The public has long been fascinated by behavioral analysis, and Criminal Minds - which reached over 300 episodes and has aired for 14 years - shows people exactly what they want to see. It makes for riveting television, but the real work of behavioral analysts is much more complex.
That's not to say Criminal Minds is completely inaccurate - some of the show's cases are based off real serial killers - but behavioral analysis is a little less exciting than it's made out to be. For instance, rather than working in the field, behavioral analysts and criminal psychologists spend most of their time poring over reports created by law enforcement. They also only work on a handful of cases per year, each of which takes them weeks or months to complete.
Becoming a behavioral psychologist with the FBI is a long and hard road, but it's what makes those agents exceptional at their jobs. Profiling techniques have improved over time, and now involve careful scientific analysis as well as psychology. Still, there are problems with the field, leading some to question its effectiveness.
Within the FBI, there is no title known as a "profiler" as depicted on Criminal Minds. They're known either as behavioral analysts or criminal psychologists.
According to Mark A. Hilts, a real-life agent with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), these analysts focus on a criminal's motivations and the meaning behind what police discover at crime scenes:
We’ve done research and interviewed serial killers to understand why they do what they do so that we can help determine how we can catch them. That’s really the perspective that we bring is that behavioral side of the investigation.
Those in the BAU have seen more unusual and violent cases than local police officers, so their expertise is often invaluable.
FBI criminal profiler John Douglas and his colleague Robert Ressler categorized serial killers into two categories: organized and disorganized. The organized killer plans carefully and carries out their crimes in a specific manner. The disorganized killer attacks randomly and may leave something behind that makes them easier to catch.
When psychologists at the University of Liverpool tested this theory, however, they didn't find evidence for the veracity of those two categories. The crimes they studied had elements of both organization and disorganization. They reached the conclusion that the crimes of serial killers are complex and can't be categorized into two groups.
The youngest behavioral analyst on Criminal Minds, Dr. Spencer Reid, is 24 in Season 1. Billed as a child prodigy, he has six degrees. But to be a behavioral analyst, he would have had to be hired by the FBI at around 15. BAU agents have to work at the bureau for at least seven years, in addition to a couple of years of training.
On the show, the FBI recruited Reid at the age of 22.
The BAU receives very few cases per year when compared with the number of crimes that occur across the US. Behavioral analyst Mark A. Hilts estimates that an agent sees approximately a dozen serial murders annually. They call in experts in all fields and evaluate their cases carefully to prepare a report detailing the department's conclusions and recommendations for law enforcement.
Behavioral analysts spend weeks or months reviewing cases, whereas the analysts on Criminal Minds wrap up theirs rather quickly. Being an analyst involves mostly desk work, and agents seldom enter the field unless absolutely necessary.