What's the Difference Between a Killer's Signature and M.O.?

iStock/fergregory
iStock/fergregory

True crime shows, documentaries, and podcasts are everywhere these days, not to mention all the crime-focused movies and TV shows—like NBC's Law & Order: SVU, CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Netflix's Mindhunter. And you've probably heard terms like signature and M.O. being thrown around a lot without much explanation as to what they mean, or how they're different.

If you're confused about the difference between them, well, you’re not alone. As former FBI agent and behavioral analyst John Douglas notes in his book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (which the Netflix series is based on), "Both [signature and modus operandi] are extremely important concepts in criminal investigations analysis, and I have spent many hours on witness stands of courtrooms throughout the country trying to get judges and juries to understand the distinction between them."

Douglas, who was recently in New York to promote his new book, The Killer Across the Table: Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI's Original Mindhunter, out now, helped break down the difference between signature and M.O. for us.

M.O. stands for Modus Operandi, and, according to Douglas, it's a learned, dynamic behavior. "When a criminal starts perpetrating crimes, if something doesn't go right, he's got to perfect the M.O.," he tells Mental Floss. "He's got to get it better and better." In other words, unless an offender executes the perfect crime his first time out, he'll continue to tweak his M.O. as he goes. The method of committing the crime is modified for success. That's why, Douglas says, "you shouldn't link cases together strictly by modus operandi. … You don't do that because those characteristics could fit people that have nothing to do with the case as well."

But what you can use to link crimes together is an offender's signature, a term that Douglas says he coined. "A signature is a ritual—something [that] is done that is not necessary to perpetrate that particular crime," he says. "The signature is the ritual that is unique to the offender, and that's what you're looking for."

To demonstrate what he means, Douglas uses sports as an example. "It's like a baseball batter [who], before a ball comes in, does rituals," like touching his hat or cleats. "Or shooting a basketball: bounce it three times, [do a certain move], take the shot. It's not necessary to get it in the hoop or hit the ball, but in his mind he's got to do it. He's got to do it this way."

In Mindhunter, Douglas acknowledges that "the differences between M.O. and signature can be subtle." To demonstrate just how subtle, he compares two robbery cases. Both robbers made their captive undress; one "posed them in sexual positions, and took photographs of them" while the other did not take photos.

The latter made his hostages undress "so the eyewitnesses would be so preoccupied and embarrassed that they wouldn't be looking at him and so couldn't make a positive ID later on," Douglas writes. That's an example of M.O. The former robber is an example of a signature, because it wasn't something the offender had to do to rob the bank—and actually put him at risk of being caught, because he was in the bank longer. "It was something he clearly felt a need to do," Douglas writes.

Because the signature is unique to the offender, Douglas says that you can use it in trials: "A case in Washington state, the subject was posing the victims after he killed [them]. And all that was allowed for me to testify to."

There's one challenge with signatures, though. "You can only see it when it starts showing up in repetitive crimes," Douglas says. "You can't look at a single case and say, 'Oh, this was the signature.' Say the victim is posed—that may end up being the signature, but you've got to compare it to something, later on."

As criminology professor Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D., points out in a post for Psychology Today, "While every crime has an M.O., not all crimes have a signature." Now, whether you're listening to a true crime podcast or watching an episode of Mindhunter, you'll know the difference.

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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