Criminal profiling: time to challenge relative myths

“Criminal Profiling” can be understood as “an assessment and interpretation of crime scene actions exhibited to form predictions on the characteristics of the probable perpetrator of the crime.”

A criminal profile should not be confused with intelligence-based profiles that are compiled by police and other law enforcement and intelligence organizations throughout the world. These profiles usually represent a compilation of known and suspected particulars regarding a specific individual who may have been previously apprehended, wanted, or strongly suspected of having committed an offense. 

Criminal profiles are also distinct from DNA profiles that represent the DNA coding for some item of organic matter. DNA profiles relate to forensic science and involve matching of DNA samples taken from a suspect with those found at the crime scene to establish whether they are likely to originate from the offense. 

Moreover, criminal profiles are distinct from psychological profiles. Psychological profiles should be understood within the clinical ecosystem of psychology with as main target evaluation and patient diagnosis.

During the years of its development, the criminal profiling field has been covered with myths and practices that are held true by practitioners and the entertainment industry, and especially by passive consumers of related information. This article aims to point out some fallacies that escaped literature and remain believed as a result of context-based results of criminal profiling applications. This article, therefore, highlights the need to unlearn some beliefs when it comes to the field.


Fallacy 1: The Recency of Criminal Profiling

According to Godwin (2001), the media and the entertainment industry have been portraying criminal profiling as a more recent adventure in criminal investigation.  However, it should be noted that the notion of predicting the characteristics of a criminal based on the criminal’s exhibited behaviors, is a reference to humans’ obsession with classifying and predicting criminality.

For instance, in Plato’s Hippias Major, through verbatim and identity attribution using statements,  it was suggested that ugliness was a sign of ontological imperfections and a deficit of rationality.

The italian and criminologist Cesare Lombroso maintained a relationship between anatomy and criminality, which resulted in fields such as phrenology. In the classical literature, the poet Homer described that ugly and malformed, the character of Thersities in The Illiad had a personality indicative of criminal disposition.

In 1888, Dr. Thomas Bond consulted London’s Criminal Investigation division to solve sadistic murders of women in the Whitechapel region committed by the legendary and perpetrator currently known as Jack the Ripper. Dr. Bond drew on his professional skills and clinical expertise to offer suggestions on offender characteristics using available evidence.

In 1943, Dr. Walter Langer was consulted by the US Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the contemporary CIA). Although his consultation was not undertaken under the traditional umbrella of criminal investigation, his psychological evaluation of Adolf Hitler evaluated and predicted behavioral patterns commonly found in today’s criminal profiles. Dr. Langer predicted that Hitler’s most likely reaction would be suicide if he were to be confronted with defeat, and given Hitler ending scene, the prediction proved insightful.

Given a statistically significant sum of criminal profiling occurrence for centuries, the image of newness the media attributes to Criminal Profiling should be challenged. In fact, by today, the Criminal Profiling field should have had a solid foundation that sets it as a complete scientific field.


Fallacy 2: Criminal Profiles solve crime by themselves

Criminal profiling is best applied as a resource to assist an ongoing criminal investigation, as an alternative when traditional methods have failed to identify the perpetrator. Profiling tools usually come in handy when deduction, as traditionally used by investigators, face an offender with aberrant drives or psychopathology.

To date, the research literature indicates that criminal profiles have been found to be most effective as an adjunct to traditional investigative techniques and not as a stand-alone solution for the resolution of specific crimes. Thus, criminal profiles represent a device by which an investigation may focus its resources and lines of inquiry. 

In this respect, criminal profiles do not, under any circumstance, serve as a substitute for conventional procedures typically undertaken in criminal investigations.

As previously mentioned, defining the objectives of a criminal profile is once again largely dependent on the adopted ideological perspective. Indeed, many of these variations appear to be grounded in attempts to expand the disciplinary boundaries of what constitutes criminal profiling and occasion. Included in these variations are decision-making models on investigation procedures, equivocal death assessments, judicial proceedings, interview suggestions, crisis negotiation tactics etc.

Hence, it should be emphasized that scientific literature does not support claims and portrayals of the media regarding the ability of criminal profiling to solve crime in solitude. Instead, criminal profiling is best viewed as a resource that can be used to assist a criminal investigation when conventional methods employed have stalled or even failed to identify the perpetrator. Even in this avenue, criminal profiling should not be taken as “best saved for last” as statistics have proven its effectiveness to mostly be otherwise.


Fallacy 3: Anecdotal evidence is enough to set Criminal Profiling as an Accurate Framework

Scholars in the criminal justice field have pushed forward the understanding of the comparative accuracy and requisite skills associated with the accurate construction of a criminal profile. For decades however, empirical attempts to scrutinize the accuracy of criminal profiles within existing law enforcement structures faced challenges in regard to insular authoritarian cultures, transparency and evaluation of internally adopted practices. As a result, the technique of criminal profiling may not be exposed to the same degree of independent critical scrutiny that characterizes other scientifically constituted disciplines.

A circumstantial argument emerged by expert profilers who seek to justify their practices. Korcis (2006) describes this inference as an ‘operational utilitarian argument’.

The continued use of criminal profiling services by expert profilers serves as evidence attesting to the presumed accuracy and merit of the criminal profiles. In essence, the tenet underpinning the operational utilitarian argument is simply a variation of the old English proverb “the proof is in the pudding”(ibid). That is, the accuracy of criminal profiles can be inferred by the circumstance of their continued use. Positive results, it seems, must be occurring because police officers continue to use criminal profiles to aid their investigations, and therefore the profiles must be accurate. This argument, nonetheless, does not hold a solid foundation that deserves a scientific stamp of approval.

One solid foundation of the operational utilitarian argument is the reliability of police officers’ perceptions in regards to the accuracy of criminal profiles. This time-bomb explodes when extraneous influence and bias make relative anecdotal evaluations unreliable, and the operational utilitarian argument becomes undermined. In the same angle, when considering the depth of psychological research that has consistently underlined the unreliability of human perceptions (eg. In eyewitness identification and/or lineups), questions around the validity of anecdotal evations of criminal profiling accuracy become pertinent.

Hence, given media glamorization that criminal profiling enjoys, and on an intuitive level, fictional portrayals of criminal profiling continue to fuel the impression of the merit and accuracy of the practice in solving crime. On a scientific level, the criminal profiling field still has to undergo rigorous empirical tests to determine the best variables able to absolutely solidify its accuracy.



If you are a supporter of the field, this article is not designed to discourage you. Instead, it brings forward fallacies you need to be aware of as you are consulting the police, solving some cases as a private detective or for friends and family, or simply as you are developing your knowledge in this avenue. More research is being conducted worldwide in this area; you need to keep an eye out for new scientific breakthroughs in this field.

For now, use your cognitive filter as you form beliefs around this emerging field since excitement can blind a user from deeply considering logical foundation in its application. Moreover, a deep study of recent developments in other fields such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and cognitive sciences will build up resources you will need when generating criminal profiles.


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