118 THE CANADIAN JOURNAL OF POLICE & SECURITY SERVICES
A Review of the Validity of Criminal Profiling
THE CANADIAN JOURNAL OF POLICE & SECURITY SERVICES
VOLUME 4 ISSUE 2/3 SUMMER/FALL 2006
A RA R
A RA R
A Review of the Veview of the V
eview of the Veview of the V
eview of the Validity of Criminal Palidity of Criminal P
alidity of Criminal Palidity of Criminal P
alidity of Criminal Profilingrofiling
The use of criminal profiling has increased steadily over the
last 30 years despite a lack of compelling empirical evidence
that it “works”. In this article, we review the extant evidence to
gauge the validity of criminal profiling. First, we review “user-
satisfaction” surveys that indicate that many police officers
find profiling to be a useful investigative tool. Second, we re-
view the literature examining the predictive validity of profiler
predictions about the characteristics of unknown offenders and
conclude that profilers are no more accurate than the average
person. We contend that police officers should exercise caution
if they decide to use a profiler’s predictions in an investigation.
Richard M. Cullen
Jennifer M. Kavanagh
Memorial University of Newfoundland
*Comments concerning this paper can be addressed to: Brent Snook,
Psychology Department, Science Building, Memorial University of
Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL, Canada, A1B 3X9 (e-mail:
Criminal profiling (CP) involves predicting the per-
sonality, behavioural, and demographic
characteristics of criminals based on crime scene
information (Douglas, Ressler, Burgess, & Hartman, 1986).
Although the scope of CP practice now goes beyond this
original definition (Alison, 2005), predicting offender char-
acteristics remains the primary goal of CP because addi-
tional profiler advice (e.g., interview strategies) is depen-
dent on what type of person the profiler believes commit-
ted the crime (Muller, 2000). The frequency with which CP
has been used in criminal investigations has grown
steadily over the past 30 years (Egger, 1999; Woodworth &
Porter, 1999; Witkin, 1996; Pinizotto, 1984) in the absence
of a well-defined framework and compelling empirical sup-
port for CP. Given that CP is now commonplace within
police investigations world-wide (Homant & Kennedy,
1998) and that the effect of CP on criminal investigations is
unknown, it is imperative that police officers are informed
about whether this particular investigative technique
“works”. The goal of the current paper is to provide a brief
overview of CP and then review the available evidence on
The 5 W’s of Profiling
What is profiling? When CP was originally popular-
ized by the FBI (see Egger, 1999, for a review of the history
of CP), a profile consisted primarily of a list of characteris-
tics (e.g., age, gender, and previous convictions) that were
likely to be possessed by the unknown offender. Profiles
were apparently then used to narrow the list of potential
suspects, focus investigations, and determine interview
strategies (Douglas & Burgess, 1986; Douglas et al., 1986).
In recent years, the potential forms that a profile can take
and the ways in which it can be used within a criminal
investigation have expanded. Profilers now make sugges-
tions about prioritizing resources, managing cases and
the media, geoprofiling, and statement analysis
(Ainsworth, 2001). Regardless of these developments, the
predictions about the unknown offender’s characteristics
remains the central focus of CP because all other aspects of
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VOLUME 4 ISSUE 2/3 SUMMER/FALL 2006 119
CP advice are dependent on the type of person that the
profiler believes committed the crime.
