Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Female killer motivation

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Female killer motivation:
What motivates females to kill others?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The act of taking another person’s life is perhaps the most heinous crime a person can commit. Homicide is an illegal act that results in severe punishment. Today convicted perpetrators are incarcerated or even put to death, and subsequently, homicide rates are decreasing around the world. However, there are still people engage in acts of homicide, murder and serial killing. Research surrounding the motivations of homicide offenders is endless, yet one topic remains largely overlooked; female homicide offenders and their motives. Studies typically combine gender when analysing motivations behind homicide suggesting that motivations of men and women who kill do not differ. Conversely, there is research identifying significant gender differences in the "why?" that underlies killing, recognising that women are likely to kill for different reasons than men (Flynn, Abel, While, Mehta, & Shaw, 2011).

Our culture is in denial of women's proclivity for aggression

Patricia Pearson

Around the world, homicide offenders are, in most cases, male. In 2012 the global prevalence of male killers was almost four times that of female killers (UNODC, 2013). In light of this, it is unsurprising that, of the multitudes of research surrounding homicide offenders, only a small minority looks exclusively at female offenders. The contrasting number of female versus male killers is just one of the various reasons why women are not typically the focus of homicide research. Another reason, as depicted in Pearson's quote, is that society typically rejects the idea of "violent women" because it goes against social norms and stereotypical gender roles (Harrison, Murphy, Ho, Bowers, & Flaherty, 2015). An extreme result of this sees Western society reluctant to convict female killers, seeing them as victims themselves (Pearson, 1998). Whilst these reasons may result in the overlooking of female killers the reality is that some women do commit heinous acts of killing other people. Consequently, it is important to look into female offenders and their motives.

This chapter explores female killers, looking specifically at why women commit homicide and identifying the evident gender differences that exist in killers (see Figure 1.). Psychological theories and case studies are discussed to further detail the salient motivations of female killers.

Focus questions
  • What motivates females to kill?
  • How do female and male killers differ?
Figure 1. Killer motivations vary across genders.

Gender differences in killers[edit | edit source]

Males and females differ widely when it comes to committing homicide. Motives, victims, and methods are just some of the dissimilarities that exist. It is important to highlight these difference in order to give context to this chapter.

Research has shown significant differences in the types of victims male and female homicide offenders take. Whilst men typically target strangers, research has shown that women are most likely to target people familiar to them (Trägårdh, Nilsson, Granath, & Sturup, 2016). A 2015 study analysing 64 female serial killers (FSK) found that in 92.2% of the cases the perpetrators knew all or most of their victims (Harrison et al., 2015). In killing people close to them women are more likely than men to kill children. Palermo (2002) identified that of 131 cases of filicide, 88 of the killers were mothers compared to 43 who were fathers. This is likely related to empirical research which identifies that women are more likely than men to kill vulnerable people like children and the elderly (Harrison et al., 2015)

Unsurprisingly, with differing types of victims, females also differ from males in their motives to kill. For example, sexual desires are more often than not the motives of male killers however the typical typologies of female killers rarely point to sexual motivations (Kelleher & Kelleher, 1998). Female motives often revolve around resource attainment whilst men are almost always sexually driven (Harrison, Hughes, & Gott, 2019). Additionally, females differ from men in the way they kill their victims. Females typically avoid killing through direct contact by using poison, cars or guns whereas male offenders may often use strong violence in their kills (Roe-Sepowitz, 2007).

Take a quiz

1 Women typically kill out of sexual motivations?


2 Statistics indicate that the global prevalence of male killers is almost four times that of female killers?


Motives of female killers[edit | edit source]

To gain insight into why females commit homicide academic literature typically looks to examine the motives of past female killers. This helps to identify the most common motives of current killers and the likely motives of future offenders. The dominant motives acknowledged in literature are explored below.

Financial gain[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Amy Archer-Gilligan

Financial gain is one of the most identified motives behind females who kill. A 2015 study by Harrison et al. analysed the crimes of 64 FSK's identifying financial gain as the most common motive. Furthermore, in Kelleher and Kelleher’s 1988 book on female murderers, they note killing for profit as a primary motive. The authors found such a strong prevalence of women killing for money in the 19th century that they were prompted to create a motivation typology called the "black widow". Black widows typically kill husband after husband in order to inherit their wealth. Amy Archer-Gilligan (see Figure 2.) is often considered one of the most infamous black widow killers of the 19th century. The woman killed multiple husbands and various nursing home patients in order to profit from their life insurance policies.

