The Art and Science of Criminal Profiling

Intuition, experience, and grit vs. statistics

Jean Campbell

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Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

When I read a missing person’s case, I’m sucked in — trying to piece together the few clues to imagine who the culprit is. As true crime readers know, this is a hazard of delving into hundreds of murder stories. You begin to see patterns, whether you want to or not.

Are you just as likely to come up with a good profile as an FBI agent?

You might be. It all depends on how that agent uses his experience and gut instincts, and how methodical and fact-based your sleuthing is.

The study

One method of doing research is by examining other researchers’ published studies, which is called a systematic review. This goes along with pulling data from dozens or hundreds of academic papers, pooling it, and re-analyzing it, which is termed meta-analysis.

To study whether criminal profiling works, and how it does, two psychologists reviewed 426 publications.

In 2018, Drs. Fox and Farrington published a systematic review and meta-analysis of all research done to date about the accuracy of criminal profiling, looking at research from 1976 to 2016. Their results showed that while Offender Profiling (OP) is becoming more scientifically rigorous, there are huge differences in how law enforcement develops profiles.

Their results shored up prior research about profiling, which has a shaky reputation as being inaccurate. It’s not quite as grim a picture as the solve-rate of psychics, but the way profilers succeed may surprise you.

The Barnum effect

Most Americans are familiar with PT Barnum, who started his famous Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1871. Barnum made many prescient comments about human behavior, including the fact that people see what they want to see, often without evidence.

He specifically helped define the common phenomenon in which we confer as accurate descriptions of personality traits that are seemingly tailored specifically to us — but the descriptions are so vague and general they could apply to almost anyone.

An example of how the Barnum effect operates can be found in astrology as well…

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Jean Campbell

Writer by day, reader by night, napper by afternoon.