Can Mental Screening Predict Mass Murder?

Jeremy Hsu, TechNewsDaily Senior Writer
Can Mental Screening Predict Mass Murder?
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A "Minority Report" technology to predict murder remains wishful science fiction thinking. But a mass shooting that killed at least 20 children and 8 adults at a school in Newton, Conn. once again raises the question of what technological tools, if any, can help predict or prevent such tragedies by identifying troubled individuals.

Psychologists say that predicting the intent among individuals to commit mass murder remains incredibly difficult, if not impossible — especially with mass killings having many different patterns and representing rare events. TechNewsDaily previously spoke with an expert on psychopaths who explained the challenges despite his optimism in using psychological screening.

"If you study 100,000 people, three might go out and kill someone else," said Kent Kiehl, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of New Mexico. "There's really not a good way to predict that single individual."

Kiehl previously spoke regarding a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to predict a person's state of mind related to suicide and murder. The DARPA project focused on preventing suicides among U.S. military members, but it also considered the idea of predicting the intent to murder. [Military Wants 'Minority Report' for Suicide Prevention]

A combination of screening tools could identify people most at risk of violence and allow psychologists to begin helping them earlier, Kiehl said. Regular screenings with a questionnaire or interview could act as the first screening stage, so that individuals who trigger a red flag might undergo additional screening with neurocognitive computer tests and games.

The third screening step for individuals identified as being most at-risk could use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure electrical brain waves, or use brain imaging such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners. Such technologies can provide a more detailed analysis of what goes on in the brain to help mental health professionals treat individuals.

Predictions of at-risk individuals might also improve if psychologists could access more information about their personal lives — a way to keep an eye on risk factors such as divorces, bankruptcy or living in an unstable home.

But ordinary Americans would have to agree to the idea of undergoing psychological screening on a semi-regular basis. They would also have to give up additional privacy if they wanted psychologists to examine broader risk factors in their personal lives for the sake of improving predictions.

In any case, Kiehl and other mental health professionals don't envision screening technologies providing a "yes" or "no" answer to the question of whether an individual will snap and carry out a mass killing spree. Instead, they emphasize that screening would provide quicker attention for people suffering from mental illness — regardless of whether those people would end up committing violence or not.

This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow TechNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @jeremyhsu. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.

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