Macdonald triad  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Macdonald triad (also known as the triad of sociopathy) is a set of three behavioral characteristics that are associated with sociopathic behavior. The triad was first identified by J.M. Macdonald in "The Threat to Kill", a 1963 paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The triad links animal cruelty, obsession with fire setting, and persistent bedwetting past the age of five to violent behaviors, particularly homicidal behavior. Although other studies have not found statistically significant links between the triad of violence and violent offenders, many serial killers exhibited these behaviors during childhood. Contract killer Richard Kuklinski, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and serial killer Dennis Rader all engaged in acts of animal cruelty.

In a study involving hospitalized patients [Macdonald] focused on patients who had threatened to kill rather than on patients who had killed, although some subjects later committed homicide. His sample consisted of forty-eight psychotic and fifty-two non-psychotic patients. He found that sadistic patients often had three characteristics in common in their childhood histories. These factors... consisted of chronic bedwetting, firesetting, and torturing small animals.

Further studies have suggested that these behaviors are often the product of parental neglect, cruelty or trauma, and that such events in a person's childhood can result in "homicidal proneness".



In Singer and Hensley (2004), firesetting 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.

Animal cruelty

FBI Special Agent Alan Brantly believed that some offenders kill animals as a rehearsal for killing human victims. Animal cruelty is mainly used to vent frustration and anger the same way firesetting is. Extensive amounts of humiliation were also found in the childhoods of children who engaged in acts of animal cruelty. During childhood, serial killers could not retaliate towards those who caused them humiliation, so they chose animals because they [animals] were viewed as weak and vulnerable. Future victim selection is already in the process at a young age. Studies have found that those who engaged in childhood acts of animal cruelty used the same method of killing on their human victims as they did on their animal victims.

Wright and Hensley (2003) name three recurring themes throughout their research:

  • As children, future serial killers use animals to vent 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
  • To gain the power and control they needed to cause pain and suffering of a weaker, more vulnerable animal – escalating to humans in the future.

In a study of 45 male prison inmates who were deemed violent offenders, McClellan (2003) found that 56% admitted to having committed acts of violence against animals. It was also found that children who abused animals were more often the victims of parental abuse than children who did not abuse animals. As previously stated, animal cruelty was a way for the children to feel as if they were retaliating against those who abused, frustrated, or humiliated them.

However, Tallichet and Hensley (2004) say that some studies have shown inconsistencies while others show consistent information when dealing with animal cruelty and later violence against humans. In their study, Tallichet and Hensley did find a link between animal cruelty and violence against humans but they examined prisoners in maximum or medium security prisons. The information is useful, but at the same time, more quality information is needed to come to a concrete conclusion.


Enuresis is the “unintentional bed-wetting during sleep, persistent after the age of five.” Furthermore, bed-wetting should continue twice a week for three months consecutively.

Research has found that, unlike the other two factors, enuresis (bedwetting) is not associated with sociopathic behavior. However, enuresis may be related to firesetting and animal cruelty; 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 can then cause the child to use firesetting or cruelty to animals as an outlet for his or her frustration. Enuresis is an “unconscious, involuntary, and nonviolent act and therefore linking it to violent crime is more problematic than doing so with animal cruelty or firesetting".

See also

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