The Macdonald Triad
One of the most damaging pieces of "science" ever produced...
You probably know what makes up the Macdonald Triad, even if you don’t know its name. It is synonymous with what people believe about psychopathy, but most never dig into it to see how relevant, or even accurate it is.
What is that MacDonald Triad"? It was a theory of behaviors that supposedly were core indicators of psychopathy. They are as listed in the graphic above.
Animal torture and killing
Eunerises, otherwise known as bed wetting.
This has been echoed many times over in regards to the signs of a budding psychopath, or sociopath as they tend to be used interchangeably. The basis for this was a very poorly structured study that was very poorly contrived.
Forensic psychiatrist John Macdonald, is generally credited with "discovering" the triad. In a 1963 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, entitled "The Threat to Kill," he gave his clinical impression that "a history of great parental brutality, extreme maternal seduction, or the triad of childhood firesetting, cruelty to animals and enuresis" can signal those who will eventually threaten homicide." His article was based on his work with 100 patients at the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital in Denver, Colorado who had threatened, but not necessarily committed, violence.
Over the next few decades, the idea "attracted a dedicated following" and gradually expanded to encompass various forensic groups, including sexual sadists, recidivist firesetters and, most salacious, serial killers.
There is a bit more to that story than that little blurb provides. When Macdonald was working with committed patients, he noticed that the three traits, late stage bed wetting, animal abuse and torture, as well as fire setting were common in his most aggressive and sadistic patients. I want you to remember that, because we are going to speak more on it later.
He decided that it was worth evaluating further to see if there was something to these traits that might make a better predictor for a child that would turn out dangerously. He compared forty eight psychotic patients, and fifty two nonpsychotic patiences, all with a history of threatening violence. Just over half of these patients were male, and the age range was eleven to eighty-three. His assessments relied on his clinical evaluations, and he didn’t think that the findings were remotely significant, but documented them anyway in his paper. Other researchers however, disagreed with his thoughts that the study had little to no merit, and they ran with it.
The entire triad is based on one hundred patients. That is not a large cohort at all, but that is beside the point. The most significant aspects are that the people had threatened violence, not committed it, and a cohort of one hundred is not large enough to draw any conclusions on. It certainly is not enough to then define the traits of a budding psychopath or sociopath, or anything else in terms of mental function for that matter.
However, as much of a fan following, and as many citations this triad has, it falls apart with very minor scrutiny. Normally my complaint about such things is the misrepresentation of psychopathy, and yes, that does annoy me, but there is a much larger implication that this construct has, and we will get into it. First, the debunking.
The first time this triad ran into some problems was back in 1966. Now you might be thinking, 1966? And it’s still a thing? How? A good question, and we will get to that. First what was found back in the mid sixties.
The problem that it ran into was that two psychologists, Daniel S. Hellman, and Nathan Blackman did a study on eighty-four of prisoners, and they asserted that there was a positive association between this triad and violence. However, when other researchers tried to replicate this, they failed, and could find no correlation at all. Around this time, even John MacDonald began to make some assertions that he wasn’t sure that there was anything to the triad. He later repeated this in his book, Homicidal Threats, which was released in 1968.
In 1984 more researchers attempted to establish any validity at all with the triad, but they were unable to do so. This was the largest cohort that investigation of the triad was conducted on being 206 sex offenders located at, Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexual Dangerous Persons, and they could find no link between the triad and prediction of violent behavior.
All right, so it’s dead in the water. A man named John MacDonald had an idea, he thought that it was interesting when he wrote it, but in his wisdom and humility retracted his support for his own triad. Done deal, right? It should be cast out.
Nope. It became part of what the FBI used in its behavioral analysis work back in the seventies. This was the heyday of the behavioral analysis unit, BAU, and it is when it produced the largest percentage of its superstars. Most notably, Roy Hazelwood, Robert Ressler, and John Douglas.
Here is Ressler and Douglas with serial killer Edmund Kemper, who we will talk about below:
There will also be a bonus story about Ressler and Kemper at the end.
The Macdonald Triad became a mainstay when profiling a suspected serial murderer. This was a huge problem in the long run.
As much as the triad was basically trash, it became indelibly tied to the BAU, and its work, and this was a time period that produced the romance that society now has with serial murder. If you research serial killers, a lot of what you are going to read was pioneered by these men, and it touches on serial killers made famous during this time.