Some attributions for financial gain motives of female killers may include:

  • Evolutionary adaptions: From an evolutionary psychology point of view financial gain is a sex-specific motivational tendency for resource gain, adopted from our ancestors (Harrison et al., 2019). This is highlighted in detail in the evolutionary perspective section of the chapter.
  • Drug addiction: Killing for profit has also been attributed to drug addiction. In a 1996 study of 215 American women incarcerated for homicide, many perpetrators self-reported ‘needing money to buy drugs’ as their reason for killing (Spunt, Brownstein, Crimmins, & Langley, 1996).

Money and extrinsic motivation

Financial gain is a unique motive as it is an extrinsic motivation. Whilst revenge and self-defence motivations (see below) typically stem from internal needs, killing for money is a behaviour that is motivated purely by external rewards. This motivation arises from outside the individual with money acting as an incentive. Killing for money can be seen as an externally regulated behaviour that is performed to obtain reward (Reeve, 2018). Unsurprisingly, people who are motivated through external regulation show poor functioning and poor outcomes, both of which can be related to homicidal behaviour (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Revenge[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Depiction of Medea murdering her child in revenge against her husband

In relation to homicide, revenge is defined as a motive to kill in which the avenger wants to eliminate an uncomfortable and painful emotion (Grobbink, Derksen, & Marle, 2015). Revenge is commonly seen as a human emotion associated with aggression, anger, and hate, emotions which are often linked to violent crime and homicide. Other research sees revengefulness as a pursuit, rather than an emotion or feeling (Frijda, 2008). This view, while different, remains valid as it is feasible to understand revenge in the form of murder as a goal a female killer may pursue. Moreover, the pursuit of revenge as a motive of female killers makes statistical sense. As indicated earlier in the chapter, women are far more likely to kill people they know than strangers. This makes revenge against someone who has done them wrong a perceivable motive.

Revenge has been documented as a common motive for female killers (Harrison et al., 2015) with research indicating that a revengeful motive may come from either suspicion or confirmation of a partner's infidelity (Bourget, & Gagné, 2012). A husband/boyfriend proven or presumed to be unfaithful is likely to motivate revengeful pursuit as it can cause women to feel a desire for revenge[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Recognised by Grobbink et al. (2015), these desires include humiliation, drive for a restoration of power and wish to cause harm.

A large number of female killers take their own children as their victims. Some research has implicated revenge as a possible motive in these instances, identifying that women may kill their children in an act of revenge against the child’s father. This is typically understood as ‘spousal revenge filicide’ (Carruthers, 2016) or the ‘Medea complex’ (see Figure 3), as Greek mythology depicts Medea seeking revenge against her unfaithful husband by killing their children (Palermo, 2002).

To fully grasp revenge as the motive of a female killer[grammar?] it is helpful to consider some examples. Below are some instances in which female killers have identified revenge as the reason they committed their offence:

  • Vigilante Marianne Bachmeir became famous in the 1980’s[grammar?] after she shot the alleged murderer of her child in a court room (Source: Marianne).
  • Stacy Smalls posted the words ‘hope she was worth it’ on her Facebook page before killing her one-year-old twins in revenge against her husband whom she believed to be having an affair (Source: Psychology today).
  • In 2018, American women Jennair Gerardot put in motion a calculated revenge plot in which she shot to death her husband’s mistress and then herself, leaving him with no one (Source: Independent News).
  • Katherine Knight was the first Australian women to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after she stabbed, skinned and decapitated her de facto husband John. One of her identified motives was to get revenge after John broke up with her, kicked her out of their house and filed a restraining order against her (Source: Knight and Price).

General Strain Theory

Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory (1992) is a theory that aims to provide an explanation of crime motivations by focusing on negative events and the role of negative emotions in the motivations of offenders. Agnew and White (1992) explain that strains (a variety of negative events including negative relationships) lead to negative emotions which subsequently provide pressure for collective action. This collective action is said to involve criminal acting out as crime can be used to escape from the strain, temper negative emotions, or seek revenge against the source of the strain (Grobbink et al., 2015). Agnew’s theory therefore may suggest that female revenge killing is motivated by the need to pursue collective action against a negative relationship in one’s life that is causing strain.

