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An Overview of Criminal Profiling and Its Evolution

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“Criminal profiling is the process of using behavioral evidence left at a crime scene to make inferences about the offender, including inferences about personality characteristics and psychopathology” (Torres, Boccaccini, Miller, 2006). Law enforcement, psychologist, academics and consultants use criminal profiling as an investigation tool to help identify major personality and behavioral characteristics. “Psychiatrists and psychologists were major contributors to the early development of criminal profiling”. This essay will discuss how criminal profiling began, became popular and the misconception that it helps solve cases.

One of the earliest profiles developed was by psychiatrist William Langer on Adolf Hilter in 1943 and not published until 1972. Psychiatrist, David Brussel’s profile, in 1956 of the New York “Mad Bomber” is the most cited example of criminal profiling. In both of those profiles, the psychiatrists were able to provide accurate details. The first article on criminal profiling was by Colin Campbell published in Psychology Today, 1976. Campbell asked researchers were called on to prove that they were better than bartenders at predicting traits and features of a criminal (Fox & Farrington 2018). “While psychiatrists and psychologists made significant contributions to the early development of criminal profiling most of it today is conducted by trained law enforcement agents”. In the 1990’s profiling became a part of pop culture thanks in part to the Academy Award-winning film, The Silence of the Lambs, and many other movies that followed, along with popular television series and criminal profilers being featured on programs that are focused on criminal investigations. The term “profiling” is used by the general public, yet the FBI refers to it as “criminal investigative analysis”; others refer to it as “investigative psychology or “crime action profiling” (Winerman, 2004). There are several reasons criminal profiling has become a popular misconception, one being the perception media plays in portraying it as effective; they report on the successful predations and disregard the misses. The second being “expertise heuristic”, this is when we place trust in someone because they claim to be an expert in a subject (Lilienfeld, Lynn, and Ruscio, 2009) and finally the P.T. Barnum Effect, when a person tends to find vague and general personality description believable.

Due to the limitations in finding participates, there is not much known about the evolution, current state or findings in the field of criminal profiling. 152 police psychologists reported that only 3% of their time is spent on profiling offenders, of which 70% questioned if the profiling work was valid. “Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990) examined the profiles generated by four current or former FBI profilers, six police detectives with profiling training, six police detectives with no profiling training, six clinical psychologists with no profiling training and six undergraduate students with no profiling training”. There was no differences seen between groups, they all performed better than chance, averaging from 35% to 47% accuracy. A study was performed for a forty year period by identifying all available publications from 1976-2016 resulting in 426 publications. The results showed that there has been an improvement in assessing what profiles exist and how the profiles assist in an investigation remains close to where it started. Creating new profiles is not enough; they need to be evaluated for effectiveness on arrest rates. There is very little independent and scientifically vetted evidence that exists to support the fact that profiling actually works.

If we look at the 2002 Beltway sniper case, profilers took to the airwaves to give their trained professional opinions. They agreed the killer was probably a White male, some maintained he had no children, no military background; others felt he was mid-20’s. When the killer was captured, the experts were in for a surprise. The “sniper” was not one man; it was two, both African-American, neither in their mid-20’s. Muhammad, 41 had four children and was a former solider; Malvo was 17. One question that has been asked is why profiles are not able to predict some of these actions before they happen, such as the case with the Tucson shootings (2011) that killed six people and injured fourteen others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Jared Loughner had a history of erratic behavior, threats and anti-government conspiracy rants, yet no one predicted he would commit such an act. In 2017, an episode of “Killer Instinct” aired telling the story of how a retired FBI profiler assisted in helping to convict a man of the murdering an 18-year-old female in a parking lot. Although there were no fingerprints or weapons found at the crime scene, he claimed it was a sexual assault gone wrong. Years later, and looking at the case again, law enforcement now feel that gang members were to blame and the motive was robbery. After eleven years behind bars, the verdict was overturned.

In conclusion, fewer than half of the forensic mental health professionals felt that profiling was reliable or valid enough to be submitted into court. “The field does not rise to the level of scientific credibility according to Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc”. The forty year study showed that although we have come quite a way in this field, the answer to the question, “Are we better than a bartender?” remains unclear.


  • Bumgarner, Jeffrey B. (2015). Profilling and Criminal Justice in America: A Reference Handbook, 2nd Edition: A Reference Handbook Retrieved from:[email protected]sessionmgr4008&vid=0&format=EK&lpid=np-29&rid=0
  • Gerber, Marisa (2017) How an ex-FBI profiler helped put an innocent man behind bars, Los Angeles Times, Retrieved from:
  • Goodwill, Stephens, Oziel, Sharma, Allen, Bowes, Lehmann (2013) Advancement of Criminal Profiling Methods in Faceted Multidimensional Analysis.; Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. Jan2013, Vol. 10 Issue 1, p71-95. 25p. Retrieved from:
  • Kocis, (2004) Profiling the criminal mind: does it actually work?; The Lancet, Volume 364, Supplement 1, December 2004, Pages 14-15 Retrieved from:
  • Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., & Ruscio, J. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology: shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. Retrieved from:
  • Pinizzotto, Anthony J., Georgetown U, Washington, DC, Finkel, Norman J. (1990) Criminal personality profiling: An outcome and process study; Law and Human Behavior, Vol 14(3), Jun, 1990. pp. 215-233. Retrieved from:
  • Radford, Ben (2011) Tucson Shooting: Why Criminal profiling Failed; Retrieved from: 1765166590.html

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