Criminal Profiling: Granfalloons and Gobbledygook

By Snook, Brent; Gendreau, Paul et al. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Criminal Profiling: Granfalloons and Gobbledygook


Snook, Brent, Gendreau, Paul, Bennell, Craig, Taylor, Paul J., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


READING THE CLAIMS OF CRIMINAL PROFILERS and watching popular television programs like Criminal Minds can leave one with the impression that Criminal Profiling (CP)--the task of inferring demographic and personality details of an offender from his or her crime scene actions--is a well-practiced and reliable investigative technique. Over the past three decades, CP has gained tremendous popularity as a media topic, an academic area of study, and a tool for police investigations worldwide.

However, as we demonstrate in this article, the acceptance of CP by many police officers, profilers, and the public is at odds with the absence of scientific evidence to confirm its reliability or validity. We think this confusion has arisen for two related reasons. The first is that people have developed a biased picture of CP because they typically hear only about its glowing successes. The second, related, reason relates to what we know about cognition and the manner by which people process information, which typically serves to support the credibility of CP.

The 5 W's of Criminal Profiling

1. What is profiling? When CP was originally popularized by the FBI, a profile consisted primarily of a list of very basic characteristics (e.g., age, previous convictions) that were likely to be possessed by the unknown offender of the crime(s) under consideration. (1) Profiles were generally used to narrow a list of potential suspects, focus investigations, and construct interview strategies. (2) In more recent years, the potential forms that a profile can take and the ways in which it can be used within a criminal investigation have expanded to include suggestions regarding resource prioritization, case management, strategies for dealing with the media, and so on. (3) (To view a profile, see http://www. brgov.com/TaskForce/pdf/profile.pdf.) Notwithstanding these developments, the core focus of CP remains the derivation of inferences about an unknown offender's characteristics. Yet, a 2001 study regarding the content of criminal profiles found that only 25% of statements in profiles were inferences about offender characteristics. Of that 25%, 82% of the inferences were unsubstantiated, 55% were unverifiable, 24% were ambiguous, and 6% contained opposing alternatives. (4)

The specific process that profilers use to make their inferences appears to be shaped by their training. Profilers who emphasize a clinical/psychological perspective draw on their psychological training, knowledge and experience with criminal behavior, and possibly their intuition, as they make their inferences. At its worse, this type of CP appears to differ little from what "psychic detectives" allegedly do when helping law enforcement agencies catch criminals or find missing persons. (5) In fact, you can probably take any article or book written on psychic detectives and replace the term "psychic detective" with "criminal profiler" and the argument would continue to make perfect sense. By contrast, statistically oriented profilers claim to base their inferences on the statistical analysis of data, which comes from offenders who have previously committed crimes that are similar to those being investigated.

2. Who are profilers? Surprisingly, there is no consensus about who is qualified to be a profiler. Some have maintained that a profiler is anyone who labels themselves a profiler and has engaged in the practice of constructing a profile for a criminal investigation, (6) whereas others have argued that only individuals who have considerable investigative experience should be profilers. (7) Although some attempts have been made to regulate and accredit profilers (e.g., The International Criminal Investigative Analysis Fellowship), there is no recognized regulatory body that provides a professional CP designation. Thus, those presenting themselves as profiles may vary widely in their level of experience and education.

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