Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Familicide motivation

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Familicide motivation:
What motivates people to kill members of their family?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Homicide is a violent and tragic crime

Homicide, the act of one human killing another, is illegal in most countries around the world, yet they still occur each day. It is a violent and tragic act, that devastates families and communities alike. One major issue is homicides occurring between family members, such as intimate partners or involving children or parents. For example, in the United States (U.S.) in 2008 around 45% of female and 5% of male homicides were committed by an intimate partner (Stöckl et al., 2013). One only has to turn on the news or read a newspaper to see the tragedies that occur within families each day, and one of the biggest questions that both researchers and the public ask is "why?". Why does this happen and what motivates someone to kill a member of their own family?

Many researchers have studied homicide between family members and what drives people to do it remains a topic of importance as risk factors need to be identified to stop these tragedies from occurring. This chapter explores various motivations that have been identified for both intimate partner homicide (IPH) and familicide, and discusses relevant psychological theories that help explain why people commit these acts. Firstly, IPH is explored, followed by familicide.

Focus questions
  • How prevalent is IPH and what motivates someone to commit this act?
  • Who commits familicide and what motivates them to do it?
  • What psychological theories can help explain the motivations for these acts?

Types of family homicide[edit | edit source]

Some of the different types of family homicide include:

  • Intimate partner homicide: Involves killing a current or former intimate partner
    • Uxoricide: When a female intimate partner is killed
    • Mariticide: When a male intimate partner is killed
  • Parricide: A child killing their parent(s)
  • Familicide: Where multiple members of a close family are killed in quick succession by a family member, it can also be referred to as 'family annihilation'
  • Filicide: The killing of a child by a parent
    • Neonaticide: The killing of a child during the first 24 hours of life
    • Infanticide: The killing of an infant from birth to 12 months

However, the focus of this chapter is IPH and familicide.

Intimate partner homicide[edit | edit source]

An intimate partner is one who is usually loved, trusted and cherished, yet IPH is one of the most common types of homicide occurring between family members (Saunders & Browne, 2000). Both research and the media tend to focus on killings committed by strangers, such as serial killers or predators who lurk in the night. Contrary to depictions in the media, it has been shown that women are more likely to be killed by someone they know than a stranger (Saunders & Browne, 2000). While men are at higher risk of being killed by a stranger or acquaintance than an intimate partner (Saunders & Browne, 2000)[grammar?]. The following statistics are on IPH in three places:

  • In Australia from the years 2002 to 2012, 654 people were victims of IPH. They accounted for 56% of family homicide victims in that time period (Cussen & Bryant, 2015).
  • London's IPH total averages at 18 people per year, with men committing approximately 79% of the homicides and women the remaining 21% in England and Wales (Sebire, 2015).
  • In the U.S. between 1976 and 1996 approximately 52,000 men and women were killed by an intimate partner (Saunders & Browne, 2000).

Statistics on IPH prevalence differ between countries, genders, ages and years. Establishing the prevalence of IPH can be difficult due to the availability and quality of data collected, therefore statistics should be interpreted with caution (Stöckl et al., 2013). One statistic that holds true worldwide is that males commit IPH more than females, and females are more commonly the victim (Stöckl et al., 2013). IPH is an ongoing issue worldwide, therefore, it is important to research and understand why it occurs in order to help prevent it from occurring in the future.

Motives[edit | edit source]

There are multiple motivations and risk factors for IPH that research has identified. One major risk factor is domestic violence and some primary motivations include self-defence, jealously, and threat of separation. These motives are discussed in this chapter, although there are also various others. For more detail on biology and personality disorders associated with violent crime, refer to this book chapter.

Domestic violence[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Domestic violence is a risk factor for IPH

Domestic violence (DV) in a relationship is a major risk factor for IPH. It is an ongoing issue in many countries around the world, particularly for women (Sheehan, Murphy, Moynihan, Dudley-Fennessey, & Stapleton, 2014). Abuse experienced in a relationship can be difficult to escape due to the presence of threat, so leaving the relationship may be dangerous (Sheehan et al., 2014). Research has tried to identify specific risks associated with DV resulting in homicide compared to cases that do not end with homicide. A study in the U.S. found that women who receive frequent beatings and have recently been severely attacked are at high risk of IPH in the near future (Zahn & Block, 2003). It has also been shown that men who have killed their partners were more likely to drink or use drugs every day compared to abusers that have not killed their partner (Zahn & Block, 2003).

