Criminal Profilers and Cold Readers

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting piece in this week’s New Yorker concerning criminal profilers, individuals who try to determine who a criminal is based on characteristics of the crime. The idea of criminal profiling has become very popular, with many television shows and movies based on the idea that a psychologist could divine the identity and motives of a killer. Gladwell explores whether these profilers really predict anything well, and in the process, compares the basic tricks used by psychics to criminal profilers:

A few years ago, Alison [author of “The Forensic Psychologist’s Casebook”] went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse–the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess–all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

He then goes on to describe the results of a brainstorming session from three FBI criminal profilers in 1984 who were trying to solve the BTK murders. Their recommendations sound a lot like a cold read and were far off from the mark:

They had been at it for almost six hours. The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified–and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.


  1. I have always thought FBI profiling was a pile of horsecrap. The most memorable result in my region was the thorough trashing of Richard Jewell by the FBI, who insisted he had done the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing. Since they had no evidence other than their mystical woo, they asked the public to try to come up with something. Of course, the bomber turned out to be Eric Rudolph, an anti-abortion fanatic. But what’s one ruined reputation to the FBI?

  2. Three-Fitty

    Thanks for this. I always suspected this business was fishy, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Seeing it as cold-reading snaps all the pieces into place. You’ve made my day, maybe even my week. Thanks again.

  3. T. Bruce McNeely

    I read a book by some famous profiler (can’t remember which one) who discussed the murder of a child, Christina Jessop, in Canada a few years previously. There was a great deal of controversy about this case because a neighbour, Guy Paul Morin, was convicted of this crime,largely because he was an oddball. In fact, the police at the time considered Morin the most likely culprit based on an FBI profiler”‘s assessment.
    Tunnel vision took over from there and Morin was convicted on the basis of poor forensic work and jailhouse informants who committed perjury. The author, of course, was convinced that Mr. Morin was guilty because he fit the expected profile. A few years later, DNA testing was performed, which resulted in Mr. Morin’s conviction being reversed, and a 7 figure amount of compensation being granted to him.
    So much for profiling.

  4. The Unabomber profile was way off too – they thought he was a blue collar worker. And Richard Jewell was wrongly blamed for the Olympics bombing because it had been profiled as an attention-seeking crime rather than an ideological one.

    (By the way, anyone remember the 1989 TV show Unsub? It was over a decade ahead of its time – it was morbid as hell for the late 80s but would be just another forensic procedural drama today.)

    Doubts about profiling brings up the larger issue of psychology BS that has been professionalized – testing job applicants for personality traits with the Rorschach, lie detectors in criminal investigations, and so on.

  5. I think the reputation of profiling is suffering a bit now. I remember one cop show (may have been Monk) where they were waiting for the FBI profile. The captain says, before it gets there, “Lemme guess. White, male,” and some other stuff I’ve forgotten. The profile arrives. “How’d you know?” “That’s what it ALWAYS says.”

  6. A neighbor of mine is a former FBI profiler. He has been interviewed by local TV stations and in documentary movies as an “expert” profiler.

    While he is a smart guy and relentless investigator I have my doubts about any real scientific validity to his “profiling” techniques.

    They seem to be a collection of ad hoc presumptions that are generally self-fulfilling. Inevitably some “nut job” is arrested and only then is the “profile” cherry picked to fit the criminal.

    When the criminal arrested exhibits no obvious anti-social external characteristics he is labeled as being the most “dangerous” of sociopaths because “no one suspected” he was anything unusual. There is really no way to falsify his “techniques”, because the exception is used as proof of the rule.

  7. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older.

    THAT is conclusive. Wow.

  8. Well. The issue here is statistics. In theory *expert* cold readers can hit very close to the mark, using purely statistical standards. Most do this innately, without thinking about it, which is how they convince *themselves* that they are real psychics. Profiling works much the same way, but it is *supposed* to be more accurate, since they know they are using statistical analysis. There are two huge problems though. 1) they often don’t have more than one person produce a profile, so its possible for bias to enter. Though they likely avoid multiple profiles in order to (unfortunately artificially) narrow their options. 2) like cold reading it won’t work if the target is outside the range of what is the statistically likely perpetrator.

    In other words, it does a poor job of dealing with deviations from the mean values for certain crimes, nor can it handle shifts in crime, where a different group start to involve themselves, while the prior groups involvement decreases, (such as if you had a lot of Italians running crime syndicates, but they got ousted by Yakuza or something.) It works, as long as the target is within the bounds of its statistical prediction. Otherwise…. you may as well use tea leaves. But its a bit like some arguments I have heard about who you stop an airports. If you know someone Middle Eastern **is** planning to enter the country to do something, do you go around looking for Australians, or do you, for a while, concentrate a bit more on Middle Eastern people? In an airport the easiest answer is, “Check everyone!”, but that isn’t PC, or acceptable, so they misuse the profiling to narrow their searches, when its probably a bad idea to do so. With crimes that happen outside of clearly defined, controlled spaces… You have a bigger problem. You might have an 80% chance of nailing the right person based off a profile. The question then becomes, do you take that 80% chance, or throw it out, on the grounds that no profile and a mere 50-50 chance is better, since you can’t be sure the profile is right?

  9. Ktesibios

    That BTK profile is a looooong way from “When you arrest him, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit- buttoned”.

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