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What Motivates Stalkers?: The Purpose Behind the Pursuit

Research on stalking reveals the fuel that kindles dangerous fire.

Key points

  • A critical factor underlying the persistence of stalking behavior is sentimental, ruminative thinking.
  • Stalking behavior is often motivated by the desire to establish or re-establish contact.
  • One of the best practices to end stalking behavior is a solid No. Period.
Image by Antonio López from Pixabay
Source: Image by Antonio López from Pixabay

Having prosecuted stalking cases for almost 30 years, I can share what survivors and their friends and families already know: Stalking is an insidious crime that often flies under the radar and is significantly underreported. Although it does not result in physical marks, stalking behavior inflicts trauma through emotional abuse and pain. Victims can help us understand the dynamics of stalking by sharing their experiences. But actual stalkers can too.

Why Stalkers Stalk

Cristina Civilotti and colleagues (2023) sought to explore why stalkers stalk by asking actual stalkers.[i] In their study evaluating 14 detained male stalkers, they discovered the men had difficulty linking mental status and behaviors and ruminative thinking, with a “recurrent sense of injustice” as well as mental processes that were distorted, as well as a low state of awareness of the mental state of themselves or others.

Their research discussed some important aspects of stalking behavior. Civilotti and colleagues note that a critical factor underlying the persistence of stalking behavior is ruminative thinking. They describe rumination as repetitive self-focused thoughts linked with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, less effective problem-solving, and enhanced recall of negative memories: all characteristics associated with stalkers.

Further, Civilotti and colleagues note that distorted thinking patterns in people who engage in stalking behavior is an obsessive rumination of a sentimental type, focused on a victim who becomes the stalker’s focus. They explain that a stalker’s thoughts and behaviors toward the target are motivated by the objective and desire to establish or re-establish contact, a goal that becomes obsessive to the extent that personal worth and happiness become dependent on its attainment. They note that in contrast to most people, who move on after being rejected, stalkers intensify the pursuit, convinced that at some point, he or she will receive a positive response from the victim.

Unfortunately, as many stalking victims find out the hard way, it doesn’t take much to signal a “positive” response.

Attempts to Dissuade Pursuit

Stalking victims, especially if they know the stalker, may try to stop the behavior themselves. Some try to “be nice” and try to reason with the pursuer, or otherwise attempt to talk the stalker into ending his or her behavior. These techniques are not effective because they involve contact—which is often the stalker’s goal, regardless of how hard they must try. If a victim answers the thirtieth phone call or text message, the stalker learns it takes 30 tries to reach the victim. Instead of engaging in any type of reciprocity, a solid, unequivocal, firm No followed by zero contact is the best practice.

Victims can also find assistance from law enforcement, health care professionals, supportive friends and family, and workplace threat assessment teams. By understanding stalking behavior, as well as best practices to stay safe and where to seek help, we can work together as a community to protect each other.


[i] Civilotti, Cristina, Chiara Sciascia, Eugenia Li Volsi, Marta Rosato, Rebecca Giampaolo, and Daniela Acquadro Maran. 2023. “Cognitive Mechanisms in a Sample of Detained Stalkers: Evaluation of Dissociative Tendencies, Impaired Reflective Function, and Ruminative Thought.” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, Self-Reflection and Self-Rumination in Clinical Situations, 10 (1): 62–75. doi:10.1037/cns0000303.

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