Another small study interviewed loved ones of IPH victims to understand if there were any differences in the couple's behaviour just prior to the homicide. Many stated that there was an increase in arguments and violence between the couple, as well as the victim trying to move away or end the relationship (Sheehan et al., 2014). Although these are just observations made by loved ones, it shows that an escalation of violence and a triggering event may be the difference between DV without homicide and DV resulting in homicide. For further information on DV motivation, view this book chapter.

Self-defence[edit | edit source]

One motive for killing an intimate partner is self-defence. Findings suggest this is a motive mainly among women who commit IPH (Saunders & Browne, 2000). This motive is highly linked with DV. Typically, the woman may kill her abuser after she has endured a series of indignities while being with the partner, including frequent physical beatings, forced and unwanted sexual activities, death threats and daily intoxication and drug use by the abuser (Huss, Tomkins, Garbin, Schopp, & Kilian, 2006). Studies of women who were abused and then killed their partner indicate that they felt trapped and could not escape the violence (Saunders & Browne, 2000). Therefore, the homicide tends to occur as an attempt to stop the partner from causing further harm to them or a child. The perpetrator usually believes that their life is threatened and the homicide occurs while they are experiencing the brunt of the violence and have reacted in self-defence (Hamilton & Sutterfield, 1998; Weizmann-Henelius et al., 2012). Therefore, domestic violence has detrimental effects for both partner's safety, as both of their lives are at risk at times of extreme violence.

Threat of separation and jealousy[edit | edit source]

Research has identified reoccurring themes of jealousy, threat of separation, and rejection as motivations for IPH. These motives are more common among men who kill their partners than vice-versa (Saunders & Browne, 2000). There is evidence that, in some cases, the man feels as though he has an entitlement to control his partner, and often accuses her of sexual infidelity (whether true or not). Such jealousy can be viewed as a threat to male dominance and patriarchy. He feels this woman belongs solely to him, so often declarations like "if I can't have you, no one can" are frequent in IPH cases (Aldridge & Browne, 2003). If he perceives that she is abandoning him physically or emotionally, or she has explicitly stated so, this can be extremely dangerous for the woman as it can provoke lethal violence from the partner, and may lead to her death (Aldridge & Browne, 2003). Evidence shows that separation or being in the process of separating are risk factors for women (Wallace, 1986). One finding from Australia stated that 45% of the women murdered by their husbands in New South Wales had left their partner or were in the process of doing so (Wallace, 1986). It is clear that jealousy, fear of losing control and separation from an abusive partner are risk factors for IPH and can be considered a triggering event to the homicide.

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory

One theory that can help explain DV and IPH is the self-determination theory (SDT). SDT was developed by Deci and Ryan (1985) and distinguishes between different motivations for behaviour along a continuum from extrinsic to intrinsic (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Causality orientations have also been identified, reflecting styles of interpersonal reactions to social situations and are thought to influence the regulation of behaviour. These orientations have been linked to different ways people approach and perceive intimate relationships (Øverup, Hadden, Knee, & Rodriguez, 2017). There are three identified causality orientations (Øverup et al., 2017):

  1. Autonomous orientation (AO): Individuals with this orientation tend to value honest interactions and regulate behaviour according to their interests and values.
  2. Controlled orientation (CO): People with this orientation tend to react more defensively in social situations, become ego-involved, and regulate behaviour according to external controls and demands.
  3. Impersonal orientation (IO): Individuals with this orientation experience amotivation, lack intention and do what other people want.
Figure 3. Self-determination theory: Autonomy, competence and relatedness

Research has shown that people with a CO may be predisposed to engaging in violent behaviour due to their defensive nature and heightened threat perception (Øverup et al., 2017). They may then react to negative situations and threats by lashing out, which is a risk factor for DV and IPH. A study by Øverup et al. (2017) demonstrates this,[grammar?] as they found that CO predicted reactive DV perpetration. They also used a voodoo doll task in which participants were asked to stick as many pins as they like into a doll that represented their partner, reflecting a momentary desire to engage in violent behaviour. The individuals with a CO stuck more pins in than the AO individuals, and the IO individuals did not stick in any (Øverup et al., 2017). This shows the differences between reaction styles of the orientation groups, making CO the greatest risk factor.

