Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer: Mindhunter and the Psychopathic Personality

Dustin B. Wygant, Ph.D., EKU professor of psychology

Netflix weighed into the crowded true crime genre in 2017 with the release of its show, Mindhunter, which is based on the book by FBI agent John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. The first season of the show highlighted the early work by the FBI in profiling incarcerated serial killers (even coining the term along the way).

Although sensationalized, the show was quite accurate in how it portrayed the subject matter and the psychological nuances of the serial killers (particularly Edmund Kemper).  Shows like Mindhunter bring to life the twisted psychological landscape of those few among us who wreak such havoc.  They accurately portray the psychopathic personality, which back in the 1970s lacked the assessment methods that we have today to study the psychological profile of serial killers. 

Today, the field of criminal psychology, is armed with more sophisticated approaches to operationalizing psychopathy.  We have instruments such as the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), developed by Dr. Robert Hare, and the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised (PPI-R), developed by Dr. Scott Lilienfeld. Instruments such as the PCL-R and PPI-R have led to an explosion of research that is pushing the boundaries of science in understanding psychopathy, particularly in the area of neuroscience.  We are learning a great deal about the neurobiological underpinnings of psychopathy and the role that genetics and environment play in this condition. 

As a psychologist interested in understanding the psychopathic personality, I watch shows like Mindhunter with a sense of amusement and appreciation, knowing that understanding these conditions often starts with talking to those who have them, and that means, you’re going to be visiting prisons!

Published on September 07, 2018