Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

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Psychological Profile of the Beltway Sniper

Aubrey Immelman

October 22, 2002

Assuming that he is acting alone and not politically inspired, the gunman responsible for the October 2002 sniper attacks in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia likely has a highly aggressive (sadistic) personality pattern, modulated by less prominent negativistic features.

The Aggressive (Dominant, Controlling, Sadistic) Pattern

Aggressive (sadistic) personalities are characterized by a dominant, tough-minded, unsentimental personal style. They seem driven to prove their worthiness, and tend to be strong-willed, ambitious, competitive, and self-determined. In work settings, these personalities are often driven to excel. They work hard to achieve their goals and perform well where they can take control or work independently. In supervisory positions, they usually take charge and see to it that a job gets done. They enjoy the power to direct and intimidate others, and to evoke obedience and respect from them. (Millon, 1994, p. 34; Strack, 1997, p. 490)

The Negativistic (Contentious, Oppositional, Passive-Aggressive) Pattern

Negativistic personalities often feel as if they don’t fit in, seem angry or dissatisfied with themselves and others, and are frequently unhappy with the status quo. They often assert that they have been treated unfairly, that little of what they have done has been appreciated, and that they have been unfairly blamed. They may harbor resentment without expressing it directly, may be quick to challenge rules or authority deemed arbitrary and unjust, and may revert to passive-aggressive behavior to make their feelings known. (Millon, 1994, p. 34; Strack, 1997, pp. 490–491)

Psychological Features of the Aggressive and Negativistic Patterns

The diagnostic features of the aggressive (sadistic) and negativistic patterns with respect to eight major domains of personality are summarized below.

1.  Expressive Behavior

The domain of expressive behavior encompasses the individual’s characteristic behavior; how the individual typically appears to others; what the individual knowingly or unknowingly reveals about him- or herself; and what the individual wishes others to think or to know about him or her.

Highly aggressive personalities are power-oriented, controlling, and coercive. They derive pleasure from humiliating others and can be quite malicious. They view tender emotions as a sign of weakness, are devoid of warmth and intimacy, and relate suspiciously to expressions of kindness or compassion. They have a low frustration threshold and are especially sensitive to reproach or deprecation. When crossed they may have sudden, abrupt outbursts of an unwarranted or precipitous nature. They often respond reflexively and vindictively, especially when feeling humiliated or belittled. They are easily provoked to attack, and their first inclination is to dominate and demean their adversaries. (Millon, 1996, pp. 483, 487)

Negativistic personalities are unhappy with the status quo, resentful, and quick to challenge rules or authority. They frequently complain of being misunderstood or unappreciated, and reveal gratification in demoralizing and undermining the pleasures and aspirations of others. (Millon, 1996, pp. 549–550)

2.  Interpersonal Conduct

The domain of interpersonal conduct encompasses the individual’s typical ways of interacting with others; the attitudes that underlie, prompt, and give shape to these actions; the methods by which the individual engages others to meet his or her needs; how the individual’s actions impact on others; and how the individual copes with social tensions and conflicts.

Highly aggressive personalities tend to be abrasive, coercive, and combative, often dictate to others, and are willing and able to humiliate others to evoke compliance and respect. They are adept at having their way by frightening others into respect and submission and reveal satisfaction in intimidating, coercing, and humiliating others. They frequently find a successful niche for themselves in roles where hostile and belligerent behaviors are socially sanctioned or admired, thus providing an outlet for vengeful hostility cloaked in the guise of social responsibility. (Millon, 1996, p. 484)

Negativistic personalities are contrary, defiant, and unyielding. They tend to sabotage performance expectations and display envy and pique towards those more fortunate. They are obstructive and intolerant of others, and they express predominantly negative, often incompatible, views and attitudes. (Millon, 1996, pp. 550–551)

3.  Cognitive Style 

The domain of cognitive style encompasses the ways that an individual typically focuses and allocates attention, encodes and processes information, organizes thoughts, makes attributions, and communicates reactions and ideas to others.

Highly aggressive personalities are inflexible and closed-minded, holding strong beliefs that they vigorously defend. Nonetheless, they are finely attuned to the subtle elements of human interaction, keenly aware of the moods and feelings of others, and skilled at using others’ foibles and sensitivities to manipulate them for their own ends. They are quick to turn another’s perceived weaknesses to their own advantage—often in an intentionally callous manner—by upsetting the other’s equilibrium in their quest to dominate and control. In addition, many are socially intolerant and inherently prejudiced, especially toward envied or derogated social groups or segments of society. (Millon, 1996, pp. 484–485)

Negativistic personalities are cynical, disdainful of authority, and display a misanthropic view of life; they are prone to voicing demoralizing or caustic social commentary toward those experiencing good fortune. (Millon, 1996, pp. 551–552)

4.  Mood/Temperament

The domain of mood/temperament encompasses the individual’s typical ways of displaying emotion; the predominant character of the individual’s affect and the intensity and frequency with which he or she expresses it.