Psychological needs were also outlined by Ryan and Deci (2000), which are competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). If such needs are not met in relationships, such as being respected, conflicts may arise such as an increased need for control over the relationship, leading to outcomes such as DV and potentially IPH. Overall, through SDT, it is evident that people can be motivated through causality orientations and unmet needs to commit DV and therefore potentially IPH.

Case study

Minta Adiddo

In London in 2012, Minta Adiddo stabbed his wife Akua Agyeman at least 15 times before running her over with his car. He stabbed her as she lay in their bed with their young child also in the room,[grammar?] she managed to escape but he chased her down and continued to stab her in the street. She was hospitalised following the incident but died six weeks after due to multiple organ failure and other injuries. Adiddo believed his wife was having an affair with their neighbour, and killed her as a result of his jealousy and rage. In 2013, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 17 years. This is an example of a husband who accused his wife of sexual infidelity, and as a result his jealousy consumed him, and he turned to murder.


Familicide[edit | edit source]

Familicide is a rare and catastrophic event which often gains extensive media coverage when it occurs, but why it occurs is largely a puzzle to researchers. It incorporates a triple taboo of murder, filicide, and suicide and remains understudied (Wilson, Daly, & Daniele, 1995). It is the most common type of mass murder, typically involving the killing of a partner and one or more children in the family, or can involve the deaths of parents and siblings (Liem & Reichelmann, 2013). Familicides are almost exclusively committed by males, the majority of which are in their 30s to 40s when they commit the act (Wilson et al., 1995). About half of these men commit suicide afterwards (Wilson et al., 1995). In the U.S., familicide occurs approximately 23 times per year, whereas in Canada between 1974 and 1990 there were 61 cases, and in roughly the same time period 48 cases were reported in England and Wales (Wilson et al., 1995).

The psychosocial disparities associated with familicide make it hard to determine risk factors and motivations. Some of these varying characteristics include family circumstances preceding the event, the number of victims and their relationship to the perpetrator (Sachmann & Harris Johnson, 2014). These circumstances make it impossible to generalise causality although general underlying motivations have been identified by researchers.

Motives[edit | edit source]

A study by Liem and Reichelmann (2013) examined 238 cases of familicide in the U.S. over a 10 year period. They identified four specific familicide "clusters" which group similar characteristics and motives together (Liem & Reichelmann, 2013). These are (Liem & Reichelmann, 2013):

Quotes from familicidal fathers
"I knew I was going down there to kill her, the kids, everyone."
"For some years now I have wished to die. However, this would have meant leaving the three persons dearest in the world to me without my protection."
"I'll kill you and the kids if you ever leave me."
  1. Despondent husbands: This cluster consists of killing one's spouse and children. The main theme of this cluster is altruism, as the killer tries to protect his loved ones by "taking them along" with him in his desired suicide. Financial troubles are common in this cluster as the perpetrator may have lost their job or are not able to maintain one, and feel as though they no longer have control of the family and cannot provide for them. Therefore, killing them is seen as an act of saving them.
  2. Spousal revenge: The spouse and children are also victimised in this cluster, the difference being that the perpetrator does not commit suicide. This cluster has underlying themes of rage from threat of separation and loss of control. Attempting to end the relationship may create sexual jealousy or suspicions of infidelity, causing the perpetrator to feel challenged regarding their possession of the family. They may view the family as a singular unit and cannot separate the children from the partner, so the perpetrator rationalises that the children must also be attempting to leave, therefore including them in the homicide (Mailloux, 2014).
  3. Extended parricide: In this cluster parents and siblings are killed. Typically, suicide does not follow and the perpetrator is in their teens or early twenties. The parents may be the intended target and the siblings are either seen as an extension of the parents, or witness the parricide and therefore also have to be eliminated. The motivation is typically an external stressor which the perpetrator deems the parents responsible for, therefore retaliating in the form of homicide.
  4. Diffuse conflicts: This cluster involves the death of any variation of family members, such as parents, intimate partners, grandparents, in-laws, or cousins. The homicides tend to stem from rage and perceived betrayal from an intimate partner. The other family members may be seen as involved in this betrayal or are present at the time and therefore also become victims of the attack.

