Ep. 161: The Real Life Implications of Pop Culture's Fascination with the Dubious Science of “Criminal Profiling”

Criminal Minds. Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer. Inside the Criminal Mind. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.

Each of these is the title of a series, fictional or otherwise, or documentary that relies on the work of so-called criminal profilers. They’re all premised, more or less, on the same idea: That the ability to venture inside the mind of an individual who’s committed a horrific act of violence–say, serial murder, rape, or kidnapping–is the key to figuring out why that crime happened in the first place. This theory may sound promising at first blush; after all, the highest echelons of law enforcement in the US continue to use criminal profiling tactics to this day.

But the reality is that, despite their prevalence in law enforcement both onscreen and off, criminal profiling techniques are largely ineffective, and in many ways, dangerous. Failing to consider institutional factors such as a culture of violence and easy access to weapons, patriarchy, austerity and other social ills that contribute to and reinforce violent crime, criminal profiling focuses almost exclusively on individual experiences and psychological makeup. Meanwhile, it categorizes “criminals” not as people who’ve been shaped by this social conditioning, but as neuro-deviants whose psychological anatomy is just different from yours or mine.

On this episode, we examine the history of the practice of criminal profiling in the West; how the FBI and entertainment industry work in tandem to glamorize the profession, despite its harms; what the actual effectiveness of profiling is; and how it serves as yet another form of Hollywood copaganda.

Our guests are Thomas MacMillan and Chris Fabricant.