‘Profiling’ as Poison by Professor David Canter

Most people believe they know what ‘offender profiling’ means. But their ideas are invariably derived from fictional portrayals of the ‘profiler’ as detective. Even professional publications, seeking to describe the nature of this activity, usually start with some reference to fictional accounts. The widespread confusion over the role of psychology in contributing to police investigations is also be revealed by media interviews.

Just about every time, in the scores of times, that radio and television journalists have interviewed me about my role as a ‘profiler’, I have been asked poorly informed questions about the veracity of fictional portrayals of psychologists who assist police investigations. There can be few other areas of professional activity in which the widely held public conceptualisation of the processes and products of that activity is so totally derived from models that have their roots deep in the demands of dramatic fiction. It is my argument that this bias in public misunderstanding, brought about by mass media fiction, is a cause for real concern. It is a slow poison that may yet distort the legal process in Britain and has probably already done so in other jurisdictions. It is already distorting the investigation of crimes. The reason why fictional portrayals of ‘profiling’ have such power to corrupt is because of two vulnerable groups in the legal process. Neither of these two crucial participants have any scientific, or other informed basis, on which to form a rational view about the potential contribution of psychologists to the work of the police. One is the jury. The other is police investigators themselves. In order to understand this dangerous state of affairs it is valuable to briefly consider the fictional role of the ‘profiler’. Without doubt the earliest effective fictional protagonist was Sherlock Holmes. This character set the mould for all subsequent variants. He was an insightful outsider, a bizarre intellect who knew about phenomena of which jobbing policemen were ignorant. As with all subsequent ‘detectives’, Holmes played a very important part in the process of story telling, a role that was very close to that of the author. When the reader could not see where the twists and turns in the plot would lead the detective could. The fictional detective is a confident guide through the morass of human iniquity. Such fictional heroes are powerful allies for novelists. The fiction writer does not need the distancing, often clumsy, device of telling the reader directly what a particular clue might mean. Instead the anti-hero, whom everyone in the fiction loves to hate, but with whom the reader wishes to identify, tells his (or in recent times her) associates the true meaning of the bizarre aspects of the crime. The author is thereby able to move the plot on by authorial invention without ever reminding the reader that it is the author who has invented the clue and its interpretation. This is such a convenient dramatic device that it is now virtually impossible to create thriller fiction without it. Watch any TV crime drama, or read any thriller novel, with a weather eye to where a development in the plot occurs. Look for those moments when the main protagonists get a step closer to the villain. Almost invariably you will find that the plot is moved on by some insightful individual interpreting a clue. This interpretation adds drama because it challenges beliefs held by other authority figures within the fiction or because the insightful individuals themselves would not normally be expected to have such expertise. They may be a flawed police officer, from outside the police force, from an ethnic minority, or most challenging of all a pregnant woman. Currently this excitement has been enhanced by drawing the clue-cracker from the great mythmakers of the twentieth century, psychologists. It is important to understand that what the clue-crackers have to offer these days is usually more than a mere one-to-one interpretation of a clue. It is not simply the gnarled walking stick which indicates that its owner keeps a dog. The hero typically offers a story line. He unfurls a narrative that eventually explains the drama as well as resolving it. This is why psychologists are now so attractive to thriller writers. They offer a new set of narrative forms. The clichés of greed, jealousy and revenge can be replaced with the more heady mix of repressed sexual desires or distorted, displaced relationships, searches for lost mother figures, assuaging guilt. This is where the danger of ‘profiling’ lies. The narrative line on offer is more seductive than the mere interpretation of clues. It provides a whole framework and context within which to consider the facts. In fiction the ‘profiler’ provides a tidy way of developing and resolving the drama but in real life it can distort the way in which the facts are collected and examined. The poison comes from the fact that too many psychological advisors to the police draw the template for their activities from fictional models rather than scientific ones. One case I was recently told about serves to illustrate the dangers. A new team of ‘profilers’ in a Northern European country were asked to comment on the murder of a young woman who was found severely beaten in her own home. Much of the violence had been aimed at her face. The ‘profilers’ therefore jumped to the conclusion, drawn