Malcolm Gladwell on criminal profiling

crimescene clover1Malcolm Gladwell casts a skeptical eye over the theory and practice of criminal profiling in his most recent article for the New Yorker (12 Nov). His piece has generated a lot of coverage in the blogs, with some commentary from, among others, Mind Hacks, Karen Franklin and The Frontal Cortex.

I’m all for the ‘debunking’ of the Hollywood myth of the criminal profiler, and I love Gladwell’s work. But I don’t think this article is really much more than a bit of entertainment, and in particular, I’m not sure it really tells us what the FBI profilers do now: Gladwell discusses the work of Robert Ressler, John Douglas and Roy Hazelwood – FBI pioneers of profiling – but they retired more than a decade ago.

It’s been reported that the FBI has taken a more scientific approach to profiling in recent years.  Here’s an extract from an article in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology from 2004:

In recent years, the FBI has begun to work closely with many forensic psychologists–in fact, it employs them. Psychologist Stephen Band, PhD, is the chief of the Behavioral Science Unit, and clinical forensic psychologist Anthony Pinizzotto, PhD, is one of the FBI’s chief scientists. The unit also conducts research with forensic psychologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York…

One of the FBI’s collaborators at John Jay College is Gabrielle Salfati … “Whenever we do research, we try to bring in as many varied points of view as possible,” Pinizzotto says. “Gabrielle Salfati’s expertise on the statistical aspects of evaluating crime scenes is a great contribution.”

More recently, the unit has also begun to collaborate with forensic psychologists at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.–another indication that law enforcement and psychology will continue to work together.

I haven’t been able to find any journal articles based on the research mentioned in the APA article, so it’s difficult to judge how much of an impact this collaboration is having.  Accordingly, it’s difficult to dispel the impression that Gladwell creates that the FBI ‘profilers’ of today use exactly the same methods employed by Douglas, Ressler and Hazelwood.  I just can’t help thinking (hoping?) that things must have moved on since then.


In his article, Gladwell discusses research by University of Liverpool psychologists who tested Douglas, Burgess, Burgess, and Ressler’s (1992) ‘organized / disorganized’ typology of serial killers. The potential flaws in the ‘organized / disorganized’ typology were highlighted by David Canter in his 1994 book Criminal Shadows. The Canter et al (2004) paper putting the typology to empirical test can be downloaded from the Liverpool website here [pdf].

  • Canter, D.V., Alison, L.J., Alison, E. & Wentink, N. (2004). The Organized / Disorganized Tyoplogy of Serial Murder: Myth or Model? Psychology, Public Policy and Law 10(3): 293–320 [pdf]
  • Douglas, J. E., Burgess, A. W., Burgess, A. G., & Ressler, R. K. (1992). Crime classification manual: A standard system for investigating and classifying violent crime. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Also this week, a report that reveals that South African ‘profilers’ have also changed their approach. Is tracking serial killers ‘mumbo jumbo’?, an article in the South African news source Saturday Star (8 Nov), which discusses the establishment of an Investigative Psychology Unit in the South African police service:

The IPU was a trailblazer from the outset. Established by investigative psychologist Micki Pistorius… the unit had an exceptionally high success rate. Pistorius was the first profiler in the country. Her ground-breaking work prompted legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler to acknowledge that she was one of the finest practitioners in her field worldwide. However, her methods raised eyebrows in some quarters, and may have contributed to the common public perception that serial killer profiling involves more “mumbo jumbo” than it does the scientific compilation and analysis of data… After Pistorius’s departure, …Gerrard Labuschagne was appointed head of the Investigative Psychology Unit of the SAPS. He has instituted far-reaching changes in the way the unit operates. The IPU recently engaged in collaborative research with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, on the topic of serial murders in South Africa. To date this is the largest-scale research project on serial murders in the world.

Photo credit: clover_1, Creative Commons Licence

2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell on criminal profiling”

  1. im a student at the University of Johannesburg.. I am studying both Psychology and General Law degrees.. The career I am most interested in is Forensic Psychology. I am in the process of writing a book, containing my ideas in conjunction with fact to develop a thesis on how childhood development is a direct link to mature behaviour. By describing this one could get an insight to what abnormal behaviour in childhood causes abnormal behavior in adults-my view is-to identitfy the cause of a problem is the start to the solution. One objective of this book is to make people of forensic pysychology as i hope to have a forensic psychologist present at every first murder case. From this one can develop an idea of the first murder suspect and determine whether or not this particular individual has a mental illness or tendencies of becoming/being a serial killer. If any one has any comments-please email me.. I am also looking for a part time job (as i am still studying) -anything to do with this industry… It would be greatly appreciated if you get back to me. Thank you

  2. After spending twenty plus years in law enforcement I’m skeptical of some of the academic literature that is funneled to the police. However Gladwell, in his book Blink, seems to be able to bridge the gap between the theoretical and what really happens on the street. I am interested in reading his article in the New Yorker
    Bob C.

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