This definition is controversial as it has clear connotations of ‘informed guesswork’ that has angered those who advocate the view that offender profiling is a scientific and theoretically-informed technique. This disparity of views as to the validity of offender profiling is not limited to the academic and professional world. Unsuccessful attempts at profiling have attracted a high level of media attention and this has combined with the less-then-scientific approach of fictional profilers to create a fair degree of scepticism amongst the public regarding the validity of offender profiling. This essay will explore the psychological basis of offender profiling with a view to establishing whether or not it can be considered a valid psychological technique with an important role to play in criminal investigation.
Although offender profiling is viewed as a relatively recent technique, gaining prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, the practices that underpin profiling are of far greater longevity. The research conducted by criminal anthropologists in the 1800s that sought to measure and record physical features of offenders in order to gain insight into the characteristics of the criminal personality provide the roots of offender profiling. This endeavour, commonly associated with Lombroso, was based upon the premise that criminal have distinctive characteristics that enable them to be differentiated from the non-criminal population (Garland, 1997).
Lombroso’s work in the identification and classification of criminal ‘types’ was based on notions of biological determinism; certain individuals were naturally possessed of traits which predisposed them towards criminality. Not only did Lombroso believe that people were predestined either towards offending or law-abiding behaviour, he believed that criminals could be physically distinguished from each other according to the type of crime which they were biologically determined to commit.
This early work into the classification of offenders seems far removed from the techniques deployed in modern offender profiling. However, Lombroso’s basic theoretical premise that criminal behaviour could be predicted from studying the characteristics of individuals to determine whether they were predisposed to criminality and, if so, what type of offending behaviour they would display was instrumental in the evolution of numerous alternative theoretical perspectives aimed at predicting criminal behaviour.
Subsequent studies moved beyond the categorisation of offenders on the basis of physical characteristics to taken into account social and psychological factors. One of the major influences on the progression was the work of Sir Francis Galton who studied heredity and human behaviour as a basis for the prediction of criminal behaviour. His conclusions concerning the existence of inheritable criminal tendencies were coupled with a realisation that a tendency towards criminality was the result of the accumulation of specific character traits that were not necessarily criminally-orientated.
Galton’s findings were particularly influential as they acknowledged the difficulty of isolating inherent characteristics without taking into account social and situational factors. In other words, although Galton was convinced that criminality was the result of inheritable personality traits, he recognised that these traits did not exist in isolation of the environment inhabited by the offender.
This expansion of factors that were viewed as contributing to criminal behaviour led inexorably to a focus on the mind of the offender. Initially, psychological theories of offending tended to be reminiscent of the predestined actor of biological determinism in that they believed that criminal traits arose from factors outside the control of the offender and which had an indelible influence on their behaviour. Psychodynamic and behavioural learning theorists evolved explanations for criminality that adhered to the central notion of psychological positivism that certain core patterns of behaviour and reasoning remain consistent within offenders irrespective of their social experiences and operational environment.
The intersection of the predestined actor model and psychological positivism that polarises the consistent and differential aspects of an offender’s behaviour and reasoning has had a significant impact upon profiling. It is from these theoretical perspectives that the distinction between an offender’s modus operandii (the way that the crime is committed in order to ensure its success which generally combines three objectives: completion of the criminal objective, obscuring the identity of the offender and ensuring an effective escape from the scene of the crime) and their signature (the aspect of the offence that is important and meaningful to the offender and which, as such, is immutable) has emerged (Kepple, 2005). This distinction facilitates the extrapolation of a profile of the offender from an analysis of the crime scene or from an evaluation of data concerning a chain of potentially related crimes.
This process is demonstrated by the outline of the stages of profiling propounded by Jackson and Bekerian (1997) that commences with data assimilation involving the collection of all available information about the crime that facilitates the second stage of crime classification. From this, the profiler is able to move to the third stage of crime reconstruction in which a hypothesis about the behaviour of the offender, the way in which the crime was committed is formed.
The differentiation between modus operandi and signature is an important feature of this third stage which leads to the final stage of profile generation in which the profiler is able to predict features such as demographic and physical characteristics of the offender as well as personality traits and behavioural patterns. This approach encapsulates the way in which offender profiling is founded upon the distinction between dynamic and static aspects of personality (Andrews and Bonta, 1994).
Personality theory has made a significant contribution to profiling. The work of Eysenck (1977), in particular, was important in elevating the status of psychological explanations for criminal behaviour at a time when sociological theories had assumed an unquestioned dominance. Eysenck believed that psychological explanations of criminal behaviour provided the only true insight into criminality because it is personality that determines the response to the biological and environmental factors that surround the individual.
In other words, Eysenck sought to develop a psychological theory that would compensate for the inability of other theoretical perspectives to explain why only some of those from identical familial backgrounds or social environments chose to offend. He believes that all people could be categorised according to the interaction of two distinct elements of their personality: introversion/extraversion and neuroticism/stability (Eysenck also took psychoticism into account but felt that it was inapplicable to the majority of individuals).
