Frontiers in Criminal Psychology - Is it possible to create a reliable psychological profile to identify criminals?

► Introduction


The notion of psychological profiling has become highly prominent in today’s society due to such programs as "Hannibal" and "Criminal Minds", along with such films as "Murder By Numbers" featuring Sandra Bullock and "Fracture" featuring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. The idea that a criminal can be found based off of the psychological expressions of behavioural patterns within is not only a fascinating concept, but makes for great tv. But the questions stands, is this a reliable concept, or like tv, is it all fan fiction? In order to determine and set the stage for this discussion it was necessary to define various aspects of criminal profiling, as it has various caveats and determine which criminals were subject to profiling. By determining this, and using expert accounts from various fields who actually stand for or against profiling, it can be determined the validity of this science. Furthermore, based off of findings this opens our world up to new notions as to how our society moves from there. If there are really biological components that give people dispositions towards criminal activity, could we be moving towards a dystopian world as is portrayed in such media as “Gattica” starring Ethan Hawke and the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” where the idea of eugenics and negative eugenics are used to create a ‘perfect society’.

► Definitions

  • Homology: a fundamental similarity based on common descent1
  • Meta-psychology: speculative thought dealing systematically with concepts extending beyond the limits of psychology as an empirical science2
  • Neuropsychology: the study of the effects of brain damage on behaviour and the mind3
  • Profiling: the use of personal characteristics or behaviour patterns to make generalizations about a person4
  • Sexual Offender: a person who has been found guilty of one or more sex crimes5

► Purpose of Psychological Profiling

Gregory, N. (2005). Offender Profiling: A Review of the Literature. British Journal of Forensic Practice. 7, 29-34. doi: 10.1108/14636646200500019
In this review of works Gregory notes that there are various types of profiling in use, each giving the justice system an aspect to aid in their cases. Such profiling includes: offender, criminal, geographic, criminal personality and behaviour. He notes that through his research there is no universal framework for profiling, but rather that profilers use inductive and deductive strategies and intuition, psychology based off of clinical notions to help build a profile. He determines that those within the justice system have determined profiling as the “interpreting of crime scene behaviour in order to devise an offender profile covering gender, age, race, intelligence, interpersonal relationships, employment and location."

Homant, R. J., & Kennedy, D. B. (1998). Psychological aspects of crime scene profiling: Validity research. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 25(3), 319-343. Retrieved from
This article states that it might be possible to put the conduct of criminals into categories. Those similar aspects in crime scenes may be linked to the personality of the offender in question. For the time speaking though, psychological profiling is not completely proven and cannot be relied on. The main purpose of profiling is to supply a focal point on investigations. The article starts off referring to movies and television series such as: Silence of the Lambs, Millennium and Profiler, these have helped bring attention to criminal profiling to the public although not always accurate. The authors go over the profiling, examining if it is justifiable, it provides an overall explanation of profiling and tells apart profiling from other endeavors prophecies. The article goes over the process of profiling, as well as its goals, and its problems. Going over every aspect of psychological profiling such as trait theory, the variety of offenders as well as variables in the process of profiling. In the end it is found that mistakes can easily be made when it come to profiling, but it is still a useful resource.

Pallone, N. J., & Hennessy, J. J. (1992). Criminal behavior: A process psychology analysis Transaction Publishers, Piscataway, NJ. Retrieved from
Pallone and Hennessy give a broad definition of the criminal; it’s behavior and how to study such people. Finding how psychologically a criminal can be identified and certain variables that profilers can come across during their research. Pallone and Hennessy also give an understanding of how these criminals are apprehended in the justice system. This book also provides variables with different criminals, looking over neuropsychological variables in certain individuals. Some criminals have been diagnosed with head trauma, and abnormal brain functions, which cause uncommon behavior. It was found that for most criminals, their social environment greatly affected their stimulus, if an individual has been raised in a culture where violence was of occurrence, and then it is “normal” for them to think that violence is an acceptable thing. Pallone and Hennessy also see many variables that push criminals into their acts. Certain criminal cases of homicide are also seen with all their components. All in all, this book gives a vast understanding of criminals in all their facets and it gives the reason why criminals act the way they do, this book defines criminal behavior.

Criminal profiling. (2014). Retrieved from
An excerpt from this article defines criminal profiling and further analyzes it to give perspective of what is. The article mentions that profiling analyzes and bases itself on location of the crime, nature of the crime, the types of victims involved, and any other evidence of use that is related to the crime. Profiling looks at both psychological and sociological characteristics of the criminal to aid their search. Upon finding and apprehending the criminal, they begin to research the criminal by observing possessions and items of the criminal and interviewing the criminal’s acquaintances.

► Profiling Procedures

Winerman, L. (2004, August). Criminal profiling: The reality behind the myth. Retrieved from
This article provides an overview of criminal profiling, analyzing how exactly profiling works and what procedure it follows. Through the knowledge of Harvey Schlossberg, a former director of the psychological services in the NYPD, who had profiled himself, his method looks at criminals who were arrested and compares their respected background information, looking at factors such as age, education, family, and if they were prone to certain social behaviours. Their profiling also created an organized/disorganized crime dichotomy, in which they could tell that organized crimes usually involved experience criminals who left little evidence and disorganized crimes which were committed by younger, inexperienced people, usually under the influence of substance or suffering from skewed social behaviour.

