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Psychological profiling is a relatively new investigative technique that, in the past 30 years, has developed from what used to be described as an art to a rigorous science based on advanced empirical research. Results from the first wave of research have shown that there is validity to the idea that aspects of an offender’s characteristics may be inferred from the way the offender acts at the crime scene. Ongoing research is focused on refining these efforts so that a systematic and reliable framework may be put in place, one that can provide a solid basis for constructing a useful psychological tool for police investigations.
Psychological Profiling Definition
Profiling (also known as offender profiling, crime scene profiling, psychological profiling, and personality profiling) is the process of linking an offender’s actions at the crime scene to their most likely characteristics to help police investigators narrow down and prioritize a pool of most likely suspects. Investigators’ efforts are focused on matching an offender’s behavior in one situation to behaviors or characteristics in another situation.
Psychologists are sometimes called on during a police investigation to analyze the behavioral indicators of the crime and, based on these, to draw up a profile of the most likely characteristics of an offender responsible for such actions. In addition, psychologists continue to be involved in researching the processes of profiling itself, so as to establish its validity and utility as a police investigation tool.
Psychological Profiling Development
Although profiling was attempted as long ago as the mid-1880s, in the Jack the Ripper serial murder case in London, profiling as it is known today is a relatively new area in forensic psychology. Much of the early work in profiling dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, when there was an initiative to focus on analysis of the crime scene itself. Most of this work, typically done by practicing clinicians or police investigators, was based on understanding an individual’s behavior at the crime scene through interviews with actual offenders and primarily focusing on the offender’s internal motivations and drives, in addition to identifying specific behaviors.
With its increasing popularity through the 1980s, and also with more recent efforts to bring profiling into court as evidence, the method came under increasingly close scrutiny by researchers within the field. Consequently, the 1990s saw the creation of a new area of forensic psychology, investigative psychology, spearheaded by David Canter and colleagues, that focuses on the contribution of psychology to police investigations. Researchers in this growing field have stressed the importance of providing a solid methodological approach and framework for establishing an empirically based science testing the psychological principles on which profiling rests.
Early evaluation studies of the emerging field of profiling showed that extant models of criminal behavior were mostly unsubstantiated and not founded on rigorous scientific study. Other work evaluating actual written profiles showed that these included much unsubstantiated information. Based on these results, researchers in profiling have emphasized the importance of empirically validated research to establish a link between the actions of offenders at the crime scene and their corresponding characteristics.
Psychological Profiling Components
The main psychological premise behind profiling is that there will be consistency between the way offenders act at the crime scene and who they are. This is based on the broader findings from longitudinal studies and cross-situational consistency in general as well as from findings on the development of criminal behavior. By understanding consistencies in offenders’ development and change over time, the suggestion is that we can link the way they behave at the crime scene with how they have previously behaved in different contexts. Three general interlinked areas have been the focus of recent profiling research: individual differentiation, behavioral consistency, and inferences about offender characteristics.
Individual differentiation aims to establish differences between the behavioral actions of offenders and uses this to identify subgroups of crime scene types. The focus here is on analyzing the observable, rather than motivational, aspects of the crime to increase the reliability and practical utility of these models in actual investigations. Although it is important to gain insight into the cognitions of offenders and add these to emerging models, research has shown that motivations are inherently more subjective and difficult to measure. As such, behaviors provide a more reliable unit of analysis, at least at the first stages of building models of criminal differentiation that are valid, reliable, and ultimately useful and applicable to actual investigations.
Behavioral studies of differentiation usually focus on differences among crimes scenes in various observable factors, including victim characteristics, interaction with the victim, nature of the violence, and other activities engaged in by the offender at the crime scene. Much of this work has aimed to understand how an offender engages in patterns of actions that all demonstrate a similar underlying psychological dimension or subset. Any crime can be profiled using the appropriate frameworks, and work to date has included theft, burglary, robbery, arson, fraud, rape, pedophilia, crimes committed by youths, homicide, serial homicide, and others. The relevant psychological dimensions depend on the crimes analyzed. Some examples used in homicide work include behaviors indicative of expressive and instrumental types of aggression—such as treating a victim as an object or as a person, acting in a controlled or an impulsive manner—all of which are already well-established thematic classifications of human behavior in the general psychological literature.
Behavioral consistency is a key issue in profiling, specifically for understanding both the development of an offender’s criminal career and an individual’s consistency across a series of crimes—that is, whether the same subsets of actions are displayed at each crime scene over a series (linking serial crime). Much of this work has focused on whether consistency in criminal behavior can be established over time, as well as how individuals change and develop through learning and experience and whether offenders specialize or are generalists.
The search for consistencies has been approached in various ways in the theoretical literature, notably by establishing whether the offender acts according to the same psychological subtype or theme from one crime to the next (e.g., expressive or instrumental), whether the offender engages in the same specific behaviors from one crime to the next (modus operandi), or whether the offender engages in highly specialized behaviors unique to him or her and that are related more to his or her personal agenda, or fantasies (signature). The first few published studies on empirically validating these theoretical concepts indicate that although some consistency is evident, our understanding of the intricacies of the actual patterns over time requires closer empirical study, specifically in terms of how offenders develop, mature, experiment, and change in a consistent manner across time, as well as how situational factors influence an offender’s behavioral consistency.
Inferences about offender characteristics is at the core of profiling and also uses consistency analysis as its main focus. At this stage, however, the main aim is to establish the link between subgroups of crime scene actions and subgroups of offender background characteristics in order to make predictions about an offender based on his or her criminal actions at the crime scene. This can then ultimately be used as a primary tool for the police to narrow their suspect pool down to statistically the most likely offender. Offender characteristics focused on typically include demographics, such as gender, age, and education, previous interpersonal and criminal history, home location and travel patterns (also known as geographical profiling), and the offender’s relationship with the victim.
- Alison, L., Smith, M. D., Eastman, O., & Rainbow, L. (2003). Toulmin’s philosophy of argument and its relevance to offender profiling. Psychology, Crime & Law, 9(2), 173-183.
- Canter, D. (2000). Offender profiling and criminal differentiation. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 5, 23-16.
- Canter, D. V., Alison, L. J., Alison, E., & Wentink, N. (2004). The organized/disorganized typology of serial murder: Myth or model? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 10(3), 293-320.
- Salfati, C. G. (2000). Profiling homicide: A multidimensional approach. Homicide Studies, 4(3), 265-293.
- Salfati, C. G., & Bateman, A. (2005). Serial homicide: An investigation of behavioral consistency [Electronic version]. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 2(2), 121-144.
- Salfati, C. G., & Canter, D. V. (1999). Differentiating stranger murders: Profiling offender characteristics from behavioral styles. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 17, 391-406.
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