Edward Gein: Expectancy Theory and Excitation Transfer Theory

January 28, 2019


One may be naïve to think murder cannot happen in their small town. Edward Gein made the towns people of Plainfield Wisconsin aware of the harsh reality that crime can occur in a small town (Fox & Levin, 2014). Edward Gein is a Schizophrenic serial killer that killed women who reminded him of his mother in order to practice necrophilia and used their skin in order to transform himself into a transvestite (LaBrode, 2007). Both Excitation transfer theory and expectancy theory will be used to explain the crimes of Ed Gein. Excitation transfer theory refers to a person misattributing their excitation to a different stimulus than the one that was actually present (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). Expectancy theory is where a person will do something because they are expecting to get something in return emotionally from performing that action (Rotter, 1971). It will be demonstrated that expectancy theory and excitation transfer theory are the best theories for explaining the life style of Gein.


Edward Gein can be considered a Hollywood star (Fox & Levin, 2014). At a young age he suffered a head injury which could possibly be attributed to physical abuse by one or both of his parents (LaBrode, 2007). This head injury could be the reason for his criminal adulthood years because of the biological changes that could have happened in his head. However, it is believed that the reasoning behind his actions ran deeper. In Gein’s case he developed an insecure attachment to his mother that was characterized by sexual sadism (LaBrode, 2007). He was “exacerbated by the extreme harshness of the environment and bitter isolation in his life” (Block, 2004, p. 92). His only friend was his mother as the children at school bullied him (Block, 2004). His father, brother and mother eventually died; the latter could be what triggered his criminal pathway (Block, 2004). He began with cemetery raids to fulfill his necrophilia desires and then progressed to murder after five years (Block, 2004). He created ornaments and house decorations out of body parts and would wear the skins of victims to look like a transvestite (Fox & Levin, 2014). The small town was shocked as he was perceived as a quiet old man (Fox & Levin, 2014). Gein claimed the deaths were accidental and was found to be schizophrenic, which ruled him not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder causing him to be admitted to a state hospital where he died of cancer (Block, 2004). His life of crimes can overall be attributed to his “pathological upbringing” (Block, 2004, p. 92).


Excitation transfer theory refers to past arousal on subsequent emotional responses (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). The lag time between autonomic adjustment and subjectively feeling a normal level of arousal is called residual transfer (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). “Lacking environmental cues about the actual source of this residual arousal, it is misattributed to a subsequent stimulus, resulting in an intensification of the individual’s experience of the new stimulus” (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993, p. 507). An actual example of this is if a person is aroused by military troops on television and then sees an actual member of the military then they may react aggressively towards the military member even if he had nothing to do with what the person saw on television earlier (Breen & Matusitz, 2009). This theory can explain aggression in a person committing crime, which Gein had a lot of (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993).


Excitation transfer theory can be used to describe Edward Gein’s crimes. This is because Ed’s crimes progressively became worse which could be attributed to him misattributing the environmental cue of the cause of crime. Personality may relate to his excitation through the excitatory or experiential components of emotional experience (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). In Ed’s case he had an introverted personality which means he could become more aroused than an extrovert (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). An introverted personality describes someone who keeps to themselves which Ed did. With his high levels of arousal, the introduction of residual arousal will be more effective on his conscious awareness than if he had lower levels of arousal (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). Arousal transfer occurs when a person is experiencing an emotion they have not really experienced before (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). Introverts are more experienced with negative stimuli (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). Ed is experienced with negative stimuli because he grew up in an abusive, incest house and had no friends except for his mother which can be seen as negative (Block, 2004). Due to this experience with negative stimuli, Ed would be expected to misattribute residual arousal for a positive stimulus (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). Edward had an unhealthy attachment to his mother (LaBrode, 2007). When his mother died that triggered an excitation transfer because her death was associated to a positive stimuli. Edward would have been aroused by how his mother treated him in the past and then seeing women that reminded him of his mother would have caused him to take out his aggression on them even though they were not his mother. Expectancy theory could also be used to describe Edward’s crimes. Expectancy theory can be described as “the potential of the occurrence of a behavior is considered to be a function of the expectancy that that behavior will lead to a particular reinforcement” (Rotter, 1971, p. 445). An example of this is if someone trusts their friend with a secret then they are expecting them to keep that secret and not tell anybody to ensure they can be relied on as a friend, and hopefully can be relied on in turn (Rotter, 1971). A criminal may believe by behaving a particular way that they will the emotional or physical reinforcement they are looking for (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). A person will usually act violent because they committed a violent act in the past and it got them what they wanted (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). The criminal could have also watched someone in the past behave violently and get what they wanted which lets the prospective person know that they will get what they want if they behave a McNeil, 4 certain way (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). Expectancy theory can contribute to the explanation of the criminal lifestyle of Edward Gein.