from the totally untested aphorism of some US FBI agents, that this violence to the face implied that the offender new the victim and was seeking to wreak revenge on her. An exciting story quickly evolved in which it was proposed that the victim, a teacher who worked with disturbed teenagers, had spurned the attentions of one of her pupils and suffered violent consequences. This set in motion detailed investigation of her pupils. When forensic evidence eventually led the police to a local drug addict he confessed that she had disturbed him whilst he had been burgling her house and in a fit of fear of being detected he had hit out and killed her. From our own studies of the conditions under which murders occur this latter explanation has a much higher probability and is typical of the way in which certain sorts of vulnerable people may meet their death. Detectives and police investigators are particularly vulnerable to the creative fictions of ‘profilers’ because their task is very similar to that of a novelist. They feel the need to invent a narrative that makes sense of all the facts and also indicates the psychological processes that give the plot its dynamics, usually rather ambiguously referred to as the ‘motive’. If this invention adds weight to their own loosely formulated notions it is even more attractive. I have heard psychologists garner this process by claiming they are making the detective’s implicit theories explicit. But as was shown so clearly in the notorious investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickel with which Colin Stagg was charged, the case subsequently being thrown out by the court, the readiness with which the psychologist ‘profiler’ elaborated on the police assumptions by providing spurious interpretations of the events, helped to maintain a misguided investigation for much longer than was appropriate. Very few police officers have any training in the concepts of science. Most know little of the need to test alternative hypotheses or of the biases in human thought processes that can distort objectivity. So when someone who claims to be an expert turns up with an interesting and attractive explanation for a confused jumble of facts it is used to enhance the beliefs they already hold. The jury is, of course, even more vulnerable. They are desperately seeking a tidy framework within which to make sense of the variety of diverse opinions laid before them. Fortunately British law makes it very difficult for ‘profiling’ evidence to be admitted. Its status as expertise is quite rightly open to question and there are many evidential concerns about profiling opinion being based on hearsay and prejudicial that may keep it out of prosecution evidence for some time. Although the potential for its use for the defence is greater there are still very important hurdles for such evidence to surmount before it will be admitted in Britain. This has not stopped ‘profilers’ giving evidence in the USA and in South Africa. I know this has been a cause for considerable concern by lawyers in both countries. So should psychologists be kept out of the investigation of crimes? Clearly, as the Director of an Institute of Investigative Psychology I do think that psychologists have much to offer to criminal, and other, investigations. My central point is to make a distinction between ‘profiling’ and Investigative Psychology. Most of what passes for ‘profiling’ is a reflection of the inventive, story telling that has been given such currency by crime fiction. Some of that fiction was indeed influenced by the actual deeds of law enforcement agents. But their activities owed much more to the creative imagination than to systematic science, as their autobiographies make clear. Investigative Psychology is a much more prosaic activity. It consists of the painstaking examination of patterns of criminal behaviour and the teasing out from those patterns of trends that may be of value to police investigations. It recognises that the motivations for criminal actions are often not clear, simple or unitary. Investigative Psychologists also accept that there are areas of criminal behaviour that may be fundamentally enigmatic. Tidy story lines that pull all the facts into some neat picture are the exception for human endeavour rather than the rule. That may be why fiction is so attractive. It creates a world that makes simple sense. Our researches are showing that there are interpretable patterns in the activities of criminals. There are consistencies and developments that can assist the police, but are usually based on principles that challenge the popular story lines. Serious research, for example, shows that most serial killers are not bizarre geniuses, but violent criminals who get caught through their own mistakes. Another example is that we have found that rapists do note evolve out of a biography of ever more serious sexual assaults. The great majority of them have previous convictions for theft or non-sexual related violence. There are many other results from our studies that challenge cherished myths and thus often offer more mundane interpretations of crime than the narratives that detectives enjoy. They may therefore see our work, at times, as a diluted version of the ‘hit and run’ profilers that ape their fictional reflections. But as is so often the case, a dilute poison may be an elixir, essential to life.

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