According to Eysenck, individuals who are both extroverted and neurotic are likely to lack control, have weak self-discipline and under-developed consciences thus are not easily controlled by social pressures. As such, they are likely to engage in anti-social and criminal behaviour. This is because extroverts constantly seek stimulation and excitement and have a tendency towards impulsive behaviour and this does not combine well with the neurotic’s lack of emotional stability and high levels of anxiety.
Eysenck’s theory has formed the basis for numerous studies into the relationship between personality and criminality and these, in turn, have had a profound influence on the development of profiling techniques. For example, Holmes and de Burger (1989) developed a typology of serial killers that was based upon personality types whilst Canter and Allison (2000) acknowledge the influence of personality theory in offender profiling to ‘winnow down the most likely suspect from a number of other possibilities’ citing the study into personality types and the use of weapons of violence by Lobato (2000) as an exemplar of this.
Lobato used Eysenck’s dimensions of personality index in conjunction with the fundamental interpersonal relations orientation theory (FIRO) developed by Schutz to analyse offenders convicted for violent offences using weapons. From this, she derived a system of profiling violent offenders based upon a combination of the criminality meaning (where the weapon is viewed as a necessary tool to facilitate the crime) and emotional meaning (concerning the emotional characteristics relating to the meaning of the weapon for the offender). Lobato’s research utilised personality theory to develop a system of classification and analysis that has two key uses in police investigation.
Firstly, it can be applied to a known offender to assess the risk of future violence based upon his previous possession and use of a particular type of weapon (risk assessment). Secondly, it can be used as an investigative tool to identify an offender by predicting personality traits based upon the type of offence that was committed and the nature of the weapon used to facilitate the offence (profile construction). This provides a powerful illustration of the contribution of psychological theory to the evolution of effective systems of offender profiling.
Of all the psychological perspectives that have contributed to the genesis of offender profiling systems, personality theory has had the most profound impact. This is because there are certain core believes common to all those involved in offender profiling, irrespective of their preferred method or ideology, that represents one of the few areas of consensus in a discipline that is characterised by fragmentation and professional discord. These are inter-related beliefs about the personality of offenders: firstly, that an individual’s basis personality traits remain unaltered (and unalterable) throughout life (reflecting the commitment to the predestined actor model that derived from Lombroso’s early work on the classification of offenders) and, secondly, that there are features of every crime scene which reflects and reveals the personality of the offender.
This latter belief reflects what Thornton (1997) describes as almost universal acceptance amongst psychologists of Locard’s principle of exchange. The principle of exchange is based upon the premise that any contact between two objects will result in a cross-transfer of physical evidence. Chisum and Turvey (2000) describe Locard’s contribution to profiling as the reversal of the cause and effect principle; the effect is observed and the cause is concluded. In other words, the evidentiary exchange that occurs when an offender enters and leaves a crime scene determines that something of the offender remains at the scene whilst something of the scene leaves with the offender.
The detection of relevant material at the scene of the crime therefore gives rise to the conclusion that the offender was present at the scene (the effect of the offender on the scene is observed and the cause of its presence is concluded). Chisum and Turvey explain the application of the principle of exchange is applicable not only to physical evidence but that it is also valuable in eliciting information about the personality and behaviour of the offender hence its relevance to profiling. Canter (1994) agrees that the offender leaves ‘psychological traces, tell-tale patterns of behaviour that indicate the sort of person he is’ at the crime scene that are more ‘ambiguous and subtle than those examined by the biologist or physicist’ but which nonetheless ‘indicate where investigators should look and what sort of person they should be looking for’.
Although the importance of personality theory to profiling cannot be underestimated, other strands of psychological theory have had must to offering offender profiling. For example, Canter (2004) describes the contribution made by techniques derived from environmental psychology by which the crime scene is analysed in order to identify potential residential locations of the offender or to predict areas where subsequent offences will be committed. Again, the contribution of this profiling strategy can be seen to have a firm foundation in psychological theory as it is grounded in the early work of Shaw and McKay (1942) whose zonal hypothesis posited that offenders were concentrated in particular zones within a larger geographic region.
The implications of this theory were not immediate and it was not until the 1990s that it became the basis of more sophisticated theories. For example, Rossmo (1997) used geospatial principles to produce computer-generated topographical maps that use principles of intelligence analysis such as predictable movement, hunting patterns and comfort zones, to display a ‘jeopardy surface’ that reflects the relative likelihood that an area is the location of the offender’s home or workplace. This is superimposed upon a map of the area which charts the location of various crimes and thus revealing the offender’s cognitive map.
One of the key contributions made by geographic profiling to crime investigation is that it combats ‘linkage blindness’ whereby the associations between separate offences committed by the same offender are not noticed, often because of the more obvious dissimilarities between cases that suggest that the crimes are not the work of the same person. This is often based upon a misinterpretation of the meaning that the crime holds for the offender which harks back to the distinction between modus operandi and signature noted above. In other words, geographical profiling provides a useful means of illuminating unseen and frequently overlooked associations between seemingly dissimilar crimes.