This is significant because this is the most talked about, and replicated time period in the BAU’s history. Television shows, books, documentaries, movies, you name it, the inspiration is drawn from this time period, which means they incorporate the triad as though it were provable fact, not debunked by its own creator, or in other words, fiction.
Due to it being so synonymously associated with the most famous serial killer hunters and the killers themselves, people take it on face value that the triad is real. That it has been inarguably proven, and that there is no reason to dig into it further. That is not the case at all, and in fact it was proven to be useless before it even got its teeth. It is so prolific that even a researcher that I rather like, Kevin Dutton, has repeated its myths regarding psychopathic children abusing animals.
Many attempts have been made to salvage the triad’s reputation by people that know that the science doesn’t support it being correct, but still have cognitive dissonance that it should be. Every one of these attempts have fallen apart. Even the BAU offered their evidence from their own studies on it two separate times in the eighties and nineties, but both times their research had serious flaws, and didn’t support their conclusions.
They had used the interviews that they conducted at various prisons, with various criminals to arrive at their position. These interviews, conducted by the agents themselves, were done on the road while the agents were giving lectures in different jurisdictions, and they would visit the nearby prisons to speak to the prisoners.
In all, they interviewed thirty six inmates, without any effort being paid to work within the randomized scientific design. They just spoke with the thirty six inmates because they were available and convenient, and out of the thirty six, only twenty five were serial murderers.
All interviews were voluntary, there was no attempt to do a meta analysis of other inmates files, or psychiatric history at all. They just spoke to thirty six people and claimed that was good enough. It wasn’t then, it isn’t now, but that didn’t stop the agents from developing theories, and publishing articles based on these theories, further cementing the triad in the public’s mind as wholly useful. This work did nothing to legitimize the triad for serial murder, but it did help establish what it does have value in.
What is that?
It is an excellent set of red flags for a child that is undergoing abuse. What the triad unintentionally stumbled on was the behavior of a child that cannot articulate their abuse to someone that can help them. They are projecting their fear, anger, and hurt back into the world through this behavior in order to deal with the emotions that lack a voice for them otherwise.
A lot of people have no idea that this is the case, but they should. Many violent criminals start in a household that was terribly abusive. For a long time I believed Ed Kemper, a notoriously intelligent serial killer, and a mammoth beast of a man at 6’9”, was a psychopath.
He had a lot of the traits externally that I could see, and he did not seem to possess the emotions that many of the serial murders that I had read about previously seemed to have.
However, during my time over at Quora, someone that had done extensive research into his history informed me that he was horrifically abused at the hands of his mother who was an alcoholic, and the rest of his family. Some of the abuse he endured was described like this:
In every interview he’s ever granted, Kemper has described his family as “matriarchal” and his mother as controlling and abusive. He called her a “big, ugly, awkward woman who was six feet tall and she was always trying to get me to go out with girls who were just like her.” Ed’s father, a veteran who allegedly was belittled by Clarnell for his “menial” job as an electrician, concurred: “suicide missions in wartime and the atomic bomb testings were nothing compared to living with her,” his father later said after divorcing Clarnell.
Ed says he started to feel his mother’s searing misandry when she allowed his two sisters to sleep upstairs while she forced him to sleep in the basement. He says she continually called him “stupid,” a “sissy,” a “real weirdo,” and would smack the hell out of him for the slightest act of insubordination.
Ed claims his older sister tortured him, once shoving him in front of an oncoming train and another time almost drowning him in a swimming pool. He would play macabre games with his sisters such as “Electric Chair” and “Gas Chamber,” where they’d sit on a chair in his bedroom and pretend they were receiving the death penalty. When one of his sisters gave him a doll for Christmas, he cut off its hands and head. He also buried the family cat alive before chopping off its head, placing it on a stick, and muttering a prayer. At one point when his sister teased him by saying he wanted to kiss his female teacher, a very young Ed ominously said, “If I kissed her, I’d have to kill her first.”
Feeling despised and deeply unwanted by his mother, Ed went to live with his dad and his new stepmother in Los Angeles when he was 14, at which point he was already 6’4”. But this new stepmother resented him too, and Ed was sent to live with his grandparents in Montana.
Here, too, Ed felt he was trapped in an anti-male matriarchy, complaining that his grandmother “was constantly emasculating me and my grandfather.”
A quote from Kemper himself describes his mother as such:
My mother was there. She was there to beat me, she was there to humiliate me, she was there to use me as an example of how inferior men are.
