← Back

Criminal Profiling

Forensic Psychology: Guide to Criminal Profiling


One of the major developments in criminal psychology in recent decades has been the development of criminal profiling. While a controversial method, profiling has become an increasingly prominent part of criminal investigation and, if used properly, has the potential to be one of law enforcement’s most powerful tools. In this non-expert’s guide to criminal profiling as part of our ongoing forensic psychology series, we profile the world of profiling, discussing history, uses, and criticisms of the practice and point the reader to links for further research.

Profiling Defined

The first task of profiling is estimating the psychological and sociological characteristics of a criminal. The reader may be familiar with this practice from film and television– movies like Silence of the Lambs and Seven have prominently featured this type of profiling. Criminal investigators use evidence collected from the crime scene, the nature of the crime, the location of the crime scene, and the type of victims being targeted as clues to identify the profile of the offender. For example, when law enforcement was searching for the Green River Killer (later identified to be Gary Ridgway) in Washington State, they suggested that he was a white male with a history of dysfunctional relationships with women. They were proven correct.

Once the criminal is apprehended, the next step is to determine further, specific information about him or her. Items in the offender’s possession and interviews with acquaintances can provide excellent background information. After further information has been ascertained, an interview process can begin based on the information gathered about the criminal.

History of Profiling

One of the first and most high-profile cases of profiling was the attempt by Scotland Yard to find the identity of Jack the Ripper. Doctor Thomas Bond, one of the most celebrated physicians of Victorian London, had, in his capacities as a police surgeon, examined the bodies of the victims. He surmised that the killer was in all likelihood a quiet, eccentric, neatly dressed, middle aged man.

As psychology and sociology developed as academic disciplines in the early 20th Century, their innovations were incorporated into the practice of criminal profiling. Freudian concepts like the Oedipus complex, subconscious drives, and repressed desire all made their way into the vocabulary of criminal investigators.

In 1972, the Behavioral Science Unit was established at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. This marked the beginning of profiling as a science, with Howard Teten, Robert Ressler, and Patrick Mullany leading the charge. Forensic psychologist Richard Walter did much to refine the method of profiling in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1985, the FBI began the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (Vi-CAP), a massive database of unsolved crimes that can help investigators establish links between crimes. Since then, collaborations between agencies and extensive research of criminal psychology has contributed to further development of criminal profiling.


The practice of criminal profiling is not without criticism. This criticism comes from disparate sources, including both within and outside law enforcement as well as both within and outside the psychological community.

One of the most persuasive criticisms of criminal profiling is that, while rooted in established practices of psychology and sociology, there is little empirical evidence suggesting that criminal profiles are actually applicable to reality. Indeed, there have been many very public instances of profiling failing to correctly predict the nature of an offender. For instance, the Beltway Sniper in the DC metropolitan area in 2002 was predicted to be a solitary middle aged white male. In reality, the sniper was actually two young black males. Some elements of profiling are less controversial in this regard; few people question that a serial killer’s murder of multiple people in a short time span in distant locations indicates a high degree of mobility.

Another suggestion, famously made by journalist Malcolm Gladwell, is that profiling seems more accurate in retrospect. Profiles often are loaded with vague, impressionistic statements that could apply to broad ranges of people. Furthermore, when profiles made during the investigation are compared to the actual profile of the offender, we selectively look at the characteristics that the offender actually possesses.

A third suggestion is that profiling reinforces the notion of a “criminal mind,” when there is little evidence to suggest anything of the sort. Rather, most more and norms of a society are highly variable, so consequently there is no basis on which to suggest the profile of an inherently “normal” or “deviant” mind.

A final criticism is that because many offender profiles are based on just one or two crimes, there isn’t enough of a sample size to draw scientific conclusions. If a criminal has only struck once, we only have a snapshot of the criminal in the very specific time-frame of the crime. This time-frame, furthermore, quite likely won’t reflect the normal state of the criminal.

Further Reading

We’ve assembled some links that might be helpful to forensics and true crime buffs, students, and other non-experts interested in researching profiling.

  • Criminal Profiling Research is a Switzerland-based portal on profiling.
  • Profiling has been most famously used to find serial killers, and the FBI has put forth a pamphlet for law enforcement on the nature of serial crime.
  • The official website of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, the top profiling agency in America.
  • The FBI’s approach to profiling is detailed in this article.
  • A 2003 article in the Tacoma News-Tribune discusses how famed serial killer Ted Bundy helped the authorities profile killer Gary Ridgway.
  • A collection of articles on profiling hosted by the truTV network’s Crime Library, a forensics fan site.
  • The American Psychological Association discusses profiling from a psychologist’s perspective.
  • Malcolm Gladwell made his criticisms of the world of profiling in a 2007 article in the New Yorker.