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Study Finds that Personality Distortions May Be Significant Factor in Criminal Offenses, Not Mental Illness

When assessing the character traits of criminal defendants who have committed extremely violent acts, sometimes the conversation stops at the suggestion that the defendants were afflicted by serious mental illness and their actions were the result of this. It is easy to group all criminal defendants with violent tendencies into one category of “Serious Mental Illness” to explain away the real (and terrifyingly normal), underlying foundation for their actions.

Recently, a forensic psychologist, Michael Stone, put forth results from an ongoing study on the actions of extremely violent criminal defendants. Surprisingly enough, the study results demonstrate that many criminal defendants who commit such heinous acts are generally not suffering from any mental illness, but in fact are more likely to have personality distortions that contribute to their actions. To be sure, most psychologists find that severe depression and suicidal inclinations do not fully explain the drastic behaviors of those who commit mass murder-suicide, such Andreas Lubitz, who downed a Germanwings’ flight with himself and 149 others a couple of weeks ago.

What are Personality Distortions?

Personality distortions are different from serious mental illnesses in several respects. Personality distortions are generally where personality traits have been exaggerated and more acutely felt by the criminal defendant. Excess of rage, pathological narcissism and callousness, paranoia, grandiosity, and thirst for vengeance are several examples of the types of distortions of personality seen in many who commit these types of heinous crimes. Studies on mass murderers support the idea that many of these mass murderers carry many similar personality traits like paranoia and excessive disgruntlement, and the target of their grievances is a person, company, government, or other institution.


Murder-suicides are more rare than “run-of-the-mill” homicides, and generally occur within a domestic violence environment, usually where there is a rejected or estranged spouse or lover; further, the statistics point to men largely being the perpetrators. It was identified in a study that many perpetrators abused drugs and/or alcohol, and depression was a significant factor in the decision. In addition, these types of homicides are the result of a passionate or impulsive moment, rather than contemplation and drafting of an elaborate plan.

Mass Murder-Suicides

What is even rarer are mass murder-suicides where strangers are the target. The mass murder suicide involving the Germanwings airplane is just one of the noted examples. Other recent examples involved the shootings at a school in Sandy Hook and Columbine High School. Studies of these types of heinous actions indicate that depression and suicidal thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg, but the personality distortions, along with narcissism and a desire for fame, glory, and attention, are part of the equation for actors involved in the commission of these crimes.

The “Gradations of Evil” Scale

Michael Stone not only has conducted this study, among others, but also authored the “Gradations of Evil” scale, a 22-point scale assessing the extent of evildoing of famous, convicted murderers, in hopes that the scale might be used during criminal homicide proceedings. The scale has three tiers: the first tier involves homicides involving impulsive evildoing, where crimes of passion would land. The second tier outlines criminal defendants displaying psychopathic traits, but who are suffering from a level of psychosis where the defendants may be found clinically delusional or insane. The final tier would encompass the evildoing done by psychopaths who display superficial charm, grandiosity, and narcissism, but also increased abilities for manipulation and cunning.

The following are some examples on Michael Stone’s “Gradation of Evil” Scale:


  1. Justified Homicide (ex. Cheryl Pierson)
  2. Willing Companions of Killers (ex. Cindy Campbell)
  3. Fit of Rage (ex. Charles Whitman)
  4. Power-Hungry and Cornered (ex. Jim Jones)
  5. Cold-Blooded Spree (ex. Charles Manson)
  6. Sexually Perverse (ex. Ted Bundy)
  7. Psychopathic Torture-Murderers (ex. Jeffrey Dahmer)


Issues Involving the Use of the “Gradation of Evil” Scale in Criminal Proceedings

Many cite significant benefits for a scale of this nature because it could be used to help flag any behavior that may indicate any one of these criminal types. However, an obvious fear remains: just because a red flag may appear, does not mean that the person has committed a criminal act.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you have been accused of committing a criminal offense, it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik who can advocate on your behalf. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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