The exact process that profilers use to make their pre-
dictions is shaped by their training. The process generally
involves three stages (Ault & Reese, 1980; Copson, 1995;
Douglas et al., 1986). First, police officers collect crime scene
data (e.g., photos and details of the offence) and forward it
to a profiler. Second, the profiler examines this data. Third,
the profiler provides predictions to the police about the
type of individual that is likely to have committed the crime
in question, along with interview and investigative strate-
gies to be used during the course of the investigation. Two
different approaches to making predictions from crime
scene data have been defined: clinical and statistical. Clini-
cally-oriented profilers appear to draw on their psycho-
logical training; knowledge and experience with criminal
behaviour; and/or intuition to predict what type of person
the offender is likely to be (Ault & Reese, 1980; Douglas &
Munn, 1992; Hazelwood & Douglas, 1980). Statistically-
oriented profilers base their predictions on statistical analy-
sis (ranging from simple descriptive statistics to multivari-
ate analysis) of data on offenders who have previously
committed crimes that are similar to the crime being inves-
tigated (e.g., Canter, 2004; Canter, 1994; Jackson, van den
Eshof, & de Kleuver, 1997). Other profilers use some com-
bination of the two approaches (for example, see Leyton,
1983). Despite attempts to explain the approaches to pro-
filing, precisely how the different types of profilers pro-
duce predictions remains ambiguous (Gudjonnson &
Who are profilers? There is no consensus about who is
qualified to be a profiler. Some have maintained that a
profiler is anyone who labels themselves a profiler and
has engaged in the practice of constructing a profile for a
criminal investigation (Kocsis, 2004), whereas others have
argued that only individuals who have considerable in-
vestigative experience should be profilers (Hazelwood,
Ressler, Depue, & Douglas, 1995). Further, although some
attempts have been made to regulate and accredit profilers
(e.g., International Criminal Investigative Analysis Fellow-
ship, National Crime Faculty), there remains no regula-
tory body that provides a professional CP designation (see
Kocsis, 2004). Thus, individuals with widely varying lev-
els of experience and education can present themselves to
police agencies as profilers. Bearing in mind the problems
with defining profilers, there are two major sub-groups of
people who currently provide profiles: a) the FBI-trained
profilers and b) individuals with degrees in the mental
health, forensic, and behavioural professions. Although
the majority of CP is being conducted by these types of
individuals, others, such as experienced police officers and
academics, are also engaged in the practice of CP (Egger,
When is profiling used? The use of profilers has typi-
cally been limited to certain low-volume crimes such as
stranger sexual assaults and homicides that appear to lack
motive (Blau, 1994; Copson, 1995; Geberth, 1996). Profiles
are seen to be most useful in these types of cases because
offenders are more likely to exhibit evidence of psychopa-
thology (Geberth, 1996), thus, allowing profilers to assume
that offenders behave consistently. The profiler might be
consulted at various stages of the investigation. Some
profilers generally claim to be most useful if called upon
from the beginning of an investigation (Annon, 1995; Dou-
glas et al., 1986), because their predictions can help guide
the direction of the investigation. There is some evidence
that police forces heed that suggestion because the results
from a survey by Copson (1995) showed that in 46% of the
184 cases where profilers were used in the United King-
dom, the profiler was called in at the outset or early stage
of the investigation. Sometimes, however, profilers may be
called in at a later stage when other investigative tools and
initial leads have been exhausted. Indeed, Copson found
that 34% of profilers were called in after the direction of
inquiry was established and 17% were called in after ini-
tial leads were exhausted.
Where is profiling used? The majority of CP occurs in the
United States through the FBI, with the most recent esti-
mates indicating that CP is being applied in approximately
1000 cases per year (Witkin, 1996). CP is also being heavily
used in the United Kingdom, with 242 instances of CP
advice being reported between 1981 and 1994 (Copson,
1995). Although exact estimates of CP prevalence in other
countries are not directly available, its use has been docu-
mented in Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa,
Germany, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, Russia, Zimbabwe,
and The Netherlands (see Åsgard, 1998; Boon & Davies,
1993; Case Analysis Unit, 1998; Clark, 2002; Jackson,
Herbrink, & van Koppen, 1997;).