Expectancy theory can be applied to Gein’s situation because he could have learned aggression from watching how his parents behaved (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). His father was a drunk that could attribute to an aggressive nature, his mother was aggressive and took advantage of him as well so he likely thought aggression was normal (Block, 2004). It was also expected that he had already killed his brother which could have been because he expected by killing him he would get all of his mother’s attention. Ed was expecting to feel power from killing and necrophilia; essentially he was substituting his victims for the real abuser (Fox & Levin, 2014). He couldn’t kill his mother because she was already dead but the excitement he got from her dying triggered him to pursue his emotions. He saw women as powerful because of his upbringing and his desire to feel powerful was prominent as he dressed up in the skins of women (Fox & Levin, 2014). He tried to pose as his mother when he was caught because he wanted to be seen as a powerful woman rather than a submissive boy (Fox & Levin, 2014). Expectancy theory therefore is accurately able to depict the reasoning behind Edward’s crimes.


Why did it take two years after his mother’s death before Ed began to kill? It was possible that the second anniversary of her death triggered his inner criminal. At first he would have grieved; then he would have realized the arousal he felt from his mother dying but would have misattributed the stimulus of his mother’s death to sex with older women. With his mother being gone, it gave him excitement so he expected by dominating women who reminded him of his mother would give him the excitement and power that his mother’s death gave him. His mother’s death could be seen as giving Gein power because he could finally make his own decisions rather than relying on her.


Other theories did not seem like they would accurately describe Gein’s crimes, which is why excitation transfer theory and expectation theory were used. An example of a theory that would not have been exceptional at describing Ed’s crimes would be displaced aggression theory. This theory describes when aggression is taken out on a target that is at wrong place at wrong time, which may be argued is what happened to the unlucky women in Ed’s case (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). However, Ed only selected women who looked like his mother rather than randomly taking out aggression on someone he saw walking down the street (Block, 2004). When he chose them they were dead because of how they looked and not because they annoyed him like this theory states (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). Coercion development theory does not describe Edward’s situation well either because even though the role of parenting defiantly played a role in Ed’s crimes, they did not cause him to participate in coercive behaviours as a child (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). Gein letting other children bully him shows that he was not an aggressive, trouble maker child (Block, 2004). Differential Association reinforcement theory could in fact be used though as it describes a person’s social environment as the grounds of learning deviant acts through interpersonal actions (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). Edward’s only friend was his mother who was abusive which attributed to him learning deviant acts (LaBrode, 2007). However, it was not used because it is too “ambiguous” (Bartol & Bartol, 2014, p. 90). Therefore excitation transfer theory and expectation theory are the best theories to use when examining Gein’s crimes.


In conclusion, both excitation transfer theory and expectancy theory can be used to explain the reasoning behind Edward Gein’s crimes. Excitation transfer theory states that Ed committed crime because he associated his mother’s death with a positive stimulus but misattributed this stimulus with necrophilia and murder (Bunce, Larsen, & Cruz, 1993). Expectancy theory shows that Ed committed murder because he wanted to be in power (Rotter, 1971). Other theories such as displaced aggression theory and coercion development theory are two examples of theories that would not be appropriate to explain Ed’s crimes. Differential association theory could have been used to describe Ed’s criminal life but the theories validity was questionable (Bartol & Bartol, 2014). Therefore, excitation transfer theory and expectancy theory are both valid routes to explaining Edward Gein’s criminal history.


Works Cited

Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2014). Criminal Behavior a Psychological Approach (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.


Block, L. (2004). Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers, and Thieves: The Lives and Crimes of Fifty American Villains. USA: Oxford University Press.


Breen, G.-M., & Matusitz, J. (2009). Excitation Transfer Theory: An Analysis of the Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse Scandal. Journal of Applied Security Research, 4(3), 309-321.


Bunce, S. C., Larsen, R. J., & Cruz, M. (1993). Individual Differences in the Excitation Transfer Effect. Personality and Individual Differences, 15(5), 501-514.


Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (2014). Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.


LaBrode, R. T. (2007). Etiology of the Psychopathic Serial Killer: An Analysis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, Psychopathy, and Serial Killer Personality and Crime Scene Characteristics. Brief Treatment & Crisis Intervention, 7(2), 151-160.


Rotter, J. B. (1971). Generalized Expectancies for interpersonal Trust. American Psychologist, 26(5), 443-452.

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