Are you Profiling, Profiling, or Profiling?

We need better labels for the activities grouped under profiling.

Posted Dec 02, 2012

When I was writing The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, which is based on the popular television series, I realized that the word ‘profile’ has picked up so many different meanings over the past two decades that I had to get them straight so I could clarify what I was discussing. In the book, I describe four of these meanings, but since I’ve finished writing it, I’ve seen another that merits attention. The bottom line is that someone somewhere should devise a more precise profiler vocabulary. 

During the 1990s, several of the earliest members of the budding Behavioral Science Unit (BSU, now called the BAU) began to write and publish books about criminal profiling. While Robert Ressler was the first to publish, it was former BSU chief John Douglas who brought the greatest visibility to the subject. He penned an international bestseller Mindhunter, and right or wrong, he came to be linked with “Jack Crawford,” the fictional BSU chief in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.

As a result, Douglas became a popular spokesperson, and in Mindhunter he states, "I use a formula, 'How plus Why equals Who.' If we can answer the hows and whys in a crime, we generally can come up with the solution." 

In other words, he believes that people are slaves to their personalities and offenders will thus leave a pattern of clues at a crime scene from which their traits and behaviors can be deduced. That is, one can “profile” (a verb) in order to develop a “profile,” (a noun). The point is to narrow the pool of potential suspects. Thus, we have now two definitions for ‘profile.’ But wait. There’s more.

The idea of “reading” crime scene behavior caught the public’s attention, but then some people in the popular media began to misrepresent the concept. Journalists talked about “the profile of a serial killer” as if it was an a priori blueprint that offered a checklist for a type of offender rather than being the analysis of behavior specific to a crime scene (or set of scenes).

In other words, many reporters and news anchors spoke as if the list of traits for a perpetrator of a specific type of crime was already mapped out, so that we could measure suspects against it. OK, now we have two meanings for the noun: a pre-crime portrait and a post-crime portrait.

Unfortunately, some investigators adopted this erroneous notion, too, and have mistakenly dismissed suspects who failed to fit the serial killer prototype. (The FBI has taken a hit for this, but to be fair, that’s not what they presented in any book, commercial or academic.) Also, unfortunately, some script writers of popular films like this version, too.

Now, even granted that we have enough behavior in current databases for devising prospective blueprints, they still work for only categories of offenders who operate in highly similar ways, such as disgruntled middle-aged mass murderers who commit workplace violence, or healthcare serial killers.

Despite the many generalizations made about serial killers, there are too many differences from case to case, especially in other countries, to use a checklist-based profile. In other words, while prospective profiling has its place, its use for an active serial crime investigation is, at best, limited.

But now let me just add another angle. In a 2002 book by Ronald and Stephen Holmes about criminal profiling, they use the word in a different way. They discuss the fact that while Special Agent Russ Vorpagel claims to have assisted in the Richard Chase serial murder case in CA, Vorpagel failed to “profile” Chase’s eventual suicide.

In other words, they seem to assume that profiling is the same type of activity as a risk assessment that a prison psychiatrist might perform for a suicide watch. But it’s not.

This error does bring us to a fifth notion of profiling: that it means “reading” people the way Sherlock Holmes would do in a Conan Doyle story. In other words, profilers supposedly possess the keen ability not just to “scent” behavior at a crime scene and follow its trail, but they so fully understand human nature that from only cursory observations they can lay out the rich details of someone’s life story.

While these activities are all related in that they seek to devise a portrait through psychological analysis, offering hypotheses about a known person vs. an unknown one are quite different activities. It’s unfortunate that we have conflated these complex concepts into a single word, because confusion abounds.

For example, many histories of profiling include the analysis done on Hitler during World War II in 1942. In response to a request from the Office of Strategic Services, Dr. Walter C. Langer, a psychoanalyst in New York, offered a “long-range” evaluation of what Hitler might do if he believed he’d lose the war. Langer utilized speeches, a lengthy biography, Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, and interviews with people who had known him. The most likely scenario, Langer predicted, was that the German leader would end his own life, via one of his henchmen.

In other words, Langer offered a behavioral risk assessment, not a criminal profile based on observed behavior at a crime scene.

Analyzing information about a known person, especially one for whom there are abundant resources, has little in common with analyzing crime scenes to try to devise a behavioral/personality portrait of an unknown offender. The latter is much more difficult and more vulnerable to error.

So, why not devise a better vocabulary? These investigative activities have come of age, with plenty of databases to support them. Since “profile” already strikes us most naturally as a noun (i.e., someone’s file or appearance), perhaps the process of developing a profile retrospectively should be given a different label. Latent behavior assessment, or retro-analysis, or something like that.

There’s no reason that I can see to continue using vague or ambiguous phrases, concepts, and terms. Profiling is not going to lose its allure, so perhaps behavioral analysts should give us all a more effective way to talk about all these diverse activities.

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