Similarly, another researcher identified "murder-by-proxy" and "suicide-by-proxy" as types of motivation for familicide (Frazier, 1975). Murder-by-proxy applies when victims are chosen because they associate with the primary target who is usually the spouse. Meaning a father may kill his children as well as his wife, as they are seen as an "extension" of her (Liem & Reichelmann, 2013). This relates to the spousal revenge cluster. In turn, suicide-by-proxy familicides may be triggered when the father feels as though he cannot protect his family any longer and their death is "for their own good" (Liem & Reichelmann, 2013). This type relates to the despondent husbands cluster. It is evident similar motivational themes have emerged from research on familicide over the past decades. A majority of the perpetrators are motivated to kill from either the perception that the family will be spared of suffering, getting revenge on a spouse who is leaving them and threatening their sense of control, or getting revenge on parent's that are potentially responsible for personal suffering.

There are also psychopathological factors that can underlie familicide motivation, such as severe depression and psychosis (Liem & Koenraadt, 2008). Research has also found high rates of antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder diagnoses among familicide perpetrators (Sachmann & Harris Johnson, 2014). Thus, impulse control disorders and paranoid belief systems can be associated with perpetrators of familicide.

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology can help explain familicide from Darwinist concepts like natural selection and reproductive success, where some antisocial behaviours can be seen as adaptive (Liem, 2010). From this view, women can be seen as having a reproductive capacity that men can own and exchange (Liem, 2010). Men have a strong need for control over their spouse's reproductive capacity, therefore threat of withdrawal from the relationship can be deadly (Liem & Reichelmann, 2013). If the woman's threat to leave is imminent, that constitutes a loss of control over her reproductive capacity and the partner may respond with lethal violence (Liem, 2010). From this evolutionary psychological perspective it may be seen that a sexual proprietary mindset is activated in the male, so when threatened with cues of competition or potential cuckoldry, violent emotions, and motivations may occur (Liem, 2010). The children may also be at risk from the activation of this mindset, especially if there are cues of non-paternity. The wife and children can then both be seen as the causes of his anger and resentment (Liem, 2010). Homicide or familicide may then be explained as a rare product of the lethal violence associated with attempting to limit or control the wife's reproduction and autonomy (Liem, 2010). "If I can't have them, no one can" is the attitude being displayed. This theory relates to the spousal revenge cluster. On the other hand, some view homicide as an adaptive mechanism for increasing individual survival (Liem, 2010), which may be linked to the extended parricide cluster as the parents can be blamed for individual suffering.

Although, not everyone who feels jealous or threatened kills their partner and kids. So homicide has been viewed as an usually extreme manifestation of internal conflicts that are not usually lethal, and can be seen as an unintended by-product of violence (Wilson et al., 1995). Therefore, familicide cases should be of interest in the analysis of psychological processes that underlie parent-child conflict, marital conflict, and the overlap between them (Wilson et al., 1995). Evolution has evidently shaped the minds and behaviour of humans, and familicide through the lens of evolution is seen as a manifestation of perceived jealousy, competition or cuckoldry, or threat of control and access to the partner's reproductive capabilities. This theory may not explain every aspect of familicide and its motivations, but it provides a basic understanding as to why a man may kill his whole family.

Case study

John List

On November 9, 1971, a man from New Jersey, John List, shot and killed his wife in their family home followed by his mother who was residing with them. Later, he killed two of his children as they got home from school, and then killed his third child after arriving home from a soccer game. He dragged all of their bodies into the ballroom of their mansion, kneeled by them, and prayed for them. The five bodies remained in the house for close to a month without being discovered. List was having financial trouble and lost his job, so in his mind, he killed them to save them from such hardships and had sent them to heaven by doing so. List disappeared and started a new life in a new city, and was not caught for nearly two decades until, in 1990, he was convicted of first-degree murder for the deaths of his family members. This case is an example of the despondent husbands cluster, as he killed his family in an attempt to save them from hardship.

Source: Criminal Minds Wiki

For more information on this case visit the John List Wikipedia page.

Test your knowledge![edit | edit source]

1 Which motive is more common among women who commit IPH?

Threat of separation

2 Which is NOT classified as a familicide cluster?

Extended parricide
Violent altruism
Diffuse conflicts
Spousal revenge
Despondent husbands

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, it is evident IPH and familicide are motivated by various factors. Different motivations for IPH were explored such as self-defence, jealousy, and threat of separation. Control over a partner plays a role in DV and how it may escalate into IPH, with severe and frequent attacks by a partner being a significant risk factor. SDT provides an explanation as to why someone might act violently, which was related to how one perceives and approaches intimate relationships. Having a CO and lacking satisfaction of basic psychological needs in a relationship are linked to DV and therefore, can help explain IPH.

