The Effectiveness of Psychological Profiles

The article “The Effectiveness of Psychological Profiles” by Jennifer Trager and JoAnne Brewster provides a glimpse into how such psychological profiles are utilized while contradicting the conventional wisdom on their use and effectiveness. Throughout the article, comparisons are made to the media portrayal of the effectiveness of criminal profiling that stand in stark contrast to how they are actually used. (Think Silence of the Lambs or The X-Files.) The general preconception regarding psychological profiles is that they are used to facilitate the identification of a suspect. That is clearly not the case. The article does suggest that profiling works best in developing a threshold assessment to be used in interrogation and the construction of a psychological portrait of a suspect.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies would have the public believe that most killers leave behind key evidence pointing to their personalities at the crime scene. Psychological profiling, therefore, becomes more of a craft than an art that utilizes some rather utilitarian methods designed to create a series of inferences into the behavioral aspects of the suspect. Psychological profiles are really just another tool that is sewn into the overall investigative pattern that, ultimately it is hoped, will narrow down the potential base of possible suspects, but is not necessarily intended to actually identify a suspect.

Only certain types of criminal acts are usually deemed worthy of creating psychological profiles, usually those where the crime scene already has a significant amount of other evidence, or as in cases where a high degree of deviant psychological behavior is present. For instance, ritualistic displays of victims or particularly gruesome crimes involving things like cannibalism. Crimes that are suitable for criminal profiling are those in which there is much evidence at the crime scene or considerable interaction with the victim wherein the offender displays severe mental disturbance. Psychological profiles typically work better in these types of crimes specifically because the psychological deviance involved are so rare.

A major concern of opponents of psychological profiling is that it leads to generalizations based upon race or ethnicity. Since 9/11 psychological profiling has extended its influence from those crimes involving obviously deranged culprits to trying to figure out the psychology of terrorists. Of course, it goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of those deemed suitable for this kind of psychological profiling are Middle-Eastern in appearance. One of the brilliant moves made by the Bush administration was to grant the Immigration and Naturalization Service the right to detail immigrants for an indefinite period. Although this differs substantially from the true psychological profiling conducted in the case of, for instance, serial killers, it remains nonetheless an outgrowth of that mindset.

While the results of the study indicate that profiling can be useful in developing both a physical and mental portrait of a potential suspect, it also warns against making a priori judgments that create a blueprint for the investigation. The profile is best used as a guiding principle and should not be confused with containing detailed facts. Ultimately, the findings of this article lead one to conclude that profiling is at best useful as one of many tools to guide the direction of an investigation, but is not particularly helpful in actually identifying suspect.