4 Suspect Historical Theories for Predicting Criminality

When was the last time you looked a stranger in the face and made a snap judgment about how they behave? If you've graduated kindergarten, you know you're not supposed to. But for centuries, scientists and philosophers believed that physical traits corresponded to personality. Even Aristotle thought there was a connection between the book and its cover.

Today, physiognomy—as the study of facial features linked to personality became known—is considered a pseudoscience, but it was the first application of any science at all to criminology. Some argue that it helped pave the way for the development of forensics and tools like psychological profiling; others point out that attempts to link biology to criminal behavior are often deeply problematic, and have been used to justify discrimination against various ethnic and religious groups.

Controversial though they may be, theories linking biology to criminal behavior have not gone away. From skull shape to body types, here are some of the ways we've tried to use what's on the surface to unearth the monsters underneath.

1. PHRENOLOGY

As a young man in late 18th-century Vienna, physician Franz Josef Gall wondered why his classmates were so good at memorization while he struggled. And why did he surpass them in other areas? After noticing that those who were particularly skilled at memorization had prominent eyes, he spent years searching for a biological explanation for differences in mental characteristics. Eventually, he landed on a theory that aimed to explain all human behavior.

Gall based his theory, soon to be known as phrenology, on the notion that the brain was composed of 27 separate “faculties,” or organs, each responsible for a behavioral trait—benevolence, covetousness, arrogance, and wit, just to name a few. He believed that the size of an organ was correlated to its power and that the skull took its shape from the brain. As such, by examining the shape of the skull one could determine personality. Eventually, Gall's followers introduced the idea that people were born with their faculties in balance and were essentially good, but under- or over- development, diseases of, or damage to any of these faculties could cause an imbalance that would lead to a particular behavior.

Phrenology soon took off in Europe and then in North America. It wasn't long until Gall's acolytes were applying his principles to the study of criminality, examining the skulls of criminals for clues about their personality and publishing books and treatises that showed others how to do the same. For phrenologists, crime was a result of an overgrowth or other anomaly in a particular faculty—say, destructiveness.

By attributing behavior to a brain defect, phrenology broke with existing notions of deviant behavior. Pre-Enlightenment theory had held that such behavior was the result of “evil” or supernatural forces. During the Enlightenment, free will reigned supreme, and criminality was seen as an exercise of that will, the only deterrent for which was severe punishment. Phrenology removed free will from the equation. While those with “normal” faculties could commit crimes based on free will and should be punished accordingly, the habitually criminal were not necessarily responsible for their actions—they behaved the way they did because of mental disorder, one which could be addressed and treated. It's no coincidence that phrenologists were among the most vocal opponents of capital and corporal punishment and major proponents of rehabilitation in the middle of the 19th century.

Phrenology declined in popularity in the second half of the 19th century, although it persisted into the 20th century in some areas. For a brief moment, it was the first and most comprehensive scientific approach we had to criminology.

2. DEGENERATION

A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889
A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889

Sometimes called the “father of criminology,” Italian physician Cesare Lombroso spent much of his career examining the bodies (both dead and alive) of convicted criminals and the mentally ill. The army doctor and professor of psychiatry was struck by both Darwin's theories and the work of Italian evolutionists during the 1860s, and evolution greatly influenced his later work.

Like Gall, Lombroso experienced a “eureka” moment while making a minute examination of a human head—only in his case, it was the skull of the recently deceased thief and arsonist Giuseppe Villella. Villella had a small indentation at the back of his skull; unusual for a human, but common in some primates. Lombroso noticed the trait in a few other crooks, and theorized that criminals were in fact some evolutionary throwback to primitive humans. He began to argue that deviance was inherited in many of these “born delinquents,” and they could be differentiated from the masses by physical characteristics that he claimed resembled our primate ancestors: large jaws, jug ears, high cheekbones, bloodshot eyes, to name a few attributes. Behavioral traits like idleness and non-biological features like tattoos could also be a sign.

Lombroso ran experiments on prisoners, the insane, and even low-lifes he wrangled from Italian alleyways. He took measurements of their bodies and features and tested their blood pressure, pain resistance, and reaction to other stimuli. Over the years, he established a set of features associated with different types of crime. His theory, known as degeneration, laid the foundation for a systematic approach to crime and even punishment. Like the phrenologists, Lombroso and his acolytes argued against capital punishment for those whose degeneration was not particularly advanced but triggered by an environmental factor—they were to be treated rather than locked up.

