behind murder differs from theory to theory (Cullen and Agnew 2006; Walsh and Ellis 2006). For example some theorists suggest disorganized communities lead to crime (Bursik and Grasmick
1993; Sampson 1993; Shaw and McKay 1969); others argue that crime is learned through differential association with deviant peers (Akers 1973; Sutherland and Cressey 1978; Sykes and Matza 1957); while others argue that the gap between desires for a better lifestyle and lack of legitimate means to fulfill them creates strain that fuels crime (Cohen 1965; Cloward and Ohlin 1960; Merton 1938; Messner and Rosenfeld 1994). Each of these theories argues that murder is the product of learning by normal people. Other theories propose that homicide is the result of psychological dysfunction.
Pathological Theories of Murder
Pathology theories of murder propose that people commit murder when their thinking is abnormal. The causes of cognitive malfunctions vary, as do the forms of abnormal cognition they produce. For example suboptimal arousal theory is based on the observation that some people have a preference for intense environmental stimulation. Those who feel most starved for arousal are presumed to be more likely to engage in highly arousing thrill seeking and risk taking activities (Ellis 1987). Criminal behaviors including murder may be committed more often by those who are suboptimally aroused.
Seizuring theories of crime are based on research into the causes of epilepsy. Not all seizures lead to convulsions. If subconvulsive seizures are located in the limbic system, argued Dan Mungas in his 1983 article “An Empirical Analysis of Specific Syndromes of Violent Behavior,” they may have significant effects on emotions, sometimes resulting in criminal behavior.
Other pathology explanations, such as the one offered by R. J. Lueger and K. J. Gill in their 1990 study “Frontal-Lobe Cognitive Dysfunction in Conduct Disorder Adolescents,” have argued that failure of the frontal lobes to function properly may disinhibit violent behavior. Frontal lobe damage is associated with increased impulsivity and lack of planning ability that may contribute to some murders.
Another pathology theory is rooted in the observation that one male out of every 700 to 1,000 is born with an extra Y-chromosome, and one male out of every 500 is born with an extra X-chromosome (Hoffman 1977). Both genetic abnormalities result in males who score lower on standard intelligence tests (Horgan 1993) and show an increased likelihood of criminal behavior, including murder. However these genetic abnormalities are likely to explain only a tiny fraction of the homicides committed, since males with an extra chromosome only constitute 1 to 2 percent of the total prison population (Witkin, Mednick, Schulsinger, et al. 1976).
Personality Differences and Murder
Explanations of murder have not been limited to individual differences so extreme they are considered disordered. Individual differences in personality also have been proposed to contribute to the likelihood that an individual will commit murder. For example people who score high on measures of antisocial personality, low in conscientiousness, high in neuroticism, and low in intelligence have been shown to be more likely to engage in criminal activities, including murder (Plomin, DeFries, McGuffin, and McClearn 2000; Hodgins 1992; Monahan, Steadman, Silver, et al. 2001).
Individual differences in personality may also lead to the differential activation of cognitive mechanisms that produce homicidal tendencies in other ways. Personality leads people to experience the same environments differently, seek out different environments, and be excluded from a certain subset of social environments (Rowe 1994; 1996). People with personalities that lead them to occupy environments characterized by high levels of interpersonal conflict may be more likely to encounter contexts that predictably lead to murder.
Another group of explanations for murder propose that individual differences may make homicide more adaptive for some people in terms of evolutionary fitness. Cheater theory argues that two alternative reproductive strategies have evolved in human males. One type of male is law abiding and loyal. Male cheaters, conversely, are argued to adopt strategies of criminality, including murder, in contexts of social exchange to obtain resources and short-term mating strategies in mating relationships.
David Rowe’s alternative adaptation theory points out that criminals typically devote more effort to mating than they do to parenting (Rowe, Vazsonyi, and Figueredo 1997; Rowe, Vazsonyi, and Flannery 1995). Furthermore Rowe argued that criminality is a strategy that can only thrive when there are others to exploit. As the number of criminals in a population increases, the effectiveness of criminal strategies like murder will decrease.
Conditional adaptation theory attempts to integrate adaptive individual difference theories and learning theories. It proposes that everyone has the same genetic potential to exhibit criminal behavior at birth, and early life experiences cause individuals’ potentials to change. Children who witness poor, unstable relationships between their parents and live in relatively resource-scarce environments are argued to be more likely to adopt shortterm, opportunistic mating strategies as adults and riskier strategies for obtaining resources, including theft, violence, and murder (Belsky 1997). While the preceding adaptive individual difference theories suggest that murder may be adaptive for some people, other explanations propose that homicide is not evolutionarily adaptive for anyone.
According to Martin Daly and Margo Wilson in their 1988 publication Homicide, homicide may be considered an over-reactive mistake, the by-product of evolved, functional psychological mechanisms (adaptations) designed for nonlethal outcomes. For example the behavior of a teenage mother who abandons her newborn in a dumpster to die may be explained by the failure of her psychological mechanisms for parenting to engage. Despite their contention that murder is a maladaptive by-product of psychological adaptations, Daly and Wilson did emphasize that an evolutionary account of homicidal behavior is extremely important.
The previous explanations of homicide are able to predict some characteristics of who is likely to become a criminal and identify some broad features of situations that may trigger criminal behavior. However they share many of the same weaknesses, including: (1) no comprehensive explanation of the patterns of homicide; (2) no predictions about when homicide, instead of some other criminal behavior, is likely to occur; (3) no explanation for a large number of the observed patterns of homicide; (4) failure to provide an explanation for why people who are not pursuing a general strategy of criminality would ever commit homicide; (5) an inability to explain why the majority of ordinary people report experiencing homicidal fantasies; and (6) failure to explain the prevalence and patterns of people’s homicidal fantasies.
David M. Buss and Joshua D. Duntley proposed a new theory that humans possess adaptations for murder that addresses these weaknesses. Although some researchers have suggested the possibility of adaptations for homicide (Ghiglieri 1999; Pinker 1997) and others, such as Napoleon A. Chagnon in his 1988 article “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” have argued that humans may have an instinct to kill, no other theorists have gone into depth in exploring the likely design of adaptations for homicide (see a notable exception dealing with warfare entitled The Evolution of War and Its Cognitive Foundations by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides).
Homicide adaptation theory (HAT) proposes that natural selection could have favored murder to solve some of the ancestrally recurrent problems that lead to conflict with others. Homicide is unique from nonlethal solutions to conflict because a dead competitor cannot inflict costs on or influence the environment of his killer in the future. According to HAT, natural selection has built in psychological processes that lead us to fantasize about murder and, rarely, kill others when we encounter contexts of conflict that were successfully won by homicide in the evolutionary past.
Homicide adaptation theory does not imply that homicide would have evolved to be the preferred strategy for each or any adaptive problem in all situations. In most sets of circumstances the extremely high costs of committing murder would have outweighed its benefits. The theory does propose that homicidal behavior was sometimes the best of available solutions for rare combinations of adaptive problems and circumstances, which provided selection pressure for the evolution of homicide adaptations.
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