Self-defence[edit | edit source]

One motive that is consistently linked to female killers is self-defence. Literature highlights this motive as prominent in cases where women kill men, specifically their spouse or partner (Faigman, 1986). For example, an American study of more than 40,000 juvenile female homicide offenders identified that they were nine times more likely to kill intimate partners than their male counterparts (Heide, Roe-Sepowitz, Solomon, & Chan, 2012).

Self-defence as a motive is most common in cases where domestic violence is involved. Research suggests that women may kill their abusing partners as an extreme reaction to their victimisation, in reaction to a perceived sense of danger, or out of fear of future harm (Bourget & Gagne, 2012). The perpetrator often indicates that they felt they could not escape the violence and that their lives could or would be ended by their abuser. Studies found that women who killed their abusing partners experienced acts of violence against them just prior to the homicide and, feeling that their life was threatened, reacted out of self-defence (Hamilton & Sutterfield, 1998).

Of particular interest to the scope of this chapter is battered woman syndrome. This syndrome is exclusively related to self-defence homicides when women are offenders. Battered woman syndrome is used to explain the motivations of women who kill in self-defence when no immediate threat is present (Faigman, 1986). Battered women may claim that long-running abuse creates two mental spaces. One, the woman fears that she is in imminent danger at all times not just during the times of violence, and two, the woman has succumbed to learned helplessness (Faigman, 1986). This ultimately results in a woman killing their partner at a time when they pose no immediate threat. Thus, the syndrome works as a justification of self-defence motivation even though a woman did not kill in the typical circumstances needed to prove ‘self-defence’.

Case study: Battered woman syndrome

In 1977, American woman Francine Hughes killed her ex-husband James Hughes. Francine had suffered 13 years of extreme domestic violence at the hand of James both during and after their marriage. On the night of the homicide James came home to the pairs[grammar?] house drunk, raping and physically assaulting Francine. After this ordeal, an intoxicated James passed out in his bed. Whilst asleep Francine lit fire to the bed James was in killing him. Whilst James was asleep at the time of the offence and presented no threat to Francine she was found not guilty of his murder. Through a defence centred around battered woman syndrome Francine made a plea of temporary insanity. She claimed that the long-running abuse had caused her to fear for her safety constantly, not just during the times James was violent towards her. As a result, Francine was found not guilty with the jury believing she acted in self-defence despite no imminent threat to her life.

Source: Francine Hughes

Psychopathology[edit | edit source]

women offenders, whatever their crimes may be, have a higher chance of being dealt with as mentally abnormal..

—Smart, 1977

The relationship between psychopathology and female killers is well documented. A study by Roe-Sepowitz (2007) reviewed 29 female adolescent homicide offender’s[grammar?] finding that a third of the group had current mental health diagnoses. Mental disorders including psychotic thinking, schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, and impulsivity have all been empirically associated with why women commit murder (Trägårdh, et al., 2016; Lewis et al., 1985; Harrison et al., 2015). Mental illness is repeatedly identified in cases where woman kill their children. Palermo (2002) postulated that mental illness in the form of severe delusional depression or dissociative episodes, may at times be part of the disordered behaviour of murderous parents. This study acknowledged that schizophrenia, melancholia and manic-depressive disorders, and character disorders were among diagnoses of mothers who killed their children. In all of these instances, researchers recognise that the presence of psychotic, disordered or unstable thinking and the absence of secure mental health can act together as motivation for a woman to take another person’s life (Trägårdh et al., 2016).

Carol Smart’s 1977 book highlights some important information. Females who commit fatal crimes with no specific motive often have mental health issues and that therefore becomes the motivation in itself. This is a naively simple take on the relationship between homicide offenders and mental illness. Realistically research suggests that mental illness may be ascribed after the perpetrator is caught. Smart explains that the perception is that only a mentally ill person is capable of such heinous crimes. Thus, one needs to interpret a female killers[grammar?] current and previous mental health with caution. Consider the question, what came first the chicken or the egg? Smart postulates that in some instances delusional and disordered mental health may prompt a female to murder but in other cases mental disorders may actually be the result of the homicide offence itself.

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

To obtain a comprehensive understanding of the motives behind any human behaviour it is vital to consider psychological theory. A strong research background makes theories an optimal choice when examining the explanation of behaviours.