This profiling strategy has been used effectively in practice; it was used by Canter to assist the police in the apprehension of the so-called railway rapist, John Duffy (Ainsworth, 2001). Canter’s profile, which used environmental psychology in conjunction with other profiling techniques, correctly identified Duffy, who was initially 1505th on a list of 2000 suspects (Canter, 1994). Canter is a firm advocate of the incorporation of profiling strategies and has developed the phrase ‘investigative psychology’ to describe this conglomeration of profiling methods which underpins its basis as a strand of applied psychology (Canter, 2004).
The phrase emphasises the scientific basis of profiling and is arguably an attempt to distance the discipline for the negative connotations associated with profiling in the public consciousness, for example, the disastrous role played by offender profiling in the attempt to convict Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell that was condemned by the trial judge, Mr Justice Ognall, as ‘thoroughly reprehensible’ (Ormerod, 1999). Moreover, academic attacks on profiling have served to undermine its credibility both as a scientific discipline and as an investigative strategy with a valuable role to play in the detection of crime.
For example, O’Keefe and Alison (2001) stated that an explanation for the perceived accuracy of offender profiles could be attributed to the tendency of profilers to make broad and ambiguous statements that allow the police to extrapolate detail that fits the offender and ignore any inconsistent information. Comparative studies such as those conducted by Pinizzotto and Finkel (1992) (comparing the accuracy of profilers, psychologists, police and students) and Kicsos, Harvey, Hayes and Nunn (2000) (comparing profilers and psychics) sought to discredit the efficacy of profiling by dismissing the superiority of profilers as based upon experience and confidence rather than any inherent ability or technique.
However, perhaps the most cogent defence against these findings comes from the condemnation directed by Canter and Alison (1999) towards at profilers who base their findings on instinct and intuition rather than ‘systematic observations or procedures’. Their emphasis to profiling which is grounded in psychological theory and ethical empiricism is a worthy example of the scientific rigour that is needed to distance the valuable practice of offender profiling from those whose ‘informed guesswork’ discredit its importance as a valid psychological technique with an important contribution to make towards the investigation of crime and the apprehension of offenders.
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Ainsworth, P.B., (2001) Offender Profiling and Crime Analysis, Cullompton: Willan Publishing
Andrews, D. and Bonta, J., (1994) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing
Canter, D. and Alison, L., (1999) The Social Psychology of Crime: Teams, Groups Networks, Aldershot: Dartmouth
Canter, D., (1994) Criminal Shadows, London: Harper Collins
Canter, D., (2004) Offender Profiling and Investigative Psychology, Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 1, 1-5
Chisum, W.J. and Turvey, B.E., (2000) Evidence Dynamics: Locard’s Exchange and Crime Reconstruction, Journal of Behavioural Profiling, 1 (online journal: accessed 24th February 2006) http://www.profiling.org/journal/vol1_no1/jbp_ed_january2000_1-1.html
Eysenck, H.J., (1977) Crime and Personality, London: Routledge
Gerbeth, V.J., (1981) Psychological Profiling, Law and Order, 29, 46-52
Holmes, R.M. and de Burger, J., (1989) Serial Murder, Newbury Park: Sage
Jackson, J. and Bekerian, D., (1997) Does Offender Profiling Have a Role to Play? in J. Jackson and D. Bekerian (eds.) Offender Profiling: Theory, Research and Practice, Chichester: Wiley
Keppel, R., (2005) Serial Offenders: Linking Cases by Modus Operandi and Signature in S. James and J. Nordby (eds.) Forensic Science, 2nd ed., Boca Raton: CRC Press
Kocsis, R. N., Harvey, H.J. Hayes, A.F. and Nunn, R., (2000) Expertise in Psychological Profiling: a Comparative Assessment, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15, 311-331
Lobato, A., (2000) Criminal Weapon Use in Brazil: a Psychological Analysis in D. Canter and L. Allison (eds.) Profiling Property Crimes, Aldershot: Ashgate Dartmouth
O’Keefe, C. and Alison, L., (2000) Psychic Rhetoric in Psychic Detection, Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, 64, 26-38
Ormerod, D.C., (1999) Criminal Profiling: Trial by Judge and Jury not Criminal Psychologist in Canter, D. and Alison, L., Profiling in Policy and Practice, Aldershot: Ashgate Dartmouth
Owen, D., (2004) Criminal Minds: the Science and Psychology of Profiling, New York: Barnes and Noble
Pinizzotto, A.J. and Finkel, N.J., (1990) Criminal Personality Profiling: an Outcome and Process Study, Law and Human Behavior, 14, 215-234
Rossmo, D.K., (1997) Geographic Profiling in J. Jackson and D. Bekerian (eds.) Offender Profiling: Theory, Research and Practice, Chichester: Wiley
Shaw, C. and Mackay, H., (1942) Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Thornton, J.I., (1997) The General Assumptions and Rationale of Forensic Identification in D.L. Faigman, D.H. Kaye, Saks, M.J. and Sanders, J., (eds.) Modern Scientific Evidence: the Law and Science of Expert Testimony, St Paul: West Publishing Co