Kocsis, R. N. (2010). Criminal profiling works and everyone agrees. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 10(3), 224-237. doi:
This article looks at how psychological profiling is valid, it is in response of another article written by Snook: “Taking Stock of Criminal Profiling: A Narrative Review and Meta-Analysis” which gives a critique on psychological profiling, noting that criminal profiling is not the best method to apprehend criminals. Kocsis gives the reader an understanding of the scientific aspect of profiling threw meta-psychology and it’s theoretical approaches and brings up techniques for profiling in the future.

Schurman-Kauflin, D. (2014, February 14). Does criminal profiling work?. Retrieved from
From the thoughts Dr. Schurman-Kauflin, she talks about profiling and how it doesn’t exactly catch criminals on its own. She says that its behaviour that reflects personality, and that when there is evidence of a certain behaviour at a crime scene, there is a good chance it can lead to finding the culprit. She compares profiling correctly to the works of a doctor. Though a doctor may be in charge of healing others, their purpose is still based on the practice of medicine. A doctor diagnoses and works off the medicine they believe is the cure to the patient, taking history and past cases into consideration. The medicine cannot work on its own unless it’s prescribed by the doctor, which is how profiling cannot work unless those individuals in charge are correctly assessing the available information in a crime scene.

Shapiro, D. L. (2008). Criminal profiling: Is it really silence of the lambs? PsycCRITIQUES, 53(15) Retrieved from (requires Passport York login)
Shapiro reviews a book by Palermo and Kocsis (see the entry), and creates a compilation of state-of-the-art profiling technologies, including the limitations of those found technologies, suggestion as to how they should and should not be used. Shapiro comments that the work does not include a cross-cultural analysis, which would have been beneficial to the reader in gaining a new perspective on the topic. It also includes the suggestions on where criminal profiling research needs to go in the future. One important point Shapiro has highlighted is the homology hypothesis, the idea "that there is a direct relationship between crime scene characteristics and the personal attributes of the offender." Shapiro also claims that in these criminal profiling procedures, it is necessary to exclude extreme cases such as terrorists.

► Caveats of Psychological Profiling

Jackson, J & Bekerian, D. (1997) Offender Profiling: Theory, Research and Practice. England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
This book reviews the entire notion of criminal profiling to see not just how it works, but if it works. Using the ideas and perceptions of experts within a multitude of fields, they show how criminal profiling is outworked within the real world, and not just on paper. It is seen through these reviews that there are real flaws to the system, but as it is based off of human insight into a collection of facts, how could there not be. However, it is important to note that profiling, over the years has been seen as helpful, and ultimately, just one weapon in a full arsenal that the justice system utilizes. The usage of various statistics and comparisons to cases with and without profiling put a spotlight on how to ensure that profiling can work. For example, a major issue with profiling comes from human error. A profiler can only do their job if they are given accurate information. This pulls into question the validity of the information received from witness accounts as well as from the reports filed by officers. Furthermore, they go on to show what profilers provide to the police force in order to help in the identification, and hopefully, incarceration of the criminals. Primarily, this information deals with the mindset and social situation of the offender. Rarely does this deal with how a crime was committed. This leads to another issue in that not all crimes can be profiled. Crimes of passion, or those whilst under the influence of analgesics can not be profiled as they are dealing with individuals with a different mindset then that which exists in their day to day. There is a list of criteria that needs to be met prior to bringing a profiler in.

Palermo, G. B. (2002). Criminal profiling: The uniqueness of the killer. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 46(4), 383-385. doi:
Palermo evaluates criminal profiling in this journal article, saying that it works in most times, but that there are significant and unavoidable pitfalls that make it unreliable practice. He stresses the uniqueness of criminals, saying that each criminal brings their own personality and characteristics into the case. Sometimes, it is possible that the criminal may not show any significant otherwise criminal tendencies even though he is a murderer, while other criminals that display homicidal tendencies may actually not be murderers. Palermo says that profiling — no matter how flexible or all-encompassing the techniques are — may not always provide correct answers in resolving cases because they cannot account for this undeniable difference in criminal personality.

Peters, J. M., & Murphy, W. D. (1992). Profiling child sexual abusers: Legal considerations. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 19(1), 38-53. Retrieved from
This article serves as a **critique to criminal profiling
in the context of lawyers who turn to psychologists to determine if a certain suspect is a sexual offender or not. It is found that the judge does not always approve psychological profiling; the testimony has to be very well reasoned. Most courts have rejected psychological profiles for child molesters in America because a profile cannot prove everything. This article goes threw the methods employed by the courts to evaluate scientific testimonies, the minorities that admit profile testimonies, the majority that find profile unreliable, that criminal profiling is unproven technique and that profiling is irrelevant to determine if a suspect is guilty or innocent.