Attachment theory[edit | edit source]

Attachment theory is a psychological approach that looks at early life experiences, often focusing on the bond between a child and their primary caregiver. The theory was developed from work done by Bowlby who defined attachment as biologically based behaviours that exist between an attachment figure and a child to ensure the child’s proximity to said figure (Bolen, 2000). According to research on attachment theory by Lee and Choi (2014), successful development of a child is based largely upon its early bond with its primary caregiver, if this bond is broken a child is likely to partake in crime and delinquency over the lifespan. Furthermore, it is critical for a child to develop trust and security from their primary caregivers. Without this development, the child learns to feel that others are unreliable and untrustworthy, emotions that motivate erratic behaviour (Arrigo & Griffin, 2014). Particularly relevant to the motivations of violent females, Bowlby (1969) explained that separation from a primary caregiver can result in powerful and intense anger.

Various research supports attachment theory and its notion that poor attachment may be a motivator for female killers. A 2012 meta-analysis examining 74 studies concluded that poor attachment to parents was significantly linked to delinquency in boys and girls, highlighting a relationship between criminal behaviour and attachment (Hoeve et al., 2012). Yourstone, Lindholm, and Kristiansson (2008) noted, in their Swedish study of 43 female and male killers respectively, that over one third grew up without their biological parents.

Case study: Aileen Wuornos
Figure 4. Wuornos mugshot

The relationship between poor parental attachment and female murderers is epitomised by serial killer Aileen Wuornos (see Figure 4.). Wuornos was a middle-aged American woman who shot and killed seven men between 1989-1990. Wuornos was convicted of six murders, sentenced to death and was subsequently executed by lethal injection in October 1992. Professionals have offered various perspectives on the motives of Wuornos' acts; one particular perspective is attachment theory. 

Shortly after Aileen’s birth, she was abandoned by her mother and left with her abusive and neglectful grandparents. Aileen’s father was never really in her life. Below are quotes from Aileen depicting her relationships with her biological parents:

  • “He was as cold as ice”
  • “Our so-called cough cough… real biological mother we never really knew”

Attachment theory highlights the importance of Aileen’s childhood separation in which she suffered from a lack of attachment with any primary caregiver. As research in attachment theory would support, this led to aggressive impulses and delinquency which resulted in an ability to devalue people, eventually allowing Aileen to kill in an angry and remorseless fashion (Arrigo & Griffin, 2014).

Source: Dear dawn

Evolutionary perspective[edit | edit source]

A substantial amount of research on killer motivations looks at the topic through an evolutionary lens. The evolutionary approach explains that the motives of female killers may be the by-products of ancestral tendencies.

One recent study proposed and tested a 'hunter-gather' model of serial murder which aimed to explain motivational tendencies of killers from an evolutionary psychology perspective (Harrison et al., 2019). The model analysed sex differences between serial murders putting forward the argument that MSKs are theoretical ‘hunters’ of victims and FSKs are theoretical ‘gatherers' of victims. The hypothesis was that these different motivations may have derived from sex-specific tendencies of labour divisions in the ancestral environment in which men hunted animals as prey and women gathered nearby plants for food. Findings of the study supported the hypothesis, promoting the evolutionary motivation model. Similar to this, some studies suggest that from an evolutionary viewpoint, variance in women’s reproduction tells us that they are in competition (Campbell, 2013). It is this competition that motivates aggression and violence which in turn may motivate females to kill. Other literature argues that women kill primarily for resources and men primarily for sex, follows evolutionary sex-specific reproduction maximisation tactics (Harrison et al., 2015). What this suggests is that because of different reproductive potential it makes evolutionary sense for men to seek sexual opportunity and women to seek resources.

Take a quiz

1 Which of the following would research suggest as a likely motive of a female killer?

Sexual drive
Financial gain
Strong mother-daughter bond
Hunting thrill

2 The tendency for men to 'hunt' and women to 'gather' their victims comes out of which psychological perspective?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter offers insight into the minds of female killers. Statistics identify strong differences between all aspects of male and female committed homicides. It is therefore vital that gender is considered when making conclusions about homicide offenders as this ensures generalisations are not made.

Studies commonly find that FSK’s are motivated by financial gain and identify revenge as a strong motive in spousal homicide and filicide. Research highlights that self-defence motivation is typically brought on by domestic violence. Mental illness can act as a motive in various different crimes across all genders. Specific to female killers the research indicates that disorders which produce unstable thinking are often present when women kill. Research in support of attachment theory identifies poor attachment to a primary caregiver as a possible antecedent to homicidal behaviour. Evolutionary psychology explains the acts of female killers in terms of evolved ancestral tendencies.