While wildly popular during his lifetime (he even argued the merits of his theory with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy while visiting the writer's home), Lombroso's ideas faded from prominence as sociological theories of crime became more popular at the turn of the 20th century. Besides his emphasis on a scientific approach to criminology, his legacy consists of a museum in Turin stocked with the skulls and other ephemera he collected throughout his career ... along with the good doctor's own head, preserved in a jar.

3. SOMATOTYPES

Body type is blamed for a lot these days—a propensity for obesity, jeans that don't fit quite right. But in the early 20th century, an American psychologist named William Sheldon looked a little deeper.

Sheldon examined some 4000 photographs of college students and distilled their bodies into three categories, or somatotypes: endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs. Endomorphs were soft, round, and put on fat easily; they were also amiable, relaxed, and extroverted. Mesomorphs were hard, muscular, and broad-chested; they were also assertive, aggressive, and insensitive. Finally, ectomorphs were long, narrow, and fragile-looking; they were also more introverted and anxious. Bodies fell into a spectrum defined by the degree to which they exhibited each of these three traits.

In a study of 200 delinquent youths, Sheldon concluded that mesomorphs had the greatest predisposition for impulsive (and thus perhaps criminal) behavior. While his work was criticized for its methodology, Sheldon did attract more than a few students, some of whom modified his theory to include social pressures; for example, it was possible that society treated people with certain physical characteristics a certain way, thereby encouraging delinquency.

4. XYY SYNDROME

XYY syndrome karyotype
An XYY syndrome karyotype

In 1961, a 44-year-old man underwent genetic testing after discovering his child had Down syndrome. The test results surprised his doctor—the man had an extra Y chromosome. Over the following decades, further testing revealed that XYY syndrome, as it became known, was rather common, appearing in men at a rate of 1 in 1000.

In 1965, when a study from a Scottish institution for people with dangerous, violent, or criminal propensities reported a high frequency of XYY syndrome among its population, scientists and the media alike began to wonder if that extra chromosome somehow caused violence and aggression in men. XYY was used as a defense in the trial of a French murderer, and has been brought up in regard to the case of Richard Speck, the student nurse killer of Chicago, though he turned out not to have the extra Y. Books and TV shows featured XYY killers even into the 1990s.

But what does the science say? While men with XYY syndrome tend to be taller, more active, and have a greater chance of having learning or behavioral problems, there's been no evidence showing a decrease in intelligence or a higher propensity for violence or aggression. In fact, most XYY men are unaware of their genetic quirk and blend perfectly well into the rest of the population. While two Dutch studies did show an increase in criminal convictions among XYY men, researchers have posited that this could be explained away based on socioeconomic variables that have also been linked to the chromosome aberrations.

For now, the XYY theory remains just a theory—as well as a convenient plot device.

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. MAKING A MURDERER (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it's returning for a second season on October 19th.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. THE STAIRCASE (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's recent addition of new episodes earlier this year led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you'll want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. EVIL GENIUS (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck would detonate, as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

How Polygraphs Work—And Why They Aren't Admissible in Most Courts

iStock/Sproetniek
iStock/Sproetniek

The truth about lie detectors is that we all really want them to work. It would be much easier if, when police were faced with two contradictory versions of a single event, there was a machine that could identify which party was telling the truth. That’s what the innovators behind the modern-day polygraph set out to do—but the scientific community has its doubts about the polygraph, and all over the world, it remains controversial. Even its inventor was worried about calling it a "lie detector."

AN OFF-DUTY INVENTION

In 1921, John Larson was working as a part-time cop in Berkeley, California. A budding criminologist with a Ph.D. in physiology, Larson wanted to make police investigations more scientific and less reliant on gut instinct and information obtained from "third degree" interrogations.

Building on the work of William Moulton Marston, Larson believed that the act of deception was accompanied by physical tells. Lying, he thought, makes people nervous, and this could be identified by changes in breathing and blood pressure. Measuring these changes in real-time might serve as a reliable proxy for spotting lies.

Improving upon previously developed technologies, Larson created a device that simultaneously recorded changes in breathing patterns, blood pressure, and pulse. The device was further refined by his younger colleague, Leonarde Keeler, who made it faster, more reliable, and portable and added a perspiration test.

Within a few months, a local newspaper ​convinced Larson to publicly test his invention on a man suspected of killing a priest. Larson's machine, which he called a cardio-pneumo psychogram, indicated the suspect’s guilt; the press dubbed the invention a lie detector.

