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Professor Searches for Humanity in Serial Killers

Published March 26, 2019

On the second floor of the ET building on campus, you might hear soothing, meditative music floating down the hallway. The source of that music is an inviting office and a welcoming professor with a surprising expertise: Serial killers.

Dr. Robert Schug is an associate professor of criminology, criminal justice and forensic psychology in CSULB's College of Health and Human Services, and it’s not uncommon to come across him or his work on crime-focused television programs and podcasts. His research interests include understanding criminal behavior and understanding the basis in the brain for criminal behavior. 

He’s quickly becoming one of the foremost in the field, but Schug was originally trained as a brain scientist. He began his career studying the brains of psychopaths. At some point down the line, Schug cross-trained as a clinical psychologist and it was through that training that he began to learn more about the psychological theories as well as methods of assessment and treatment for murderers, psychopaths, and serial killers.

In addition to teaching at CSULB, Schug has his own forensic psychology practice and performs assessments and evaluations for the courts of Los Angeles. Through that experience, he's able to bring real life examples and information into his classes and have meaningful lessons with students.

"It's a very exciting time to be doing this type of work," says Schug. "Because not only are we experiencing a boom in interest criminal cases, but people are ready for the next level - an elevated take on these cases, and I think that's understanding the ‘why’."

He's right.

You can't seem to take a step in any direction these days without hearing about the latest and greatest serial killer documentary or podcast - not to mention all of the prime time dramas that are very loosely (or not at all) based on real-life criminology.

But Schug says television shows and podcasts can sometimes fall victim to our sound bite culture, wherein the program needs to grab your interest immediately and repeatedly with salacious details to keep you invested. These criminal cases, in his experience, are far too complicated for a one-hour TV program and it’s clear that we're not getting the whole story when we don’t get the "why".

That's where Schug comes in, proudly and empathetically – to find the "why".

Some of Schug's research and work includes painstakingly plotting data points along a timeline of a serial killer's life, including psychological and physical trauma. To get those data points he often goes straight to the source: the serial killers themselves.

He frequently travels to penitentiaries and prisons to interview serial killers to find out more about them, their lives, and their minds hoping to find the tipping point that led to their crimes.

These timelines and data points can tell us what serial killers were facing in their lives when they began killing – potentially helping us identify commonalities that can lead to early detection, intervention, and treatment.

Perhaps the most surprising detail about Schug, considering the nature of his research, is that it immediately apparent that Schug approaches his work with an astounding level of empathy for others. You'd think interacting with the proverbial worst of the worst would cause someone to become callous, maybe even a little jaded against his subjects.

But Schug remains firmly rooted in the humanity of it all.

"As soon as people sense judgment and shame, they shut down," says Schug. "Humility and deference allow people to open up and that's how we learn the 'why' from their own mouths."

He makes it a point, repeatedly, that we're not all that different from serial killers; that there is a darkness inside of all of us. But the key difference will always lie in that elusive "why".

Schug digs for slivers of understanding in some of the darkest corners of humanity. But that personal empathy and willingness to understand is absolutely vital to his research and part of the reason he has become so renowned in the field.

Most recently, Schug lent his expertise to the famous Black Dahlia case by way of the Root of Evil podcast, which in turn has led to an appearance on Dr. Phil alongside the Hodel family airing this week.  

Keep your eye out for Dr. Schug, because without the “why” we're probably not even scratching the surface of these cases.


Catch Dr. Schug on Dr. Phil

Wednesday, March 27th at 3:00PM on KCBS.

Learn more about Dr. Schug's work.