Now, compare that to what is claimed about him in regards to his murders:
Despite his relative youth upon capture, Kemper had actually committed his first two murders nearly a decade earlier. Kemper was an extremely intelligent child but he engaged in psychopathic behavior early on. For Kemper, this behavior included the torture and killing of animals, which is a common childhood practice among nearly half of all serial killers.
Severely abused, clearly angry, but described as a psychopath, with part of the justification being one of the traits from the Macdonald Triad. Kemper without a doubt is not a psychopath, but he was a terribly abused child. Can you imagine what could have been if someone had paid attention to what was happening to him and intervened? Can you imagine how many children would get help if the triad were used to identify them while they are still young enough to help end whatever is causing them to project so much rage into the world?
These things, such as serial killing, may have some sort of genetic link, it may be partially due to a malfunctioning brain, but child abuse can produce very angry and maladjusted adults, that seek to soothe their suffering by causing it for others.
The Macdonald Triad isn’t useless. If properly studied, and then utilized it could do great good in the world. However, right now it is associated with psychopathy, not because it is accurate, but because it makes it seem more taboo and dangerous. It is misappropriated because of ignorance and ego, and people perpetuating bad science is creating real harm in the world. The recent evaluations of it have demonstrated this:
The data analysis from the BSU's study made its way into criminological texts as a reliable source, and only recently have researchers challenged it.
For a master's thesis, Kori Ryan submitted a study in 2009 that contradicts nearly half a century of claims. Ryan performed the most extensive review of the literature to date and found little empirical support for the triad's predictive value.
Together or alone, the triad behaviors can indicate a stressed child with poor coping mechanisms or a developmental disability; such a child needs guidance and attention. However, until we design and carry out better empirical studies than we've seen thus far, researchers and media agencies should refrain from stating that the triad identifies a future serial killer.
Instead of encouraging people to repeat this debunked myth about psychopaths, it is important to shed light on its real value and where it can be utilized for a positive change. Children that feel alone, scared, and angry will act out. Imagine being a child that is truly suffering, only to have your caregiver, or teacher, or the police, look at the results of that suffering and blame you for it. If you are seeking a way to make sure that child never trusts another authority figure, let this myth live on, and don’t correct people when you hear it parroted because someone watches Criminal Minds and thinks that it reflects reality.
Kemper Bonus Story:
Waiting for Bardo, I thought of Robert Ressler, the FBI agent who’d spent much of his career at the Behavioral Sciences Unit studying and interviewing America’s most prolific killers. Sitting in the cell reminded me of Ressler’s final prison meeting with Edmund Kemper, a man who’d brutally killed ten people, several of whom he had decapitated. Kemper was literally a giant, six foot nine inches tall and more than three hundred pounds. At the end of a four-hour interview, Ressler pressed the call button for the guard to come and get him out. Some time went by, but no guard. About 15 minutes later, he pressed the button again, and then again. Still no guard. Kemper must have intuitively detected Ressler’s concern, because on the tape of their interview he can be heard to say, “Relax, they’re changing shifts, feeding the guys in the secure areas. Might be fifteen, twenty minutes before they come and get you.”
After a thoughtful pause, Kemper added, “If I went apeshit in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble. I could screw your head off and place it on the table to greet the guard.”
Kemper was correct. Against his terrific size advantage and experience at killing, Ressler didn’t stand a chance. Kemper, who had endured a long abstinence from his compulsive habit of murder, now had a live one: a famous FBI agent. Ressler warned the killer that he’d be in big trouble if he murdered a federal official, but Kemper, already serving seven life terms, scoffed, “What would they do, cut off my TV privileges?”
There followed a thirty-minute contest of fear and courage, with Ressler using his impressive behavioral insight to keep Kemper off balance. At one point in their high-stakes debate, Kemper acknowledged that if he killed Ressler, he would have to spend some time in “the hole,” but he added that it would be a small price to pay for the prestige of “offing an FBI agent.”
One of Ressler’s several gambits: “You don’t seriously think I’d come in here without some way to defend myself, do you?”
Kemper knew better: “They don’t let anybody bring guns in here.” That was true, but Ressler suggested that FBI agents had special privileges and that a gun might not be the only weapon available to him.
Kemper didn’t bite. “What have you got, a poison pen?” So it went until guards arrived, thankfully before Kemper put his ruminations into action. As Kemper was walked out, he put one of his enormous hands on Ressler’s shoulder. “You know I was just kidding, don’t you?” But Kemper wasn’t just kidding. He was feeding on a favorite delicacy of serial killers: human fear.