Why is profiling used? Police officers probably use CP
for various reasons. Survey results indicate that some of-
ficers believe profiles are operationally useful (Copson,
1995; Haines, 2006; Pinizzotto, 1984) because the predic-
tions reinforce their own opinions, further their under-
standing of the offender, and focus the investigation
(Copson, 1995; Haines, 2006). It appears that many offic-
ers believe that CP “works”, but holding this belief is not a
prerequisite for using CP. Some reasons to explain why
people seem to believe that CP works have been provided
previously (Snook, Cullen, Bennell, Taylor, & Gendreau,
2006). Snook et al. argued that some officers might use CP
simply because they have “nothing to lose” by finding out
what a profiler’s advice can offer to an investigation. An
analogous situation, in our opinion, is ‘knocking on wood’
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120 THE CANADIAN JOURNAL OF POLICE & SECURITY SERVICES
A Review of the Validity of Criminal Profiling
to ward off bad fortune (see Vyse, 1997). Furthermore, when
a case is unsolved, it is an officer’s duty to use all available
investigative techniques. Failure to fulfill their duty could
bring criticism from colleagues, victims, and the general
public. The exact reasons why CP is used, however, re-
In the next two sections, we will review the few studies
that have attempted to measure the validity of CP. The two
types of validity used to evaluate CP in this article are: face
validity and predictive validity (see Cronbach, 1960). Face
validity is achieved if those who use profiling believe that
profiling is reliable, valid, and useful (i.e., whether police
officers think profiling “works”). Predictive validity is es-
tablished by direct empirical examinations of profilers’
predictive abilities (i.e. whether profilers can accurately
predict offender characteristics).
What do police officers believe about profiling?
A handful of surveys that have assessed the attitudes
towards CP among various police agencies have reported
mixed results. Results from FBI profiler John Douglas’ sur-
vey (see Pinizzotto, 1984) indicated that solving the case
was attributed to CP advice in 46% of 192 instances where
FBI profiling was requested. When survey respondents
were asked to indicate the specific type of assistance pro-
vided by CP, 77% responded that it ‘focused the investiga-
tion properly’, whereas only 17% of respondents felt that
CP ‘identified suspect(s)’ and 20% responded that it ‘helped
locate possible suspect(s).’
A survey of six police officers in The Netherlands re-
garding the utility of the advice given by their FBI trained
profiler revealed that one officer reported that the advice
was ‘not very useful’, three reported that it was ‘reason-
ably useful’, and two officers reported that the advice was
‘very useful’ (Jackson, van Koppen, & Herbrink, 1993).
Paradoxically, they all reported that profiles were not suc-
cessful in helping solve their investigation. Some of the
reasons given for the lack of success were that the profile
fit the criminal on some characteristics but not on others,
did not provide any new investigative information, was
too general, or was not very practical.
Copson (1995) found that 83% of the 184 police officers
claimed that criminal profiles were operationally useful
and 92% reported that they would seek CP advice again,
but only 3% stated that the profile helped them identify the
criminal, 14% said it helped them solve the case, and 16%
reported that the CP advice helped them open new lines of
inquiry. Sixty-one percent of police officers reported that
CP is operationally useful because it furthered an under-
standing of the case and 53% indicated that the expert
opinion reassured their own previously held judgments.
A more recent survey was completed using 51 police
officers from across Canada (Haines, 2006). Sixty-six per-
cent of the 29 officers who had previously used CP indi-
cated that it made a significant contribution to their inves-
tigation, 74% indicated that the profiler made accurate pre-
dictions, and 69% indicated that the profile(s) they received
was operationally useful. Approximately 94% of the 51
officers agreed that profilers help solve cases, 88% agreed
that CP is a valuable investigative tool, 84% agreed that
profilers further investigators’ understanding of a case,
and 52% indicated that the profiler’s advice was impor-
tant in opening new lines of inquiry. Sixty percent of the
officers, however, indicated that the profiler’s advice was
not important in solving the case, 41% of officers disagreed
with the statement that profilers use sound scientific tech-
niques, and 67% reported that profiling should not be used
in court as evidence. Overall, Haines’ concluded that many
officers appear to have generally accepted the utility and
validity of CP.
In short, the results from these “user-satisfaction” sur-
veys suggest that police officers believe that profiles can
provide some investigative assistance; however, there ap-
pears to be some skepticism among police officers about
whether profilers can identify offenders and solve cases
and whether their predictions should be used as evidence
Do profilers make accurate predictions?
