When Narcissists Kill

I just binge-watched some episodes of the television series Forensic Files. The purpose of that long-running series is to show how forensic science has been used to solve murder cases. However, nearly every episode also serves as a documentary about narcissism. Narcissism is an inflated self-esteem that leads people to expect admiration and special treatment. It is one of three bad personality traits (the Dark Triad) that often give rise to bad behaviors, including murder. The other two traits of the Dark Triad are psychopathy (callous disregard for other people’s feelings) and Machiavellianism (a desire to manipulate and control other people).

Not all murderers are narcissistic, and not all narcissists are murderers. Nevertheless, narcissism helps to explain why many murderers commit their crimes. Narcissism also helps to explain why so many murders are so easy to solve. As I explain in my book Don’t Feed the Narcissists!, narcissists are people who are trying to occupy a higher social rank than other people feel that they deserve. Narcissists are ambitious people who want the power, property, and prestige that go along with a high social rank. However, narcissists lack the intellectual and social skills and sometimes even the work ethic to earn what they feel they deserve. When their unrealistically high expectations are not met, narcissists feel that they are being short-changed and disrespected. A callous and manipulative person who has this overblown sense of entitlement can be tempted to cheat or even kill other people. However, narcissists are not as clever as they think they are. Nor are the police as stupid as the narcissist imagines them to be. As a result, narcissists are likely to get caught when they do something illegal.

Many of the episodes of Forensic Files focus on a murder committed by the victim’s husband or wife. Sometimes, the couple is about to divorce or had recently divorced. Often, a manipulative husband or boyfriend kills a woman who is trying to escape from his control. In other cases, the motive is greed or possessiveness. The narcissist wants to get rid of a spouse but keep the house, the money, and the children. In other cases, a greedy person kills his or her spouse to collect the proceeds of one or more life insurance policies. Although the financially motivated murders are premeditated, they are often so badly planned and so poorly carried out that the crime is easy to solve. One reason is that the surviving spouse is automatically the prime suspect, especially if he or she had recently taken out a huge insurance policy on the soon-to-be deceased spouse. Another is that narcissists, particularly those who have a college education, think that they are far cleverer than the police. Yet even clever narcissists are mere beginners when they commit their first murder. In contrast, detectives are trained and seasoned professionals at solving murders.

The murderers featured in Forensic Files seem to have been unaware that they were leaving behind a trail of evidence. Some people do not seem to realize that they leave fingerprints or footprints, or that the telephone company keeps records of their calls. Some of the murderers purchased all of the materials that they planned to use during the murder at one store, and then kept the receipt. One murderer even paid for those materials by check; then, he wrote the name of his intended victim in the memo section of the check.

People who murder their spouse often try to make the murder look like a suicide, an accident, or the result of a burglary. But while they are staging the scene, they typically make silly mistakes, such as breaking a window from the inside, rather than the outside, of the home. The police then notice that the glass shards fell outward instead of inward. Some murderers go so far as to injure themselves, to make it seem that they too were victims of a mysterious attacker. Yet forensic pathologists know what kinds of injuries can be self-inflicted.

People who have murdered a family member often pretend that they have simply found the body. Yet they often give themselves away by the odd things they say, and by the normal things they fail to say, after they dial 911. When normal people find that a loved one has been injured or killed, they beg for an ambulance, even if it is far too late for an ambulance to be of any help. In contrast, murderers do not want help for the person they have just injured or killed, which explains why they seldom ask for the dispatcher to send an ambulance. Instead, these murderers want to start laying the groundwork for their defense, by giving their version of what happened. Yet instead of helping the narcissist get away with murder, this shockingly callous behavior makes the detectives suspicious.

Some of the murderers featured in Forensic Files are repeat offenders. Some of them get caught only after someone realizes that the person’s previous spouse had also disappeared, or died as the result of the same kind of strange accident, such as drowning in a bathtub. However, many of the murderers had no known history of violence. Nevertheless, they typically had a prior history of callous and manipulative behavior. They may seem charming at first, yet they have proved to be untrustworthy in many important ways. They were bad romantic and business partners, long before they became murderers.

Some of the murdered spouses described in Forensic Files probably had no awareness of the danger they were in. A few may have thought that they had a happy marriage, whereas others were divorced or in the process of filing for divorce. A few of the victims had told friends or family members that they were afraid that their spouse was plotting to kill them. Such warnings should be taken seriously.

The key to surviving an encounter with a dangerous person is to quickly see through that person’s superficial charm to notice the Dark Triad that lies beneath. Unfortunately, many good people assume that other people are as sane and trustworthy as they are. Also, decent people are reluctant to make harsh judgments of other people. As a result, they might miss or dismiss the danger signs until they are already entangled with a greedy and vindictive person who has no conscience. Eventually, the decent person may realize that the relationship is unhealthy. Yet by trying to leave the bad relationship, they may be marking themselves for death.

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