Greg Jarvis

In television, psychological thrillers are often hit-or-miss. The genre can often focus too much on eliciting a sudden startle or using CGI to create a scary creature, rather than telling a well-crafted story that grips our deepest human emotions. When done right, a psychological thriller can tell a story that you won’t soon forget.

Netflix’s recent series, Mindhunter, does more than tell a psychologically captivating story; its entire plot is based on the inner-workings of human psychology – particularly the minds of criminals in the early days of behavioral science.

While binge-watching the new season of Mindhunter has prompted a pre-bedtime habit of triple-checking that my doors are locked, it has also made me realize that criminal psychology and strategic communications have some natural similarities:

  1. Applied social science is at the heart of what we do.

The founder of modern strategic communications, Edward Bernays, called public relations an “applied” social science, in which psychology and media are combined to influence public opinion. Similarly, criminal psychology applies social and behavioral science to criminal investigations to help uncover facts and catch culprits.

Fun fact: Edward Bernays was actually the nephew of Sigmund Freud!

      2. It’s not just what you know, but how you learned it.

Consumer or audience insights are only valuable if backed by a science-based method. Just as Mindhunter’s FBI agents compile criminal profiles based on cognitive and behavioral theories, effective communications agencies must produce consumer and audience insights through proven, universally-accepted research methods.

      3. Empathy distinguishes the good from the great.

​​​​​​​The premise of Mindhunter, in a nutshell, is about understanding the person behind a crime – their thought processes, behaviors, and motivations. At its core, communications is about the same thing. Yes, Mindhunter is about understanding individuals like Charles Manson rather than consumers or thought leaders, but the best firms can leverage understanding of human psychology to craft strategies that effectively engage audiences.

The producers of Mindhunter have mastered something we do every day: making something stick with the audience. Sometimes that message sticks so strongly that it causes viewers, like me, to check the locks in my apartment long after the credits roll. If you’re a strategic communications professional and you haven’t watched Mindhunter, I’d strongly recommend it (just prepare to be thoroughly unsettled). The show not only entertains, it teaches us about the underpinnings of our work and can help us become better, more thoughtful communicators.