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Personality Disorders and Violent Crimes: What’s the Connection?

By Dr. Jade Pumphrey, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Personality disorders are commonly identified in people who commit violent crimes. Recent research also shows that the type of crime committed – sexual or nonsexual – can be linked to the type of personality disorder the offender suffers, such as antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

[Related: Understanding the Mind of Mass Shooters: Psychological Autopsy]

Personality Disorders of Offenders

Personality disorders that we often see in offenders who have committed violent crimes include:

  • Conduct disorder – This is a behavioral/emotional disorder that is diagnosed in childhood. Children with conduct disorder display antisocial behaviors that can be violent and destructive. These children may be highly irritable, suffer from low self-esteem and tend to repeatedly violate the norms of society.
  • Antisocial personality disorder – This is characterized in adults as the tendency to have complete disregard for the feelings of others. Adults with antisocial personality disorder may appear to be callous and cynical. These individuals do not typically conform to social norms, and are often deceitful and impulsive. They react in irresponsible, reckless and aggressive ways.
  • Borderline personality disorder – This is characterized in adults by pervasive mood instability. Individuals who experience borderline personality disorder will struggle with anxiety, impulsive aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, and distorted thinking patterns.

A research study conducted by Schroerder, Iffland, Hill, Berner, and Briken (2013) examined three groups of offenders and found that different kinds of offenders tend to possess different personality disorders. In their study, the first group of offenders had committed only sexual offenses (S); the second had committed only violent offenses (V); and the third had committed both sexual and violent offenses (SV).

The authors found clear characteristics that suggest S offenders possess avoidance, schizoid, introverted, and obsessive-compulsive personality traits. On the other hand, V offenders typically possess aggressive and antisocial traits. SV offenders had significant family addiction problems and displayed anti-social personality characteristics.

Sexual Abuse History

Consistent with past research on sexual offenders, Schroerder’s study also found that sexual abuse histories were common among the SV offender group. It was also common for members in both the S and SV offender groups to have experienced physical maltreatment in their personal histories and to have displayed conduct disorder when they were children.

[Related: Interview Strategies for Sexual Assault and Rape Investigations]

Many of those in the SV offender group reported being a victim of rape or sexual coercion at some period during their lives. This group also had the greatest percentage of offenders who reported abusing children sexually. The study further indicates that personality disorder was experienced more frequently in the SV offender group and often, personality disorder comorbidity (the presence of two or more disorders occurring simultaneously) was apparent. Interestingly, there were no statistically significant differences between the SV offender groups and their V offender counterparts.

What the Research Means for Law Enforcement

Law enforcement practitioners will likely encounter both SV and V offender groups more frequently than members of the S offender group. Furthermore, law enforcement can expect that SV and V offenders will most frequently display antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder characteristics.

The study alludes that the higher frequency of pedophilia diagnoses can be correlated to higher rates of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. By examining sexual offenders as a group, they might discover that these offenders would be encountered in the criminal justice profession frequently.

[Related article: Overview of Sexual Assault Crime Scene Processing]

This information is helpful for understanding the high-security needs of those who experience mental disorder, personality disorder, and general psychopathology. Because law enforcement practitioners would likely encounter individuals who are V offenders and/or SV offenders, they can expect these individuals to be hostile and callous in their behaviors (Schroerder et al., 2013).

The study also discovered a significant correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and violent offending. This knowledge will assist law enforcement practitioners to understand the potential reactions they might face when interacting with V offender groups. SV offenders experience co-morbid personality disorder pathology which warrants appropriate risk assessment, correct diagnosis, and appropriate psychotherapeutic and psychiatric treatment. The antisocial component of SV offenders is a significant predictor of a criminal reoffending.

ethicalAbout the Author: Dr. Jade Pumphrey has worked in higher education since 2006 and has taught more than 65 different criminal justice courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Pumphrey obtained an AS in General Science, a BS in Criminal Justice, a MS in Forensic Science Investigations and a PhD in Public Safety/Criminal Justice. In addition to her work in higher education, Pumphrey volunteers for her local police department as an on-call victim assistant.


Schroerder, M., Iffland, J. S., Hill, A., Berner, W., & Briken, P. (2013). Personality disorders in men with sexual and violent criminal offense histories. Journal of Personality Disorders, 27(4), 519-530.

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