Monday, April 15, 2013

MacDonald Triad as predictor of violent behavior: myth or reality?

In 1963, J.M. MacDonald proposed a set of characteristics that could predict future violent behaviors. His research consisted in making a connection between violent behaviors and characteristics such as cruelty to animals, fire setting and enuresis (bed wetting) past the age of five.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D and expert in forensic psychology, in her article "Triad of Evil: Do three simple behaviors predict the murder-prone child", describes how this "triad" of sociopathy came to life from a research that was made on a group that was "small and unrepresentative" and became a keystone of behavioral analysis when it was given credit by the FBI profilers, but still without conclusive empiric substance.

In a more recent study, Kori Ryan was able to contradict the previous studies. "Ryan performed the most extensive review of the literature to date and found little empirical support for the triad's predictive value." (Katherine Ramsland)

Let's study the elements of the triad separately:

- Fire setting: the fascination with setting fire can have several origins
*"Fire setting is, in its simplest form, an act of curiosity. Children strive to learn and do this by exploring their environment. Fire makes an attractive draw because of its beauty, color, movement, and mystery. This attraction is compounded by the ceremonial and celebratory ways in which we introduce it to children (birthday candles, holidays, religious ceremonies, etc.). I is also used for functional tasks by adults, but often not with an eye for safe practice (igniting cigarettes, barbecues, fireworks, etc.). As children learn they learn a great deal by what they see. They see fire as an integral part of our life, but often not something that their caregiver presents as a dangerous item. Without clear information to put fire into a proper perspective (a dangerous tool in the household), children may explore fire and ignition items without parental guidance. Children may not have a negative experience right away and continue to grow bolder in their experimentation. This can lead to more dangerous behaviors and increase the potential for problems." (source: 
* "Children who experience some type of stress or crisis in their lives may also turn to fire as an "acting-out behavior". In some ways, it may be a form of communication when they are otherwise not able to put their crisis into words or no one seems to be listening." (source: 
* According to "Singer and Hensley (2004), fires etting is theorized to be a less severe or first shot at releasing aggression. Extensive periods of humiliation have been found to be present in the childhoods of several adult serial killers. These repetitive episodes of humiliation can lead to feelings of frustration and anger, which need to somehow be released in order to return to a normal state of self-worth." (Source:

- Animal cruelty: it is also believed that many serial killers tend, before killing people, to kill animals as a "training and testing" phase of their fantasy. Children or teenagers building up anger, rage, and humiliation would take it out on animals as they are more easy to control to get back to the people who made them suffer.  "Wright and Hensley (2003) named three recurring themes in their study of five cases of serial murderers: as children they vented their frustrations because the person causing them anger or humiliation was too powerful to take down; they felt as if they regained some control and power over their lives through the torture and killing of the animals; they gained the power and control they needed to cause pain and suffering of a weaker, more vulnerable animal - escalating to humans in the future." (Source:

- Enuresis: "the idea that bedwetting has anything to do with psychological maladjustment, and certainly with later antisocial or violent tendencies, or plays some part in a triad of predictors, has been described as a destructive myth entirely discredited.... However, some authors continue to speculate that enuresis may be related to fire setting and animal cruelty in some way. One argument is that because persistent bed-wetting beyond the age of five can be humiliating for a child, especially if he or she is belittled by a parental figure or other adult as a result, this could cause the cild to use fire setting or cruelty to animals as an outlet for his or her frustration." (Source:

Without having any empirical study or statistics to confirm my statements, I still do believe that there is something interesting with this triad, but not the way it was presented until now. It is not because a person presents these three characteristics that he/she will become a violent sociopath, and at the other end, you can become a violent sociopath without presenting those signs.

These characteristics are consequences of deeper problems, not the root. It is like when you are sick: if you just focus of the symptoms you won't get rid of the problems, you need to tackle the origin of what causes theses symptoms. Of course many violent sociopath present these symptoms as they are the symptoms of deeper problems caused by abuse, humiliation, abandonment, rejection...

One statistics is certain without having to make extensive research: no serial killer was born and raised in a stable, loving and empowering family. So my opinion is that if you want to practice criminal behavior analysis, you should not rely on this triad, as it only focuses on possible symptoms caused by the real elements that should be studied, which are the real wounds that are created on the child's mind and how the child copes with these moral, emotional, physical and psychological wounds that are inflicted to him.
So as much many serial killers count fire setting in their resume, the act of setting fires cannot be, in itself, a precursor to violent behavior.

I think the main problem is that most of the studies in terms of bed-wetting, fire setting and animal cruelty are made on people who already committed offenses, and if we would ask the questions to a broader pool of people (offenders and non offenders), we could end up being surprised. Let me explain this by using myself as an example: I have always been attracted and fascinated by flames. Even though I have never pulled up the courage to set fire to more than a cigarette or a candle, I have always wondered how it would feel like to see the destructive power of fire. At the same time, when I was a child, I used to kill baby animals, not as a release of anger, but I wanted to take over the parent's job and feed them and having the pride of raising them from baby to adult birds and see them leave the nest. Although it seems kind of creepy to think about it now, I just wanted to do something good and be proud of myself, and instead I was killing baby animals (I do realize now how cruel that was). And I also suffered from enuresis even through my teenage years: I had, and sometime still have, a recurrent dream of having sexual intercourse, and at the same time as I was reaching an orgasm in the dream, I would wake up, but too late to reach the toilets. (Thank the gods, it happens rarely now, and I wake up soon enough to go to the toilets). 

After having said that, I am very far from being a serial killer, as it even is difficult for me to kill an insect. On the other hand, the serial killers presenting the three characteristics are rare, and there are even serial killers who present none of them. So I am wondering how the percentages presented by offenders in terms of the MacDonald Triad would fare if compared to the same studies made on the general population?

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