Criminal Profiling

Criminal profiling is the prediction of specific characteristics of criminal suspects, including personality traits and behavior patterns or tendencies. Criminal profiling is controversial, because it is not generally based on well-established science, is frequently inaccurate, and easily crosses into racial or ethnic profiling, in which people are suspect simply because of their race or other superficial characteristics.

Criminal profiling is used to predict psychological characteristics of perpetrators of crimes to help police target investigations and prioritize suspects. For example, psychological principles can be applied to information gathered from crime scenes and victims and from the nature of crimes to suggest where suspects might live, their types of jobs, social lives, and/or criminal histories. Linkage analysis is a form of criminal profiling that applies psychology to physical evidence from a crime scene to predict whether a series of crimes is likely to have been committed by the same individual. The pattern of physical evidence can also suggest a modus operandi (MO) or signature. An MO is the manner in which a crime was accomplished. A signature is something that a perpetrator must do for the emotional fulfillment that was the reason for committing the crime, but which was not needed to accomplish the crime. According to criminal profiling, signatures reflect the specific values underlying individual behavior, regardless of the seriousness of a crime. Signature behaviors may indicate an offender's psychological or emotional needs, as well as personality, lifestyle, and experiences. Unlike an MO, which is a learned behavior that is subject to change, a signature is thought to be an unchanging characteristic of an individual.

After a suspect has been identified or arrested, criminal profiling may be used to:

In addition to targeting investigations and profiling suspects, profiling is used to predict a serial criminal's next crime. Offenders on crime sprees often develop pathological states that can lead to assault or murder. The profiler attempts to predict the offender's next move and may even use the media to attempt to communicate with the offender. However, despite TV portrayals, most criminal profiling is not directed at solving sensational crimes. In fact, many profilers work primarily with companies and organizations, such as law-enforcement agencies, that require regular staff psychological evaluations.

Criminal profiling is occasionally used for other purposes. For example, it has been used for psychological assessments of dictators such as Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein. It also has been used to attempt to determine intentions, such as whether a cult leader intended the mass suicide of his followers.

Criminal profiling is a relatively new field that encompasses both law enforcement and psychology, and terminologies and methodologies vary. It is also called psychological profiling, criminal personality profiling, offender profiling, or investigative psychology. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) calls it “criminal investigative analysis.”

Criminal profiling assumes that there are shared factors in the backgrounds, personalities, and behaviors of people who commit similar crimes. For example, convicted rapists and pedophiles often report having been sexually abused as children; nevertheless, the vast majority of sexually abused children do not become sex offenders as adults. Child sex offenders often score high on psychopathic deviance on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI); however, other types of offenders have similar MMPI profiles. Criminal profiling may use the “homicidal triad” of bedwetting, cruelty to animals, and interest in starting fires, which some believe to be common childhood factors shared by criminals, especially murderers. The homicidal triad is thought to indicate a desire for control over others and emotional or sexual release from inflicting pain on others.


Criminal profiling dates back at least to the 1880s, when two physicians used crime-scene clues to predict the personality of the British serial killer Jack the Ripper; however, it was the case of the “mad bomber” that first drew widespread attention to profiling. Over a period of 16 years, beginning in 1940, there were more than 30 indiscriminant bombings in New York City. The first was an undetonated pipe bomb left at Consolidated Edison and wrapped in a note that read “CON EDISON CROOKS, THIS IS FOR YOU.” When the United States entered the Second World War, police received a letter saying that there would be no more bombs for the duration of the war. True to his word, the next bomb was in 1950, and explosions at the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station soon followed. The police were clueless, but psychiatrist James A. Brussel (1905– 1982) used both common sense and psychiatric and psychoanalytic methods to develop a profile of the bomber:

Brussel further profiled the bomber as living in Connecticut, self-educated, and neat and meticulous, and predicted he would be wearing a buttoned-up, double-breasted jacket when apprehended. The police publicized the profile, because Brussel believed that the bomber wanted credit for the attacks. Although the publicity resulted in many false leads, the bomber did telephone Brussel, and a Consolidated Edison worker uncovered the records of a former employee named George Metesky. Metesky had been injured on the job, and his disability claims had been denied. The handwriting and phrases in his letters to the company matched those of the bomber's notes. Upon his arrest, Metesky was wearing the jacket described by Brussel.


Homicidal triad—
A theory that murderers often have three childhood factors in common—bedwetting, cruelty to animals, and an interest in starting fires.
Linkage analysis—
A criminal profiling procedure for determining whether a series of crimes was committed by a single perpetrator.
Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)—
A psychological test for evaluating personality traits and psychopathologies.
Modus operandi (MO)—
The manner in which a crime was committed.
Offender homology—
The theory that perpetrators of specific types of crimes have characteristics in common.
Signature behavior—
A behavior that reflects a individual's underlying values; in criminal profiling, a behavior that is necessary for the offender's fulfillment but not for accomplishing the crime.
The analysis of the characteristics of crime victims.