Despite the plaudits, Larson would become skeptical about his machine’s ability to reliably detect deception—especially in regards to Keeler’s methods which amounted to “a psychological third-degree." He was concerned that the polygraph had never matured into anything beyond a glorified stress-detector, and believed that American society had put too much faith in his device. Toward the end of his life, he would refer to it as “a Frankenstein’s monster, which I have spent over 40 years in combating.”

But Keeler, who patented the machine, was much more committed to the lie-detection project, and was eager to see the machine implemented widely to fight crime. In 1935, results of Keeler’s polygraph test were admitted for the first time as evidence in a jury trial—and secured a conviction.

HOW IT WORKS

In its current form, the polygraph test measures changes in respiration, perspiration, and heart rate. Sensors are strapped to the subject's fingers, arm, and chest to report on real-time reactions during interrogation. A spike on these parameters indicates nervousness, and potentially points to lying.

To try to eliminate false-positives, the test ​relies on "control questions."

In a murder investigation, for instance, a suspect may be asked relevant questions such as, "Did you know the victim?" or "Did you see her on the night of the murder?" But the suspect will also be asked broad, stress-inducing control questions about general wrongdoing: "Did you ever take something that doesn't belong to you?" or "Did you ever lie to a friend?" The purpose of the control questions is to be vague enough to make every innocent subject anxious (who hasn't ever lied to a friend?). Meanwhile, a guilty subject is likely to be more worried about answering the relevant questions.

This difference is what the polygraph test is about. According to the American Psychological Association, “A pattern of greater physiological response to relevant questions than to control questions leads to a diagnosis of ‘deception.’” They proclaim that, "Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies."

But a diagnosis of deception doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has actually lied. A polygraph test doesn’t actually detect deception directly; it only shows stress, which was why Larson fought so hard against it being categorized as a "lie detector." Testers have a variety of ways to infer deception (like by using control questions), but, according to the American Psychological Association, the inference process is “structured, but unstandardized” and should not be referred to as “lie detection.”

And so, the validity of the results remains a subject of debate. Depending on whom you ask, the reliability of the test ranges from near-certainty to a coin toss. The American Polygraph Association claims the test has an almost 90 percent accuracy rate. But many psychologists—and even some ​police officers—contend that the test is ​biased toward finding liars and has a 50 percent chance of hitting a false-positive for honest people.

NOT QUITE THE SAME AS FINGERPRINTS

Most countries have traditionally been skeptical about the polygraph test and only a handful have incorporated it into their legal system. The test remains most popular in the United States, where many police departments rely on it to extract confessions from suspects. (In 1978, former CIA director Richard Helms argued that that's because "Americans are not very good at" lying.)

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings on the question of whether polygraph tests should be admitted as evidence in criminal trials. Before Larson’s invention, courts treated lie-detection tests with suspicion. In a 1922 case, a judge prohibited the results of a pre-polygraph lie detector from being presented at trial, worrying that the test, despite its unreliability, could have an unwarranted sway on a jury’s opinion.

Then, after his polygraph results secured a conviction in a 1935 murder trial (through prior agreement between the defense and prosecution), Keeler—Larson’s protégé—asserted that “the findings of the lie detector are as acceptable in court as fingerprint testimony.”

But numerous court rulings have ensured that this won’t be the case. Though the technology of the polygraph has continued to improve and the questioning process has become more systematic and standardized, scientists and legal experts remained divided on the device's efficacy.

A 1998 Supreme Court ruling ​concluded that as long as that’s the case, the risk of false positives is too high. The polygraph test, the court concluded, enjoys a scientific “aura of infallibility,” despite the fact “there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable,” and ruled that passing the test cannot be seen as proof of innocence. Accordingly, taking the test must remain voluntary, and its results must never be presented as conclusive.

Most importantly: The court left it up to the states to decide whether the test can be presented in court at all. Today, 23 states allow polygraph tests to be admitted as evidence in a trial, and many of those states require the agreement of both parties.

Critics of the polygraph test claim that even in states where the test can't be used as evidence, law enforcers often use it as a tool to ​bully suspects into giving confessions that then can be admitted.

“It does tend to make people frightened, and it does make people confess, even though it cannot detect a lie,” Geoff Bunn, a psychology professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, told The Daily Beast.

But despite criticism—and despite an entire ​industry of former investigators offering to teach individuals how to beat the test—the polygraph is still used ​widely in the United States, mostly in the process of job applications and security checks.

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