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Criminal Profiling: Myth vs. Reality

Updated on February 23, 2015

Criminal profiling is glamorized in criminal procedural television and movies: profilers can seem to have almost super-sensory powers of perception and are often portrayed as being key to solving cases. What was your understanding and perception of criminal profiling before this course? (Feel free to name specific movies or shows that come to mind.)
How did that perception change when you read the statistics and reality about criminal profiling?
Why do you think profiling's image in popular culture and its reality in the detective world are so different?

Prior to this course my understanding and perception of criminal profiling was quite different. I was under the impression that profiling was more of an art than an exact science, but that it was still an accurate way of catching criminals. I formed this opinion based on TV shows like Criminal Minds, Criminal Minds Suspect Behavior, and the Blacklist. Modern TV shows depict criminal profiling as what usually allows the cops/agents to catch the criminals. While the TV dramas do occasionally show parts of the profile being wrong, they almost never show the whole profile as being incorrect. Also the shows always have the profile composed of elements that are useful unlike the profiles I read about in this week’s chapter of reading.

My understanding and perception of criminal profiling changed when I read about the statistics and reality about criminal profiling. I learned, from a research study done in England, that profiles only helped 2.7% of the time in identifying the perpetrator of the crime (Costanzo & Krauss, 2012, p. 105). This particular statistic is what altered my perception or criminal profiling the most; I had no idea that it was such a small percent of cases that were solved by criminal profiling. Prior to this week if I had been asked to estimate the percentage of cases that were solved by criminal profiling I would have probably said 30%-40%. The only thing about criminal profiling that did not surprise me was Harvey Schlossberg’s statement that “in some ways, [profiling] is really still as much an art as a science” (Winerman, 2004, p. 66).

I believe that profiling's image in popular culture and its reality in the detective world are so different because of TV and movie viewers. The media is influenced by what people want to see, and no one wants to watch a show where the teams of profilers only use the profile to catch the criminals 2.7% of the time; that would not make for a good TV show. Instead people want to see criminal profiling that is done correctly most, if not all, of the time, the detectives always catching the bad guys, and a plot line that always wraps up nicely. If the studios created media that was based on reality in the detective world they would not have nearly as many viewers.

References

Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2012). Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law. New York, NY: Worth.

Winerman, L. (2004). Criminal profiling: The reality behind the myth. American Psychological Association, 35(7), 66.

Criminal profiling uses information about evidence found at crime scenes to produce a description of a criminal’s characteristics, personality, and possible motivation. Profiling has most often been applied to serial killers (defined as individuals who kill more than three people in different incidents). FBI profilers emphasize the signature of a criminal’s behavior because it is viewed as being unchanging. Profilers examine crime evidence to try to infer why the crime was committed, hoping the discovery of motive will lead to useful speculation about who committed the crime.
While television and movies make criminal profilers seem like glamorous, powerful characters in any investigation, that’s far from the reality: studies show that criminal profiling is not very effective. In fact, serious errors in profiling have sometimes impeded investigations, costing lives in the process.
Two extreme examples of profiling involve the Oklahoma City bomber and the D.C. sniper. In Oklahoma, the immediate reaction was to pursue middle-eastern suspects when the real mastermind of the attack was a white Army veteran. In D.C., the conventional wisdom that a sniper would be Caucasian sent the police on several wild goose chases before the suspects, both African Americans, were found. At best, profiling is an inexact science. While the movie The Silence of the Lambs is good cinema, it is not an accurate depiction of profiling.
Dr. Thomas Bond is credited with creating the first criminal profile, that of a serial killer active in London in 1888. The public called the killer, whose real identity was unknown, Jack the Ripper. By conducting autopsies on his victims, whom the killer attacked on public streets and mutilated, Dr. Bond determined that he was very strong, daring, and average looking. Since Jack the Ripper was never caught, Bond’s profile was never validated.
Police have continued to use profiling. For example, they used it to identify the person who set off a bomb during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Richard Jewell, who fit the description created by profilers, of a single, white, male with a strong interest in police work, was arrested for the crime in a highly publicized capture. However, no evidence was ever turned up to suggest Jewell was guilty, and eventually, the police arrested another man, Eric Rudolph, who was later convicted of the crime.
One study showed profiling led to correct identification less than 3% of the time. Studies comparing students, psychologists, and detectives find little difference in their ability to develop useful and accurate profiles. In fact, it is not surprising that profiles are difficult to construct, since the criminals that psychological profilers attempt to describe share very few characteristics as well as showing different characteristics in different contexts.

References

Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2012). Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law. New York, NY: Worth.

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