Most Heinous Crime in Amityville: Trait Theories

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Most Heinous Crime in Amityville: Trait Theories

The intention of this paper is to explain the actions of Ronald Defeo Jr. (Butch) in accordance to the trait theories. To consider the reasons for the crime which lead Butch to commit the murders of his parents, two brothers, and two sisters, it is important to understand the trait theory. “Trait theory states that criminality is a product of abnormal biological or psychological traits” (Siegel, 2011, p. 108). Trait theories consist of two main categories; biological and psychological. According to the biological trait theories perspective, there are biochemical conditions, neurophysiological conditions, genetics and evolutionary conditions that can explain the reasons of criminal behavior, and if there were any biological trait factors which lead Butch to commit the heinous crime. On the other hand, with psychological standpoint, there are psychodynamic perspective, behavioral perspective, cognitive theory, personality, intelligence and mental disorder that can help in understanding any link to Butch’s criminal actions (Siegel, 2011, pp. 107-129).

“Trait theorists believe biochemical conditions, including both those that are genetically predetermined and those that are acquired through diet and environment, influence antisocial behavior” (Siegel, 2011, p. 110). Chemical imbalance in the body can influence the person’s behavior. Chemical imbalance also relates to the substance abuse, which leads to the brain dysfunction. It creates a chemical change in the body and brain, which can lead to impaired judgment. The body gets used to the drugs, and if the level of chemicals in the body lowers; withdrawals take place. Withdrawals can change the person’s behavior from being antisocial to act violent. Butch was a heavy drug user, which caused chemical imbalance in his body from time to time. He had a history of anger and violence, which links his behavior to the biochemical conditions due to the inconsistency of the drug level in his body from time to time (Douglas, 2014).

“Neurophysiology is the study of brain activity” (Siegel, 2011, p. 113). One of the factors in the study of brain chemistry is “neurotransmitters”; that explains the functions of the brain are influenced by the chemical compounds. Study shows that the abnormally low level of these chemical compounds in the brain leads to aggression (Siegel, 2011, p. 115). Abnormality in the level of chemical compounds has been found in drug abusers, and in the victims of child abuse (Siegel, 2011, p. 115). Due to the fact that Butch was a drug user and he was abused physically and mentally by his father throughout his childhood; his criminal behavior can be associated with the biological trait theory of neurophysiological conditions (Douglas, 2014).

Other views of biological trait theories are “genetics” and “evolutionary”. Genetics view explains that the inherited genes can be the cause of the aggression and antisocial behaviors, which can result in violent crime (Siegel, 2011, p. 116). Since Butch’s parents did not have any history of violence; Butch cannot be directly linked to the genetics theory. However, his inheritance of anger, from his father side can be linked to genetics theory (Douglas, 2014). Evolutionary view of biological theories states “instinctual drives control behavior. The urge to procreate influences male violence” (Siegel, 2011, p. 119). Since evolutionary view is related to genetic sexual behavior, Butch’s crime of murdering his family does not have any connection to this theory.

Trait theories also explain the criminal behavior under the psychological trait view. Psychological trait view focuses on criminal behavior with the views of psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive theory along with personality, intelligence, and mental disorders. According to psychodynamic perspective, “the human personality is controlled by unconscious mental processes that develop early in childhood and involve the interaction of id, ego, and superego” (Siegel, 2011, p. 120). This view of psychological trait associates with the ego, which explains the impact of weak egos that is developed by unhappy experiences of the childhood. The people with damaged ego have trouble understanding the cost of their actions; they also have tendency to become drug addicts (Siegel, 2011, p. 121). As we know from Butch’s case study, he had an unhappy childhood due to mental and physical abuse by his father; his criminal behavior can be studied under psychodynamic perspective. With respect to psychodynamic perspective, he was unaware of consequences of his criminal actions when he went from room to room; killing his entire family (Douglas, 2014).

The behavioral perspective is a branch of social learning theory which states that “all human behavior is learned through a process of social reinforcement (rewards and punishment)” (Siegel, 2011, p. 121). According to behavioral theory, children learn to act violent and develop aggressive behavior through the series of life experiences, such as; violent behavior of their parents or violent media (Siegel, 2011, p. 121). Butch had an impact of his father’s temperament, which resulted in his aggressive and violent behavior.

Cognitive theory states “that psychological perspective that focuses on the mental processes by which people perceive and represent the world around them and solve problems” (Siegel, 2011, p. 124). The process of development of brain occurs during the childhood, and it develops according to the environment in which child grows (Siegel, 2011, p. 124). Butch’s actions can be related to this theory, because during his brain development process, he was regularly exposed to his parents arguing regularly which often times ended violently. It is possible that Butch’s brain developed the sense of solving problems with violence (Douglas, 2014).

Theorists believe that personality, intelligence and mental disorders also play important

role when a person turns to violent crimes. According to the personality view, a person with antisocial personality usually turns to violence (Siegel, 2011, p. 126). Butch’s case study does not indicate any signs of antisocial personality. Intelligence disorder’s view is that “criminals have below average intelligence and that low IQ causes their criminality” (Siegel, 2011, p. 127). In Butch’s cast, dropping out of the school is a factor of low IQ. Mental disorder is associated with mood disorder. “A condition in which the prevailing emotional mood is distorted or inappropriate to the circumstances” (Siegel, 2011, p. 128). The fact that Butch pointed a loaded rifle at one of his friends during a minor argument and did not remember this act afterwards, is evidence that he suffered mental disorder. In addition, he also exhibited behavior associated with mental disorder whereby he would show severe anger and rage against his father during minor arguments (Douglas, 2014).


Douglas, L. B. (2014, 02 19). The Real Life Amityville Horror. Retrieved from

Siegel, L. J. (2011). Criminology: The Core, Fourth Edition. In Trait Theories (pp. 107-133). Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.