On a final note, it is important to consider the scope of this chapter before making conclusions. There are hundreds of different reasons as to why a female may kill another human being. Similarly, many psychological theories would be able to explain these motives. This chapter simply highlights some of the dominant motivations and theories, therefore the deductions taken from this reading should acknowledge that.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30, 47-88.

Agnew, R., & White, H. (1992). An empirical test of general strain theory. Criminology, 30, 475-499.

Arrigo, B., & Griffin, A. (2004). Serial murder and the case of Aileen Wuornos: Attachment, theory, psychopathy, and predatory aggression. Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 22, 375-393.

Bolen, R. M. (2000). Validity of attachment theory. Trauma, violence and abuse, 1, 128-153.

Bourget, D., & Gagné, P. (2012). Women who kill their mates. Behavioural sciences and the law, 30, 598-614.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic.

Campbell, A. (2013). The evolutionary psychology of women’s aggression. Philosophical transactions of the royal society B, 368(1631), 1-11.

Carruthers, G. (2016). Making sense of spousal revenge filicide. Aggression and violent behaviour, 29, 30-35.

Faigman, D. L. (1986). The battered woman syndrome and self-defence: legal and empirical dissent. Virginia Law Review, 72, 619-648.

Flynn, S., Abel, K., While, D., Mehta, H., & Shaw, J. (2011). Mental illness, gender and homicide: A population-based descriptive study. Psychiatry Research , 185, 368-375.

Frijda, N. H. (2008). The laws of emotions. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Bert Bakker.

Grobbink, L., Derksen, J., & van Marle, H. (2015). Revenge: An analysis of its psychological underpinnings. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 59, 892-907.

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

Harrison, M., Hughes. S., & Gott, A. (2019). Sex differences in serial killers. Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences, 13, 295-310.

Harrison, M. A., Murphy, E. A., Ho, L. Y., Bowers, T. G., & Flaherty, C. B. (2015). Female serial killers in the Unites States: means, motives, and makings. The journal of forensic psychiatry & psychology, 26, 383- 406.

Heide, K. M., Roe-Sepowitz, D., Solomon, E. P., & Chan, H. C. (2012). Male and female juveniles arrested for murder: A comprehensive analysis of U.S data by offender gender. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 56, 356-384.

Hoeve, M., Stams, G., van der Put, C., Dubas, J., van der Laan, P., & Gerris, J. (2012). A meta-analysis of attachment to parents and delinquency. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 40, 771-785.

Kelleher, M. D., & Kelleher, C. L. (1998). Murder most rare: The female serial killer. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Lee, J., & Choi, K. (2014). Serial murder: An exploration and evaluation of theories and perspectives. American International Journal of Contemporary Research, 4, 99-106.

Lewis, D. O., Moy, E., Jackson, L. D., Aaronson, R., Restifo, N., Serra, S., . . . Simos, A. (1985). Biopsychosocial characteristics of children who later murder: a prospective study. The American journal of psychiatry142, 1161–1167.

Palermo, G. B. (2002). Murderous parents. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 46, 123-143.

Pearson, P. (1998). When she was bad: How and why women get away with murder. Toronto, ON: Penguin random house Canada.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Roe-Sepowitz, D. (2007). Adolescent female murderers: Characteristics and treatment implications. American journal of orthopsychiatry, 77, 489-496.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Smart, C. (1977). Women, Crime and Criminology. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Spunt, B., Brownstein, H., Crimmins, S., & Langley, S. (1996). Drugs and homicide by women. Substance use and misuse, 37, 825-845.

Trägårdh, K., Nilsson, T., Granath, S., & Sturup, J. (2016). A time trend study of Swedish male and female homicide offenders from 1990 to 2010. International journal of forensic mental health, 15, 125-135.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2013). Global study on homicide 2013: Trends, contexts and data. Vienna, Austria: UNODC. Retrieved from:

Yourstone, J., Lindholm, T., & Kristiansson, M. (2008). Women who kill: A comparison of the psychosocial background of female and male perpetrators. International journal of law and psychiatry, 31, 374-383.

External links[edit | edit source]