Criminal Profiling in Forensic Psychology

The concept of criminal profiling, sometimes referred to as offender profiling, is one of the more popularized aspects of the science of forensic psychology.  Mainstream media portrayals as seen through the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs, the television series Law & Order: Criminal Intent that aired from 2011 to 2011, the television series Criminal Minds that has aired since 2005, and other programs through depictions of both science and pseudoscience has served to both popularize criminal profiling and provide the public with a potentially misguided perception that they readily understand the nature of forensic psychology.  Interpretations by popular media aside, the application of psychological science into the concept of modern criminal profiling was in part developed by behavioral analysts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early 1970s and has a long-standing history of being based in valid, empirical research as opposed to the perceptions and gut feelings often portrayed in the popular media (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012).  The history of informal criminal profiling goes back an additional century when physicians George Phillips and Thomas Bond used clues to form predictions and inferences about the personality of Jack the Ripper (Winerman, 2004).  In order to maintain the sanctity of the science and avoid the pseudoscience perpetuated by popular media, it is of great importance for scholar-practitioners of forensic psychology to utilize empirically validated techniques in research and reporting when engaging in criminal profiling.

According to Bartol and Bartol (2004), criminal profiling “is the process of identifying personality traits, behavioral tendencies, geographical location, and demographic or biographical descriptors of an offender (or offenders) based on characteristics of the crime” (p. 82).  Criminal profiling as a behavioral science modality does not seek to identify a unique offender or offenders; instead, it is a form of prediction based on a statistical probability of the identified descriptors to narrow the field of suspects so investigators may engage in more focused efforts where potential suspects or persons of interest have not been identified. The use of criminal profiling as an investigative tool remains controversial despite its strengths and benefits due to its equally valid liabilities and limitations.

One of the benefits seen from criminal profiling came from the development in its use for commercial airline security.  As the hijacking of commercial aircraft became a trending problem in the 1960s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began to require that all U.S. carriers conduct searches of or deny travel to persons who fit a psychological profile developed by a team of psychologists working for the FAA.  Subsequent to the implementation of the directive, the number of commercial airline hijackings saw significant decline.  The model continued to be used and was ultimately developed into a computerized system entitled the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) that utilizes information obtained when passengers purchase tickets for air travel to flag potential persons matching statistical profiles for risk assessment for secondary security screening.  The CAPPS system successfully flagged several of the hijackers from the events of September 11, 2001; however, none of those flagged by the system were questioned or searched before boarding a plane (Bartol & Bartol, 2008).

A second benefit of criminal profiling has been seen from the use of a geographical profiling modality known as Criminal Geographic Targeting (CGT) authored by D. Kim Rossmo in 1995 and further developed by Beauregard, Proulx, Rossmo, LeClerc, and Allaire in 2007.  The profiling tool utilizes empirical research to develop an understanding of movement patterns of serial offenders based on what Rossmo called “hunting patterns” which categorized serial offenders into “hunters”, “poachers”, “trollers” and “trappers” based on behavioral profiling of information gleaned from previous offenses.  CGT has been used to help narrow down the geographical focus to identify the residence or operational starting point of serial offenders (Bartol & Bartol, 2008).

One of the liabilities of criminal profiling arises when investigators begin to assume that the behavior of offenders remains consistent across situations.  Investigators must remember to account for two very significant factors in a criminal offense that are independent of the offender being profiled.  The first is the situation – each situation is unique with its own set of factors influencing the offense.  The second is the victim – victims bring their own variables and factors to the criminal offense that cannot scientifically be discounted or ignored (Bartol & Bartol, 2008).

A second liability of criminal profiling arises when practitioners make assumptions that features of a modus operandi or crime scene are related to individual or sets of psychological features and characteristics. Practitioners should be cautious to focus on nomothetic approaches that make generalized predictions as opposed to utilizing idiographic approaches that make more specific predictions based on behaviors.  Assumptions such as these also have a significant risk of generating a confirmation bias that is not based in empirical scientific research (Bartol & Bartol, 2008).

The use of criminal profiling has an appropriate place in forensic and investigative psychology.  Scholar-practitioners should remain vigilant to the use of nomothetic approaches based on empirical research and evidence while taking into account scientific deductions that can be drawn from aspects of the criminal behavior, aspects of the situation present when the crime occurred, and aspects presented by the victim or victims of the crime.  When used properly, criminal profiling has been shown to assist investigators in narrowing down the focus of other investigative resources to a smaller subset of individuals for faster identification of offenders.


Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2008). Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Federal Bureau of Investigation.  (n.d.).  Behavioral Science Unit.  Retrieved on April 29, 2012, from

Winerman, L.  (2004).  Criminal Profiling: The Reality Behind the Myth.  Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 35(7).  Page 66.  American Psychological Association.

© 2012 – 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.

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About the author

Jeremy Liebbe holds a Master of Science in Forensic Psychology, holds a Bachelor of Arts in Police Science, and is currently completing a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. He has over a decade of law enforcement investigative experience as a detective sergeant with experience including narcotics, crimes against children, and homicide investigations. As a result of his expertise in complex criminal investigations and forensic mental health Jeremy has earned numerous commendations, lectured throughout Texas and in several other states, authored and co-authored over a half dozen published papers, and has provided expert testimony in over a dozen felony trials.