Research on familicide identified clusters of specific motivations with underlying themes of altruism, jealousy, or revenge. Evolutionary psychology helps to explain revenge and jealousy through a man's need to control his partner's reproductive capacity. Therefore, familicide can be seen as an extreme manifestation of negative emotions related to jealousy and threat. Through research and theory, it is clear that many motivations exist as to why someone would kill a member of their own family. It is imperative that support services are available for those in violent relationships, and prevention should be a focus worldwide in order to tackle this major ongoing problem.

This chapter is an overview of some motivations for these acts. It does not cover every possible motive or reason. Instead, it serves as an informational tool for readers and highlights the importance of the topic.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Aldridge, M., & Browne, K. (2003). Perpetrators of spousal homicide. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4, 265-276.

Cussen, T., & Bryant, W. (2015). Domestic/family homicide in Australia. Retrieved from

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109-134.

Frazier, S. H. (1975). Violence and social impact. In J. C. G. Schoolar (Ed.), Research and the psychiatric patient (pp. 191-200). New York, NY: Brunner & Mazel.

Hamilton, G., & Sutterfield, T. (1998). Comparison study of women who have and have not murdered their abusive partners. Women & Therapy, 20, 45-55.

Huss, M., Tomkins, A., Garbin, C., Schopp, R., & Kilian, A. (2006). Battered women who kill their abusers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21, 1063-1080.

Liem, M. (2010). Homicide followed by suicide: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15, 153-161.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008). Familicide: a comparison with spousal and child homicide by mentally disordered perpetrators. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 306-318.

Liem, M., & Reichelmann, A. (2013). Patterns of multiple family homicide. Homicide Studies, 18, 44-58.

Mailloux, S. (2014). Fatal families: Why children are killed in familicide occurrences. Journal of Family Violence, 29, 921-926.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

Sachmann, M., & Harris Johnson, C. (2014). The relevance of long-term antecedents in assessing the risk of familicide-suicide following separation. Child Abuse Review, 23, 130-141.

Saunders, D., & Browne, A. (2000). Case studies in family violence (2nd ed., pp. 415-449). New York: Plenum.

Sebire, J. (2015). The value of incorporating measures of relationship concordance when constructing profiles of intimate partner homicides: A descriptive study of IPH committed within London, 1998-2009. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32, 1476-1500.

Sheehan, B., Murphy, S., Moynihan, M., Dudley-Fennessey, E., & Stapleton, J. (2014). Intimate partner homicide: New insights for understanding lethality and risks. Violence Against Women, 21, 269-288.

Stöckl, H., Devries, K., Rotstein, A., Abrahams, N., Campbell, J., Watts, C., & Moreno, C. (2013). The global prevalence of intimate partner homicide: a systematic review. The Lancet, 382, 859-865.

Wallace, A. (1986). Homicide: The social reality. New South Wales Bureau of Crime and Statistics, Sydney.

Weizmann-Henelius, G., Matti Grönroos, L., Putkonen, H., Eronen, M., Lindberg, N., & Häkkänen-Nyholm, H. (2012). Gender-specific risk factors for intimate partner homicide. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27, 1519-1539.

Wilson, M., Daly, M., & Daniele, A. (1995). Familicide: The killing of spouse and children. Aggressive Behavior, 21, 275-291.<275::AID-AB2480210404>3.0.CO;2-S

Øverup, C., Hadden, B., Knee, C., & Rodriguez, L. (2017). Self-determination theory and intimate partner violence (IPV): Assessment of relationship causality orientations as predictors of IPV perpetration. Journal of Research in Personality, 70, 139-155.

Zahn, M., & Block, C. (2003). Intimate Partner Homicide. National Institute of Justice, (205).

External links[edit | edit source]

Getting help:

TED talk:

Want to see more real cases of family homicide? Check out these television shows:
  • Deadly Women: A TV show about women who kill, many episodes involve family homicide
  • Forensic Files: An abundance of real crime cases, many episodes are about IPH
  • The Staircase: The story of a man who was accused of killing his wife
  • 48 Hours: Follows many real crime cases including IPH cases