Do you think it is possible to detect psychopathic tendencies in adults from early childhood behaviour? The Macdonald Triad theorises that three particular behaviours are common amongst children who then display psychopathic traits as adults.

The Macdonald Triad Traits are:

  • Arson
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Bed-Wetting

Children who exhibit all three of these traits are far more likely to engage in serious anti-social behaviours as adults. These include violent behaviours such as robbery, rape, murder, serial killing and torture. But why these three behaviours in particular?

“Genetics loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their experiences pull the trigger.” Jim Clemente – FBI Profiler


Fire captivates children and adults. We sit beside it and gaze into the flames, lost in our own thoughts. But some children get preoccupied with it. They can think of nothing else and develop an unhealthy obsession with it. When children start to use fire as a weapon to harm or destroy, it becomes a problem. They then view it as a tool for their own use.

For example, a child is bullied so they burn down their school. Or a child that sets fire to the family home because of abuse. Using fire in this way is the first step towards a mindset where violence and aggression is their preferred way to deal with anxiety or releasing anger.

Examples of psychopathic adults who committed arson as a child

American serial killer Ottis Toole set fires from a young age. He was sentenced to life in prison for six counts of murder. An unemployed drifter, on trial he admitted that he got sexually excited from setting fires.

David Berkowitz or ‘Son of Sam’ as he was known, was infatuated with fires. So much so that as a child his friends called him ‘Pyro’.

Cruelty to animals

The vast majority of children love animals. These small, defenceless, furry little bundles of innocence usually bring out the nurturing side of children. Therefore, it is a huge warning sign if a child begins to abuse animals.

One theory is a lack of empathy. Children that torture animals literally feel nothing towards their animal victims.

Another theory is that children are reacting to abuse they are suffering and redirecting it onto animals. As children are not able to lash out at their abusers, they need to find a substitute. Animals are weaker and cannot fight back.

In fact, studies showed that psychopaths used the same methods of torturing people as they did to small animals when they were children.

Examples of psychopathic adults who were cruel to animals

Edmund Kemper killed, amongst others, his own mother and grandparents. He tortured animals as a small boy. At the age of 10, he buried his pet cat alive and then dug it up, decapitated it and placed the head on a spike.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer would cycle around his neighbourhood and pick up roadkill to dissect. When he ran out of dead animals, he killed his own puppy and mounted its head on a spike.

Bed Wetting

Bed-wetting is the last of the three traits of the Macdonald Triad. It only counts as a trait if the bed-wetting is persistent and occurs after the age of five years old.

There can be several unrelated causes for a child to wet the bed. In fact, the most common reason is medical and not linked to future psychopathic tendencies at all. Researchers agree that there may not be a direct correlation between violence and bed-wetting.

Example of psychopathic adults who wet the bed

Albert Fish was a serial killer who killed three children in the 1900s. He wet the bed up until the age of 11 years.

Andrei Chikatilo suffered from persistent bed-wetting. His mother would beat him every time he wet the bed. He went on to become Russia’s most notorious serial killers.

The History of the Macdonald Triad

This all makes perfect sense, but where is the evidence? The MacDonald Triad originates from a paper written in 1963 from forensic psychiatrist JM Macdonald called ‘The Threat to Kill’.

In his paper, Macdonald interviewed 100 patients, 48 psychotic and 52 non-psychotic, all of whom had threatened to kill someone. He looked into the childhoods of these patients and found the three behaviours of arson, animal cruelty and bed-wetting were common. As a result, they became known as the Macdonald Triad.

The paper was small and not substantiated by any further research, however, it was published. The study was well received and gained in popularity. In a related study in 1966, Daniel Hellman and Nathan Blackman interviewed 84 prisoners. They found that of the ones who had committed the most violent crimes over three-quarters exhibited all three traits in the Macdonald Triad.

“The importance of early detection of the triad and serious attention toward resolving the tensions that precipitated it is stressed.” Hellman & Blackman

The Macdonald Triad really took off following FBI involvement. When they confirmed the findings of the Macdonald Triad in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the golden seal of approval. It didn’t matter that they studied a tiny sample of 36 murderers. Not to mention that all 36 had volunteered their services. One has to question their motives for taking part.

Criticism of the Macdonald Triad

Despite its early favourable reviews, the Macdonald Triad started to get criticism for its simplicity and its small sample sizes. Some adults with psychopathic tendencies do have childhood backgrounds that include all three traits of arson, animal cruelty and bed-wetting. But many more don’t.

Likewise, these three traits can be an indication of something else going on in a child’s life. For example, bed-wetting can be a sign of a medical problem. Actually, bed-wetting over the age of five is so common there is hardly any evidence to link it to the Macdonald Triad.

“Research indicates that bedwetting is usually caused by relatively benign medical conditions, like a tendency to sleep deeply or overproduce urine at night.” Anthropologist Gwen Dewar

Some researchers are now linking the triad to developmental problems or signs of stressful family life. There are now many researchers examining ways to disprove the MacDonald Triad, as there were back in the 1960s trying to support it.

For instance, researcher Kori Ryan at California State University Fresno examined all the studies related to the Macdonald triad. She found ‘little empirical support’ for it. Ryan believes that there is a problem with concentrating on this triad at such an early age.

Children may be labelled unnecessarily as potentially violent or aggressive.

Forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland believes that it is necessary to carry out more research. Although she agrees that some psychopathic offenders do have one of the three Macdonald traits, recent research has proved that rarely do they have all three.

However, there are certain behaviours that are common, such as living with a neglectful parent, experiencing abuse, or having a psychiatric history. Ramsland believes it is all too easy to label children and adults. It is much harder to delve deeper to find the actual causes of violent behaviour and come up with helpful suggestions.

“Together or alone, the triad behaviours can indicate a stressed child with poor coping mechanisms or a developmental disability. Such a child needs guidance and attention.” Ramsland

It is universally accepted that our childhood experiences shape us into the adults we are today. The problem is, if we label a child too early it could have far-reaching consequences for them. And these consequences could stay with them throughout their entire adult life.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Quinn

    The reason they wet the bed longer is they have a simpler neural network so it just takes that much longer to develop bladder control.

  2. Ellen Louise Brunson

    I am a grad student at Walden University studying Forensic Psychology with a Specialization in Criminal Justice and I would like to know if there is a book on the Mcdonal Traid Study and if so where can I purchase it?

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