The Mythical Macdonald Triad

Issue 7, Volume 113

By Ramisa Haque 

The crime drama genre grew a large media presence in the 1950s and has maintained its popularity since then. From Bonnie and Clyde, a 1967 crime drama classic, to Criminal Minds, the most-streamed TV series of 2021, the genre holds an irreplaceable role in society. Watching crime-focused media gives people the freedom to experience fear and satisfy their adrenaline cravings in an environment they can control. Psychologist Chivonna Childs, Ph.D., finds that many crime-watchers feel as though crime dramas teach them about the psychopathy of criminals and thus better avoid becoming victims. However, the information presented in these shows is not always entirely factual. A myth often perpetuated in crime dramas, including Criminal Minds, is the Macdonald triad, a set of three factors—fire-setting, cruelty toward animals, and enuresis (involuntary bedwetting)—misunderstood to accurately predict serial killers and other violent offenders.

In 1963, forensic psychiatrist John M. Macdonald introduced this theory in “The Threat to Kill,” an article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. While acknowledging the influence of childhood trauma in psychopathic development, he recognized that three factors in childhood—fire-setting, cruelty towards animals, and enuresis—were commonly seen in children who later exhibited violence. Macdonald noted this idea in a report on 100 patients at the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital. The patients varied in gender and ranged from age 11 to 83, with roughly half being categorized as psychotic. The sole basis of Macdonald’s report was that all these patients were admitted after making a threat to kill. While Macdonald recognized animal cruelty, fire-setting, and enuresis as prominent childhood behaviors for most of the patients, he provided no quantitative foundation for this commonality as he considered it a mere generalization. However, his fellow researchers took his findings as a declaration that the aforementioned behaviors were sound indicators of homicidal tendencies, an idea they then coined as the Macdonald, or homicidal, triad.

Soon after, in 1966, psychologists Daniel S. Hellman and Nathan Blackman found a correlation between the triad and violence in a study on 84 prisoners, whose results could not be replicated by other researchers. As a result, MacDonald reasserted his hesitancy to claim the validity of the theory in his book, Homicidal Threats. Despite an absence of corroboration in research studies, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit adopted the theory to aid their investigations in the 1970s. With television shows, films, and books frequently drawing inspiration from this time period, mentions of the unprovable homicidal triad are inevitable. The lack of empirical support for the phenomenon has proved futile in lessening its omnipresence in the media and academic settings.

All the while, other researchers have taken a different approach in response to MacDonald’s research, using it as preliminary evidence of the extensive manifestations of childhood abuse. Studies confirm that animal cruelty, setting fires, and enuresis are all products of psychological and physical parental abuse. Children who are subjected to traumatic experiences need outlets where they can preserve a sense of autonomy and control. Not only can they exert their power by inflicting suffering upon animals, but they can express their anger and alleviate stress by setting fires. Enuresis, though involuntary, is also a direct response to abuse, specifically sexual assault. The behaviors of the triad are purely reactions to childhood abuse, while its overarching effect is the development of psychopathy. In plain terms, toxic parental relationships instill in victimized children a desire to recreate abusive situations. This fosters violent behavior of varying levels, going as far as, and sometimes even surpassing, homicide. Therefore, the correlation between the three behaviors and homicidal tendencies is simply a byproduct of the causal relationship between abusive childhoods and psychopathic tendencies. These nuances are rarely represented in crime dramas that serve to entertain, rather than teach.

Though it may seem strange, people are inclined to indulge in such frightful and thrilling entertainment to feel empowered. Humans are innately curious, but struggle to understand the mysterious and taboo phenomenon of evil, which we often feel helpless to. The systematic nature of the crime genre leaves viewers feeling more secure and prepared in their own fights against evil. Unfortunately, this reality is not always true due to the fallacies perpetuated through the crime drama genre.