What is Psychological Profiling?

DATED: 30.07.21

What is Psychological Profiling?

Psychological profiling is a tactic that is commonly used by detectives to narrow down a pool of potential suspects and identify a criminal. It’s a complex process but one that can make all the difference to an investigation and potentially save lives. Psychological profiling techniques are now a standard port of call during investigations, but they’re still relatively new.

The purpose of psychological profiling is to identify a suspect in a criminal case. It is commonly used in murder investigations. There are six steps known as the Criminal Profile Generating Process that investigators use to build a serial killer psychological profile. They are as follows:

  1. Input stage – detectives make notes on the initial crime scene and victim. They will also look at the nature of the crime and whether there are any obvious connections. For example, a serial killer like Jack the Ripper targeted female prostitutes and he attacked them in a vicious way, indicating that he was misogynistic and had an underlying hatred for sex workers. This would have been obvious at the first stage of the investigation.
  2. Decision process model stage – detectives will look further into the type of murder and style (Jack the Ripper used a knife), the intention (sexual, personal, anger), victim and offender risk (what was the level of risk the offender exhibited when doing the crime?), escalation (was the crime escalated e.g. a burglary gone wrong?), and finally, the time and location (where the murder took place, at what time, how long it took, what happened after the victim died).
  3. Crime assessment stage – detectives will look to re-enact the crime to identify patterns in the offender’s and the victim’s behaviour leading up to the crime. They will retrace the steps of all parties involved and look to establish how the victim was chosen, the sequence of events and what could have potentially motivated the criminal to take the steps they did.
  4. Criminal profile stage – using the information from the previous three steps, detectives determine the characteristics of an offender. They look at the gender, marital status, likely location and personality traits of the offender. For example, they might be cooking at white males who are quite tall and bulky, who drive a specific car (tyre tracks left at the scene for example), who live in the East of London and who are likely out at night which suggests they work during the day.
  5. Investigation stage – following the criminal profile stage, profilers will send their profile report to investigators who will then use it as a focal point to their investigation if they believe it to be accurate based on the evidence they have collected.
  6. Apprehension stage – provided the profile is correct, investigators may interview a range of potential suspects until they find one that they believe strongly fits their profile. If there is reasonable evidence to suggest they have the right person, they will apprehend them and press charges, hopefully bringing an end to the criminal behaviour.

The History of Psychological Profiling 

If you’ve ever watched the 2017 Netflix show ‘Mindhunter’, you would be forgiven for thinking that criminal psychology got its start in the late 1970s with the FBI, but this actually isn’t the case. It was Jack the Ripper who actually inspired the first foray into psychological profiling back in the 1880s. Technology was limited, as was an understanding of psychology in general, which meant it was hard for detectives to yield conclusive results. Despite this, officers did manage to build up a large portfolio of suspects.

Jack the Ripper has remained unidentified as yet, but the early efforts of the detectives were not in vain; in fact, their formative technique of observing the crime scene and looking for similarities is still the foundation of psychology today, but it has since been built upon.

As Netflix depicted, it was during the 1970s and the 1980s that criminal profiling really began to develop and more research was conducted. FBI agents interviewed convicted criminals and used the information to determine serial killer psychological profile templates, working on the assumption that the way a criminal conducted themselves at a crime scene would give an indication as to what type of person they were away from their crimes, therefore narrowing down suspect pools.

There was little scientific lead in the early days, with the FBI relying on detective’s experiences to build up their profiles. This did sometimes work out, but criminal psychology and personality profiling didn’t gain much credit until psychologists began to be called in to back up detective’s hunches with scientific evidence. Nowadays, the FBI and police forces around the world routinely employ and work with psychologists to develop offender profiles. They tend to collaborate their experiences to work towards the common goal of finding the person who is committing the crime and apprehending them before they can harm anyone else.

Whilst creating a psychological profile, detectives will also seek to identify a victim profile. Most criminals have a ‘type’. For example, Jack the Ripper targeted sex workers, so this indicated to the police that sex workers were most at risk and therefore advice was given to sex workers to stay on high alert. This is something we still do today. If police can establish an identifiable victim type, they will often tell those in that demographic to stay indoors or give them additional advice on how they can stay safe.

Psychological Profile Examples

There are numerous examples of detectives successfully using psychological profiling to identify suspects. Whilst it didn’t work for Jack the Ripper, it has worked for many notorious killers, including:

  • George Metesky (the Mad Bomber of New York)
  • Ted Bundy
  • Andrew Cunanan

These are just a few of the killers who were caught using psychological profiling, a testament to how valuable it can be to investigations, especially when you consider how it all started with Jack the Ripper.

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