Often times when the FBI is looking for a serial killer, they will begin building a criminal profile to help narrow down suspects. This is seen throughout pop culture, but it is a very real, practical tactic (with some pitfalls) that is used regularly in law enforcement. For many people there is no rhyme or reason behind what could make someone commit heinous and senseless murders like the types seen in true crime documentaries. But some people, professional and amateur alike, dedicate their lives to studying serial killers and trying to understand their motives. The data found with these studies can be used to build the criminal profiles that ultimately help catch killers. In theory though, is it possible these studies could be pushed even further? If a psychological profile can be built to catch a serial killer at large, is it possible to build one that might identify serial killers before they become a danger to society?
When it comes to criminal profiling, the proactive version is one that should be approached carefully. After all, it’s easy to see how harmful it would be to label someone a danger before they’ve done anything wrong. I recently wrote about how crime-mapping, which largely bases its predictions for crime on location and time, can lead to trouble. Increasingly, police are using these sorts of predictive AI to help them determine criminal patterns in their neighborhoods. Applying the concept to people rather than places may prove to be far more problematic. Nonetheless, people have tried to do it.
Crime Museum has identified a number of early signs that they consider to be indicative of someone who is at risk of becoming a serial killer, or are linked with future violent behaviors. The early warning signs are broken down into extreme antisocial behavior (including patterns of lying, aggressive behavior, and irresponsibility), a tendency towards voyeurism, a fascination with arson, and intentional animal abuse. On their own, each of these is an issue that should be addressed if a child is participating in them. Taken all together, serious intervention may be needed. While it may be ill-advised to jump to labeling them as a “future serial killer,” there is merit to recognizing dangerous behavioral patterns and helping people who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.
There is also some science behind the idea that some people may be more likely to become a serial killer than others. In pop culture, some have referred to this pre-disposition towards aggressive and violent behavior as the “serial killer gene.” In truth, there are no specific genes that unite all serial killers. However, there have been several studies done to try and link genetics with criminal activity, some of which do show that there are correlations between certain genetic conditions and aggression. Sanjana Korpal, a blogger for the University of California, San Diego, writes, “there’s no ‘serial killer’ gene–there’s a gene that can influence someone’s level of aggression and emotional control.” But they also emphasize the importance of environment, socio-economic group, and exposure to trauma.
The good news is that even of those with a genetic pre-disposition, very few actually become serial killers. The bad news is that this means you never know who might actually become one—early warning signs or not.