Fact Sheet: Criminal Profiling

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful.

About the author: This article was co-authored. The primary author was a guest writer, Michael Wafler, B.Sc. honours student in forensic psychology at the University of British Columbia (Canada). The co-author and editor was Julia Shaw, EAPL-S co-president and Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (Canada).

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What is criminal profiling?

Criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling, is best understood as a series of investigative techniques used to determine the characteristics of an unknown criminal offender.  Profiling relies on the basic premise that an individual’s personality and mannerisms guide their everyday behaviours, including their criminal actions.  Evaluating evidence found at the scene of a crime, a profiler relates this information to known behaviours and personality attributes derived from past crimes of other criminals who demonstrated similar traits.  Utilizing these similarities, a profiler constructs a description, or profile, of what police investigators should characteristically look for in a suspect. Despite sounding valid in principle, these practices, the technique development, and the ways in which profiling has been used to locate suspects, are surrounded by controversy.


While there has been a recent bloom of interest within popular culture, criminal profiling has a long history. One of the first criminal profiles was generated in 1956 by James Brussel. Brussel constructed the first modern profile in response to a series of bombings attributed to an individual known then as the “Mad Bomber”. Using his background in psychiatry, Brussel made deductive predictions about the offender based on his behaviours. In this profile, Brussel provided surprisingly specific descriptions regarding the characteristics of the unknown offender.  When finally apprehended by the New York police, it was found that the “Mad Bomber” matched Brussel's description with a great deal of accuracy. Through this apparent success, this profile was heralded as a triumph, spurring interest by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Intent on using and developing these techniques, the FBI formalized many of the methods used in profiling today.


Pioneered by FBI Special Agent John Douglas, modern traditional offender profiling consists of six main steps; input, decision process, crime assessment, criminal profile formation, investigation, and apprehension. Input refers to the acquisition and organization of crime scene evidence. Once the available evidence has been established, decision processing categorizes evidence into patterns, which are analyzed for predictive characteristics.  Crime assessment involves reconstruction of the crime to uncover offender motivation in committing the crime.  Once the required data has been established, the profiler consolidates the information and forms a criminal profile.  This profile is forwarded to crime investigators and used as an aid to further the investigation.  Finally, in the apprehension phase, the profiler continually checks for profile accuracy against newly uncovered evidence, especially if the offender is apprehended and admits guilt.

Profilers also evaluate several other crime components, specifically with regard to serial crime. One crime feature commonly associated with profiling is the Modus Operandi (M.O), specific techniques utilized by a criminal across their crimes. Conversely, the M.O. can adapt and change over time making it difficult to utilize in a profiling. Many perpetrators of serial crime engage in ritualistic behaviours, and these repeat behaviours can contribute to the cross-crime linkage by profilers and to identification of the offender themselves.

Staging, the act of manipulating a crime scene to hamper or re-direct investigation, escalation of crime severity, and the time and locations of the crimes also play key roles in profile formation.

Art or science?

Unlike most professionally utilized psychological measures and techniques, methods of criminal profiling developed by the FBI appear to have followed guidelines lacking in proper methodology, and research standards. Upon formation of the FBI behavioural science unit, interviews were conducted with a selection of American serial killers aimed toward gathering information to be used in analysis of future crimes. Concerns have been raised about the ways in which this data was collected. A significant concern has also been raised regarding the subjective nature of profile construction, which often relies heavily on personal experience and “common sense”, rather than scientifically backed methods. There is also concern about the tremendous number of false alarms generated by profilers. In other words, more often than not, profilers are incorrect in the details they generate about offenders thereby pointing criminal investigators towards innocent suspects. Finally, evidence strongly suggests that trained profilers do not perform better at predicting the characteristics of unknown offenders than the general public. Criminal profiling should be considered a pseudoscientific technique until empirical studies can support the notion that profilers can actually predict the characteristics of offenders above the level of chance.


To date there is a lack of scientific evidence in support of the techniques used in criminal profiling, and the proclaimed successes of criminal profilers. The unscientific basis of profiling calls into question the validity of the methods it has spawned, and the ways in which these methods are used today. Academic evaluation and criticism promotes the need for further research and scientific research on whether or not profiling can be a useful tool in criminal investigations

Quick summary

  • Profilers try to determine characteristics of an unknown offender, especially in suspected serial crimes
  • The Unabomber was one of the first successfully profiled offenders
  • Formalized by the FBI, profiling consists of 6 stages
  • Profiling is considered an art and is not backed by scientific research. Academics often refer to it as a “pseudoscience”.

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  2. Alison, L., Smith, M. D., & Morgan, K. (2003). Interpreting the accuracy of offender profilers. Psychology, Crime & Law, 9, 185-195. doi:10.1080/1068316031000116274
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  6. Gregory, N. (2005). Offender profiling: A review of the literature. The British Journal of Forensic Practice, 7, 29-34.
  7. Muller, D. A. (2006). Criminal Profiling: Real Science or Just Wishful Thinking?. In C. R. Bartol, A. M. Bartol, C. R. Bartol, A. M. Bartol (Eds.) , Current perspectives in forensic psychology and criminal justice (pp. 55-66). Thousand Oaks, CA US: Sage Publications, Inc.
  8. Pinizzotto, A. J., & Finkel, N. J. (1990). Criminal personality profiling: An outcome and process study. Law and Human Behavior, 14, 215-233. doi:10.1007/BF01352750
  9. Schlesinger, L. B. (2009). Psychological profiling: Investigative implications from crime scene analysis. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 37, 73-84.
  10. Snook, B., Eastwood, J., Gendreau, P., Goggin, C., & Cullen, R. M. (2007). Taking stock of criminal profiling: A narrative review and meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(4), 437-453. doi:10.1177/0093854806296925
  11. Torres, A. N., Boccaccini, M. T., & Miller, H. A. (2006). Perceptions of the validity and utility of criminal profiling among forensic psychologists and psychiatrists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 51-58. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.37.1.51

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