The success of the mad bomber profiling convinced the FBI to pursue the technique. In the 1970s, FBI agents interviewed serial killers and developed an “organized/disorganized dichotomy” theory: organized crimes are premeditated and planned, with little evidence left at the crime scene, and are perpetrated by antisocial personalities who are not insane, know right from wrong, and show no remorse; disorganized crimes are unplanned, leave evidence such as fingerprints or blood, and are often committed by young people who are mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The FBI's Behavior Science Unit subsequently refined this dichotomy into a continuum and developed other classification schemes. Nevertheless, profiling continued to rely primarily on commonsense guesses, informal studies of known criminals, and intuition. In recent decades psychologists and criminologists have begun employing research studies and more scientific methods of criminal profiling.


The FBI Behavioral Science Unit's steps for generating a criminal profile are:


Serial killer Ted Bundy acting up in courtroom after the judge had departed, January 1, 1979.

Serial killer Ted Bundy acting up in courtroom after the judge had departed, January 1, 1979.
(© Bill Frakes/Getty Images)

Psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley (1903–1984) was a pioneer in the field of psychopathy research. He coined the phrase “the mask of sanity” to describe the way in which psychopaths are able to conceal their disorder and appear completely normal and engaging in everyday life. He wrote a book in 1941 entitled The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality, of which several later, expanded editions have been printed. This book is regarded as perhaps the most seminal and influential clinical description of psychopathy in the medical literature.

It contains case studies of several individuals hospitalized ata mental institution. In the first edition of the book all nine of the individuals interviewed were men with psychopathic personalities; however, Cleckley later added interviews with women and adolescent psychopaths as well. The fifth edition of the book contains 15 case histories.

All the case studies show a similar pattern of behavior among the individuals. Repeated stealing, lying, cashing bad checks and other dishonest behaviors are engaged in without a hint of genuine remorse, moral qualm or delusions.

One subject, a man called Max, is described as frequently bragging of his prowess and superiorities in various areas and inventing grandiose lies that he tells with none of the usual signs of dishonesty. He also is observed “sow[ing] seeds of discontent among other patients whom he encouraged to break rules, to oppose attendants, and to demand discharges.” He engaged in petty thefts and eventually broke out of the hospital.

Similarly, the father of another subject, a young woman named Roberta, describes her as such, “It's not that she seems bad or exactly that she means to do wrong. She can lie with the straightest face, and after she's found in the most outlandish lies she still seems perfectly easy in her own mind.” Cleckley reported that she repeatedly wrote to him claiming to have been “cured” or having seen the error of her ways, while at the same time engaging in the same pattern of behaviors as before.

Several examples of non-patients whom Cleckley calls “incomplete manifestations or suggestions” of psychopathy are also included in the book. They are given the titles of: businessman, man-of-the-world, gentleman, scientist, physician and psychiatrist.

Cleckley reported that contrary to popular misconception, psychopaths do not tend to share traits with individuals with schizophrenia who almost always present some outward sign of psychosis. Psychopaths do not hear voices or have delusions. By contrast, individuals with psychopathic personalities tend to appear “normal” and well-adjusted, often with above-average intelligence and skills and a calm demeanor. Cleckley described his intentions as providing palliative care for individuals with psychopathic personalities, rather than prescribing an actual cure. He wished to present a clear picture of psychopathy in part to help family and friends of people with the disorder, as well as in the hopes of contributing towards a better understanding among mental health professionals. He felt that psychiatrists often had a negative view of working with psychopath patients, which may in turn have been detrimental to their treatment. He outlines the following list of psychopathic characteristics:

  1. Superficial charm and good “intelligence”
  2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
  3. Absence of “nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations
  4. Unreliability
  5. Untruthfulness and insincerity
  6. Lack of remorse or shame
  7. Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
  8. Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  9. Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
  10. General poverty in major affective reactions
  11. Specific loss of insight
  12. Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
  13. Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without
  14. Suicide rarely carried out
  15. Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
  16. Failure to follow any life plan

The term psychopath is no longer professionally used, having been changed to sociopathic personality in 1958 and then changed again in 1968 to antisocial personality, which remains the nomenclature today.

Cleckley's seminal studies have provided a basis of understanding of what is now known as antisocial personality disorder. His description of the “mask of sanity” brought to light the unique way inwhich peoplewith psychopathic traits may appear highly functional in daily life, and also sought to provide clarity to loved ones and mental health care providers of people living with the disorder.

In murder investigations, the FBI also looks for profiling clues in the murderer's behavior at four stages:

Linkage analysis further requires:

There are additional approaches to criminal profiling:

Like criminal profiling, investigative psychology infers offender characteristics from the criminal behavior, but it relies on empirical, peer-reviewed research rather than investigative experience and intuition. For example, an investigative study of serial murderers found that they almost all exhibited at least some level of organized behavior that could be categorized according to interactions with their victims. A study of rapists found that their distinguishing characteristics were their nonphysical interactions with their victims, such as whether they stole from them or apologized, rather than the type of sexual assault.


Some psychologists question the scientific basis and methodology of the FBI's approach to criminal profiling. For example, research has turned up scant evidence of “offender homology” —elements common to types of offenders—which is a basic tenet of “traitbased” profiling. The history of criminal profiling is also filled with mistakes that have led investigators to focus on innocent people, while failing to investigate other leads or ignoring the guilty party. Furthermore, criminal profiling has occasionally evolved into racial profiling, with selective patrolling of African-American communities and “stop and frisk” policies that have caused public outrage and civil disturbances.

See also Forensic psychology .



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