Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Culture

Dr. Phil's List of Myths

"Dr. Phil" McGraw rose to fame when Oprah Winfrey spotlighted him as an advice guru.  Eventually, he got a daytime spin-off show of his own.  Yet he didn't limit it to mere advice for common problems in families and relationships; he decided to take on more serious issues, such as the causal factors in criminality specifically serial killers.  Not being versed in criminology himself, he made statements that provoked genuine experts to react and media sources to report a rather startling story about his techniques.  Before we look at the incident, let's get some background.

On the Web site for Dr. Phil's program, he lists the so-called "Fourteen Characteristics of a Serial Killer."  He derived the list, he indicates, from the work of former FBI profiler Robert Ressler, but does not provide sufficient reference information to look it up.  Yet it's clear that the list refers to work done during the 1980s, based on a prison study of 36 murderers (not all of them serial killers) that Ressler did with John Douglas.  That work has been updated, with many items changed and much data added, but Dr. Phil seems unaware of this fact.  While it was a seminal study when it was presented in 1984, criminalists today are aware of its severe limitations: all of the subjects in the study were self-selected killers willing to speak to the FBI, they were primarily American, and they were mostly articulate.  All of them were white and male, and most were sadistic lust killers.  Thus, a list of their collective traits would hardly be representative of serial killers as a whole.  (In fact, the list only contained ten items, not fourteen.)  Schechter offers the ten-item list in The Serial Killer Files, points out the limitations, and states, "There are many other serial killers who possess different characteristics." 

Book cover:  Family First
Book cover: Family First

When McGraw hosted his "Family First" prime time special on September 22, 2004, on CBS, he examined social problems based in family issues.  In particular, he looked at how someone might unknowingly raise a criminal.  He informed the parents, who had come to him with a nine-year-old son whom they could not control, that the boy exhibited "nine of the fourteen traits common to serial killers."  To add emphasis, he said that Jeffrey Dahmer only had seven.  (Note: when one looks at the list that Dr. Phil published, Dahmer in fact, shows nine, possibly ten).

The list includes such outdated ideas that serial killers

  • tend to be intelligent
  • were raised by domineering mothers
  • are overwhelmingly male (about 15% to 18% are female)
  • come from criminal families
  • wet their beds beyond age 12
  • love starting fires

McGraw reassured the horrified parents that this did not mean their child would actually become a killer, but there had to be some intervention.  They would have to make sacrifices to spend more time with the child and achieve a healthier balance. 

This show was controversial for many reasons.  First, to tell parents on national television that they're possibly raising a killer is startling and disturbing in its potential for humiliation.  (Ann Hulbert, in a review of McGraw's book, calls him "abusive.")  Then, to ignore all the work done on psychopathy and serial killers in order to offer simplistic solutions appeared to criminologists to be strikingly ignorant.  While Dr. Phil may have derived his "list" from a renowned former FBI profiler, this was clearly a superficial approach to a desperately complex problem.  But television is about entertainment, not therapy, and it's not the only medium to latch onto the public's fascination with multiple murders as a way to gain an audience.


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