Highly aggressive personalities are fractious, mean-spirited, and malicious, with callous disregard for the rights of others. Their volatile temper flares readily into contentious argument and physical belligerence. They are deficient in the capacity to share warm or tender feelings, to experience genuine affection and love for another, or to empathize with the needs of others. More than any other personality type, these individuals are willing to do harm and persecute others if necessary to have their way. (Millon, 1996, p. 486)

Negativistic personalities are moody, impatient, and discontented. They are temperamental; their emotional equilibrium is easily upset. They unreasonably scorn those in authority, and are easily annoyed, frustrated, or rankled by others. (Millon, 1996, pp. 551–552)

5.  Self-Image

The domain of self-image encompasses the individual’s perception of self-as-object or the manner in which the individual overtly describes him- or herself.

Highly aggressive personalities perceive themselves as powerful and take pride in describing themselves as tough and realistically hardheaded. Consistent with this image of themselves, they are self-reliant and unyielding, and frequently combative. They have a “dog-eat-dog” view of the world. They rarely acknowledge their own malicious or vindictive motives, typically framing their hostile behavior in prosocial terms. (Millon, 1996, p. 485)

Negativistic personalities are cynical and discontented. They view themselves as misunderstood, unappreciated, jinxed, or demeaned by others. They feel wronged or cheated, and are embittered, disgruntled, and disillusioned with life. (Millon, 1996, p. 552)

6.  Regulatory Mechanisms

The domain of regulatory mechanisms (defense mechanisms) encompasses the individual’s characteristic mechanisms of self-protection, need gratification, and conflict resolution.

Highly aggressive personalities classically employ the defense mechanism of isolation to detach themselves emotionally from the impact of their aggressive acts upon others. In situation where restraint is called for, they transmute and redirect their hostility, typically by employing the mechanisms of rationalization, sublimation, and projection—all of which lend themselves in some fashion to finding plausible and socially acceptable excuses (rationalizations) for less than admirable impulses and actions. Socially sanctioned resolution (i.e., sublimation) of hostile urges may be evident in the competitive occupations to which aggressive personalities gravitate. Hostility is projected onto others, which permits these personalities to justify their aggressive acts as realistic responses to unjust persecution. Objects of their aggression are viewed impersonally as despised symbols deserving degradation. (Millon, 1996, pp. 485–486)

Negativistic personalities typically employ the ego defense of displacement. They discharge anger either precipitously or by shifting their anger from their instigator to settings or persons of lesser significance. (Millon, 1996, pp. 552–553)

7.  Object Representations

The domain of object representations refers to the inner imprint left by the individual’s significant early experiences with others; the structural residue of significant past experiences, composed of memories, attitudes, and emotions that underlie the individual’s perceptions and responses and serves as a substrate of dispositions for perceiving and reacting to life’s ongoing events.

Highly aggressive personalities have a marked paucity of tender and sentimental early experiences, along with underdeveloped images capable of activating feelings of shame or guilt. The inner templates that guide the perceptions and behaviors of these individuals are composed of aggressive feelings and memories, and images comprising harsh relationships and malicious attitudes. Consequently, their life experience is recast to reflect the expectancy of hostility and the need to preempt it. These dynamics undergird a “jungle philosophy” of life, where the only perceived recourse is to act in a bold and ruthless manner. They justify their toughness and cunning by pointing to the hostile and exploitative behavior of others; to them, the only way to survive in this world is to dominate, control, and overpower. (Millon, 1996, p. 485)

Negativistic personalities have incompatible early memories that set in motion a chain of contradictory feelings and conflicting inclinations, driving them to degrade the achievements and pleasures of others, without necessarily appearing to do so. (Millon, 1996, p. 552)

8.  Morphologic Organization

The domain of morphologic organization refers to the overall architecture that serves as a framework for the individual’s psychic interior; the structural strength, interior congruity, and functional efficacy of the personality system (i.e., ego strength).

