The Disadvantages of Criminal Profiling

Updated March 23, 2017

Criminal profiling provides law enforcement officials with a social and psychological assessment of the likely criminal in a particular case, but its usefulness has come under fire. According to the British Journal of Forensic Practice, police are sceptical about its crime-solving abilities, while social scientists question its scientific validity and what they call weak methodology.


In a 2007 article published in "The New Yorker," Malcolm Gladwell describes the development of criminal profiling, especially as practised by the FBI, as a largely useless exercise that often relies on unverifiable and ambiguous language more commonly used by astrologers and psychics. He claims support from Laurence Alison, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, England, who Gladwell says studied one FBI profile and found that, far from giving a clear description of the killer, it allowed multiple interpretations to be made.


Two years after the FBI formed its Behavioural Science Unit in 1972, two of its agents, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, began a study of 36 serial murderers. The study, cited in an article published in the American Psychological Association's "Monitor" magazine in 2004, led Douglas and Ressler to develop the theory that murderers are either highly organised and methodical, or disorganised and acting on impulse. However, this theory has largely been discredited among modern psychologists. David Canter, who runs the Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool, has found that almost all serial murderers exhibit some level of organisation.

Behavioural Consistency

Much of criminal profiling relies on the assumption that the criminal's behaviour is consistent across scenarios. The problem with this is that while a person's general behaviour may be consistent in his day-to-day life, this can easily change when presented with novel situations. In the paper "The Personality Paradox in Offender Profiling," psychologists from the University of Liverpool write that creating accurate profiles based on "behaviours occurring in short-term, highly traumatic situations seems an overly ambitious and unlikely possibility."

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About the Author

Justin Schamotta began writing in 2003. His articles have appeared in "New Internationalist," "Bizarre," "Windsurf Magazine," "Cadogan Travel Guides" and "Juno." He was a deputy editor at Corporate Watch and co-editor of "BULB" magazine. Schamotta has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Plymouth University and a postgraduate diploma in journalism from Cardiff University.