Uncovering the Truth: The Reality of Criminal Profiling

By William Huet, Ph.D., J.D. professor of Criminal Justice

CTU Criminal Justice Degree - Criminal ProfilingLaw enforcement has long been a rich source of fodder for the creative minds that keep us entertained in front of the television – not to mention the big screen – year in and year out. The latest crop of shows – all the CSIs, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order, both the recently discontinued Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit – do an exceptional job of entertaining. But do they provide an accurate portrayal of investigation procedures? Some more than others.

Don’t Believe Everything You Watch
Most law enforcement TV shows are particularly misleading when it comes to criminal profiling, the process of blending law enforcement with psychology to develop a better understanding or description of offenders. By examining evidence, victim and witness reports, investigators are able to develop a criminal profile including personality traits, behavior patterns and demographic variables.

The reason you don’t see more programs dealing with actual profiling is that it’s rarely exciting. The show Criminal Minds, for example, often utilizes criminal profiling in their plot lines. However, they would have you believe that authorities draw upon gigantic teams of specialists who sit around and discuss active cases. These specialists are able to draw immediate conclusions about the bad guys, based on astonishingly accurate inductive reasoning, and chase them down in a matter of seconds and make an arrest.  While this added drama makes for great TV, it is not an accurate portrayal true criminal profiling.

In reality, it usually involves two middle-aged FBI agents, with a lot of cases under their belts, sitting around a table going over a case file in detail, jotting down the occasional note on the stereotypical yellow legal pad.   There are no exciting chases, no showdowns with the bad guys, no arrests—profilers never make the arrest themselves—and of course, no dramatic sound tracks.

Two Methods of Profiling
There are two different approaches to profiling: inductive and deductive analysis. It’s important to understand the difference between the two.  Both are valuable tools in an investigators tool belt but use very different approaches.

Inductive profiling involves the application of characteristics of known offenders to unknown subjects “unsubs” in the belief that both groups will have features in common.  While inductive reasoning is popular because it allows for the rapid generation of leads about an unsub, it also is risky as it is logically possible that two individuals may engage in the exact same behavior for entirely different reasons.  It can be challenging to apply group data to single individuals who happen to be members of that set.  Imagine trying to predict what Babe Ruth’s batting average was in 1927 based on the batting average for his entire team for that year.  Examples of inductive systems of profiling include the typology of rapists and the classification system for serial killers

Deductive analysis, in contrast, follows and is limited to the evidence (including behavioral evidence) left at the scene of the crime by the offender.  It assumes that the crime scene is a canvas and the criminal is the artist and that his actions are his “artwork” that reflects his internal characteristics, needs and fantasies. 

Deductive analysis is more difficult to perform than its inductive cousin. It requires a greater understanding of human behavior, criminal thinking and motivation as well as a certain level of artistry of the profilers themselves. It generally produces fewer leads (at least initially) than inductive profiling but is often more accurate.  The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was the master of deductive analysis:

“I have no data yet.  It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly one begins to twist the facts to suit the theories instead of the theories to suit the facts.”
          Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia.

One risk of inductive profiling is that it can be hard to identify criminals’ race or age based strictly on behavior. Of course, that’s what authorities most want to know, but it can result in probability statements that can put investigations in a bind.

The D.C., or Beltway Sniper case in 2002 illustrated why armchair profiling is a bad idea. The profile authorities had agents searching for a single Caucasian male, in his late 30s, and either with the military or a right wing militia group, and with a grudge against the government. Then the sniper started leaving tarot cards – the Hanged Man – as a calling card, accompanied by a taunt (and not a sophisticated one) to “Mr. Policemen I am God” or “Dear Mr. Policeman I am God” (sources vary).  Anyone who’s more than a dabbler in tarot knows the hanged man actually signifies sacrifice or introspection but is in no way connected to death. When combined with other evidence at the scenes, it suggested there were two offenders and one who sounded juvenile. In fact, there were two offenders, one was a teenager, and both were African American.

If you’re looking to expand your understanding of genuine profiling and investigative procedure through the popular media, avoid from Criminal Minds.  Do tune into The First 48 Hours, or Law and Order. Both utilize methods of deduction that stay true to how real life detectives work to solve crimes. Or better yet, read!

Image credit: Flickr/ Taylor Dahlin


CTU Faculty - William HuetWilliam Huet, Ph.D., J.D., obtained his undergraduate degree in psychology from Augustana College in Sioux Falls as well as a J.D. law degree, M.A. in Psychology and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of South Dakota. He completed an internship at Atascadero State Hospital, a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane located in California. He worked for 11 years at the South Dakota State Penitentiary with a variety of inmates convicted of a wide range of crimes. He also taught college classes, at first as an adjunct, and then full-time starting in 2000.  He is a long-time advocate of the use of role-playing as a teaching tool, especially for his criminal profiling class. He conceived CTUclue as a unique way to provide students with a hands on learning experience. Connect with Dr. Huet on LinkedIn.