Samennow, S. (2004) Inside the Criminal Mind. New York: Crown Publishers.
Stanton has worked as a clinical psychologist and brings insight through his book on many notions of how criminals are created. Through his notes it shows that it is not always nature that causes criminals and much of his research points to the fact that there are biological tendencies within the subjects that give them a disposition towards criminal activity. He claims that delinquencies are found in various economic and social situations and that though their life situations are different, there are recurring patterns that are presented within individuals that give them a disposition towards criminal activity. If caught early enough they can be tempered however as presented within some of his case studies they are not removed, but rather thwarted or displaced. Therefore based off of the research throughout his years consulting and working with patients this information could provide insight into how a profile could be created.

Winerman, L. (2004, Jul. - Aug.). Does profiling really work?. Monitor on Psychology, 35, 7. Retrieved March 19, 2014, from
Winerman is writing of a study done with "commonfolk" to see if psychological profiling really works and what its caveats are. Researchers provided Winerman with case materials from two different criminal cases. These two cases were already solved, and the personal responsible had already been caught and psychologically "documented." Winerman called upon people to do a lab experiment in which non-profilers (i.e. common people, not criminal research professionals or criminal psychologists, etc.) and profilers (experts) were given the case data and asked to develop a criminal profile of who they thought the criminal would be. It was found that overall, the profilers and the non-profilers were producing similar results. Winerman concludes that there are necessary components to criminal profiling, which without, it is not usually accurate: investigative experience (like the police or detectives would have), behavioural knowledge (such as that which psychologists may possess), logical reasoning capabilities and intuition. With these, the profiles were fairly accurate.

► Plausibility/Effectiveness

Clemente, Jim. "Psychology of Serial Killers with Jim Clemente." Media Mayhem. The Lip TV. N/A, USA: 11 Feb. 2013. Television.
Jim Clemente is a retired FBI agent and current writer-producer for Criminal Minds, a popular crime TV show. He has real-world experience in law enforcement and criminal investigation. He talks about a "serial killer gene" (27:14) which is not predictive, and the difference between biological and psychological factors. With Allison Weiner, he covers numerous case studies including the Robert Spangler Case, a case of a serial killer who killed many of his wives and his family. Eventually, he was caught, and the authorities had time to interview him. Clemente shares that they discovered that this particular serial killer was narcissistic, strange, disconnected from society, forensically sleek, and intelligent. He comments that these psychological profiles can be developed for individual killers that can help connect the dots/incidents in a chain of murders committed by serial killers, but it is still difficult to develop a single psychological profile to identify criminals in general.

"…genetics loads the gun; personality and psychology aims the gun, and the experiences of that person pull the trigger" (Clemente, 27:28).

Kocsis, R. N. (2010). Criminal profiling works and EVERYONE agrees. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 10(3), 224-237. Retrieved from (requires Passport York login)
The author, Kocsis, is a known professional in the field of criminal psychology and more specifically, criminal profiling. In this article, Kocsis evaluates the effectiveness of criminal profiling. He highlights a phenomenon known as the nomenclature illusion, which is associated with the gathering of scientific knowledge in the criminal profiling field. Kocsis further explores theoretical approaches to criminal profiling and evaluates whether or not standard practices of profiling can be formed. He concludes yes, there can be a single or set of optimal approaches to criminal profiling that everyone can agree on.

Palermo, G. B. & Kocsis, R. N. (2005). An Introduction to the Sociopsychological Analysis of Violent Crime. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.
Both doctors overview cases and studies to present a history and analysis of how profiling is created through various pieces of evidence in determining the identity of a criminal. Through their review they both agree that there are “inborn traits” present within all criminals that grants them dispositions towards criminal behaviour. However they do put individuals into categories of psychological disorder which further invests into the notion that there is a biological basis to this behaviour and that it is more nature than nurture that brings forth the criminal. Finally, they go on to show that the best situations for criminal profiling involve high repetition and therefore the “serial sexual murderer” is best suited as it has a “typical signature of the killer” to each of their crimes. These crime scenes give profilers a plethora of information on the killer and their mindsets which help, where a “one-off” murder gives very little information about the personality, drives and behaviour of the perpetrator.

Walters, G. (2000). Criminal Belief Systems: An Integrated-Interactive Theory of Lifestyles. London: Praeger Publishers.
With a background in clinical psychology, Walters reviews various studies to determine not only what causes criminal activity, but also if concepts like background, economic history and the like are viable components in creating a criminal. Through this research he finds various theories including strain, social control and drift theory, each of which are used to view criminal behaviour in a new way. Through theories like social control, it is determined that people do not learn how to commit crimes, but rather how not to commit them. Thereby the lack of this information within a person’s life can lead to criminal behaviour. Each of the before mentioned theories are used to explain how profiling works and thereby determine the viability of this phenomena. This with the inclusion of case studies such as those of Emy Werner (176) help determine the factors that make an individual at a higher or lower risk for criminal activity.

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