Highly aggressive personalities have powerful hostile impulses so forceful that they periodically erupt and overwhelm these personalities’ otherwise adequate modulating controls, defense operations, and expressive channels. This tendency is exacerbated by the unrestrained expression of intense and explosive emotions stemming from early life experiences. Moreover, these personalities dread the thought of being vulnerable, of being deceived, and of being humiliated. Viewing people as basically ruthless, these personalities are driven to gain power over others, to dominate them and outmaneuver or outfox them at their own game. Personal feelings are regarded as a sign of weakness and dismissed as maudlin sentimentality. (Millon, 1996, p. 486)

Negativistic personalities are characterized by coping and defensive maneuvers that are often directed toward incompatible goals, leaving major conflicts unresolved and full psychic cohesion often impossible because fulfillment of one drive or need inevitably nullifies or reverses another. (Millon, 1996, pp. 553)

The Tyrannical Sadist

The aggressive–negativistic personality composite, labeled tyrannical sadism, counts among the most frightening and cruel of the personality disorder subtypes. These personalities relate to others in an intimidating, attacking, and overwhelming way, are frequently accusatory and abusive, and almost invariably destructive. Minor resistances or weaknesses tend to incite tyrannical sadists, encouraging attack rather than deterring and slowing them down. It is the forcefulness, the unrestrained character, and the indiscriminate anger that is most notable. Descriptively, these sadists appear to relish the act of menacing and brutalizing others; forcing their victims to submit and cower in fear provides them with a special sense of satisfaction. They are cool and calculating, and employ terror and intimidation to impress not only their victims but also those who observe their unconstrained power. Many of these personalities intentionally heighten and dramatize their abusive, inhumane, and unmerciful behaviors. (Millon, 1996, p. 489)

What is also especially distinctive is the desire and willingness of these personalities to go out of their way to be unmerciful and inhumane in their violence. More than any other personality, they derive deep satisfaction in creating suffering and in seeing its effect on others. Their mean-spirited disposition leads them to abandon universally held constraints that limit the viciousness and brutality of one’s personal actions. In contrast to other sadistic personality subtypes, where hostility serves primarily as a means of discharging pent-up feelings, tyrannical sadists employ violence as an intentionally utilized instrument to inspire terror and intimidation. Moreover, they can self-consciously observe and reflect on the consequences of this violence, and do so with glee and a profound sense of satisfaction. Also, unlike other sadistic personality subtypes, tyrannical sadists are unlikely to experience second thoughts or to feel even a modicum of contrition about the violence they have wrought. (Millon, 1996, pp. 489–490)

Much of what drives the tyrannical sadistic subtype is their fear that others may recognize their inner insecurities and low sense of self-esteem. To overcome these deeply felt inner weaknesses, tyrannizing sadists have learned that they can feel superior by overwhelming others by the force of their physical power and brutal vindictiveness. “I am superior to you, I can defeat you in all things that matter, I will triumph over you despite your past achievements and superior talents. In the end, I will be the victor.” Once unleashed, the power of vindication draws on deep fantasies of cruel and unmitigated revenge. There are no internal brakes to constrain them until their fury is spent. There is little remorse for the fury of their violence and the destructive consequences they create. The subjugation or elimination of others becomes the primary goal. (Millon, 1996, p. 490)


The essence of sadistic aggression is the passion to have absolute control over another living being, who thereby becomes the property of the omnipotent controller. By becoming the “god” of those controlled, that is, by controlling life and death itself, the sadist escapes impotence through the sensation of power. Thus, sadistic violence serves as compensation for a profound inner sense of powerlessness. (Millon & Davis, 2000, p. 519) 

The fundamental goal of sadistic violence therefore becomes the quest to intimidate, humiliate, exploit, manipulate, frustrate, and depersonalize. Sadists are fascinated as much by their victims’ awareness that they are at their persecutor’s mercy as by their actual control over their victims. In its most malignant form, sadism is utterly self-conscious, meticulously planned, and carefully orchestrated. (Millon & Davis, 2000, p. 522)


Millon, T. (with Weiss, L. G., Millon, C. M., & Davis, R. D.). (1994). Millon Index of Personality Styles manual. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.

Millon, T. (with Davis, R. D.). (1996). Disorders of personality: DSM–IV and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Millon, T., & Davis, R. D. (1998). Ten subtypes of psychopathy. In T. Millon, E. Simonsen, M. Birket-Smith, & R. D. Davis (Eds.), Psychopathy: Antisocial, criminal, and violent behavior (pp. 161–170). New York: Guilford.

Millon, T., & Davis, R. D. (2000). Personality disorders in modern life. New York: Wiley.

Strack, S. (1997). The PACL: Gauging normal personality styles. In T. Millon (Ed.), The Millon inventories: Clinical and personality assessment (pp. 477–497). New York: Guilford.

Previous Report

Provisional Psychological Profile of the October 2002 Washington, D.C.Area Sniper (October 9, 2002)

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Last updated October 23, 2002