It is our contention that credibility should only be given
to profilers when they can demonstrate that their predic-
tive accuracy rates significantly exceed chance levels and
that their predictive abilities go beyond that of non-profiler
groups. We acknowledge that profilers provide services in
addition to predictions about offender characteristics.
However, this is arguably the most frequently requested
type of advice and the most important task that they per-
form because the profiler’s belief about the type of person
who committed the crime influences all subsequent types
of profiling advice (e.g., interview strategies). Relative to
the high level of usage of CP worldwide, there have been
only five studies that have attempted to test profilers’ pre-
dictive ability scientifically. The results of these studies,
which compared profilers’ predictive accuracy to various
non-profiler groups, are presented below.
The Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990) study: Pinizzotto and
Finkel (1990) asked a sample of six profilers, six police
detectives, six clinical psychologists, and six undergradu-
ate students to provide a profile for both a homicide and a
sexual assault case. The profilers performed no better than
all other groups on the homicide case, and they outper-
formed only the student group on the sexual assault case.
Profilers achieved absolute accuracy scores of 5.3 out of 15
for the homicide case (i.e., 35%) and 10 out of 15 for the
sexual assault case (67%), for a total score across both cases
of 15.3 out of a possible 30 points (i.e., 51% accuracy rate).
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Overall, the profilers achieved low levels of both relative
and absolute accuracy.
The Kocsis, Irwin, Hayes, and Nunn (2000) study: Kocsis
and his colleagues compared the ability of five professional
profilers, 41 police officers, 30 psychologists, 31 students,
and 20 psychics on their ability to correctly predict 30 crimi-
nal characteristics [six physical characteristics (e.g., gen-
der, age, and height), seven cognitive processes (e.g., de-
gree of planning and previous violent fantasies), seven
offense behaviours (e.g., hiding identity from victim and
modifying the crime scene after the offense), and 10 social
histories and habits (e.g., employment history and marital
status)] using crime scene data from a previously solved
homicide (a 30-item multiple choice questionnaire was
used in this study and in all of Kocsis’ subsequent studies,
with some minor modifications depending on the nature
of the crime). The profilers got less than half of the 30 mul-
tiple choice questions correct (46% accuracy rate). There
were no overall significant differences in accuracy found
between the groups. For example, the profilers, on average,
made only one and a quarter more correct responses than
the psychologists (13.80 vs. 12.57). This study does not
provide strong support for the predictive ability of crimi-
The Kocsis, Hayes, & Irwin (2002) study: This study was
designed to assess the impact of experience in police in-
vestigations on the accuracy of profiler predictions. Kocsis
and his colleagues provided a sample of 31 senior detec-
tives, 12 homicide detectives, 19 trainee detectives, 50 po-
lice recruits, and 31 undergraduate chemistry students with
the details of a previously solved homicide case and asked
them to complete a 30-item multiple-choice questionnaire.
Fifty untrained police students served as a control group;
they were provided with no case details and asked to pre-
dict who they thought a typical homicide would be. There
were no differences in accuracy between any of the police
groups on the overall measure or any of the four
submeasures measures that Kocsis et al. (2002) used, with
the exception that the police recruits were more accurate
than the homicide detectives when predicting the offender’s
social history and habits. Interestingly, the chemistry stu-
dents were also more accurate than the homicide detec-
tives on that submeasure, as well as the overall measure.
Kocsis concluded that level of investigative experience may
not be associated with predictive accuracy.
The Kocsis (2004) study: In this study, Kocsis provided
three professional profilers, 12 fire investigators, 13 detec-
tives, and 21 chemistry students with the details of an ar-
son case and asked them to complete a 33-item multiple-
choice questionnaire. A control group comprised of 47 com-
munity college students also completed the questionnaire
without receiving the case details. This group was in-
structed to predict the type of person they believed a typi-
cal arsonist would be. On the overall measure, profilers
produced an absolute accuracy score of 23 out of 33 (70%),
which was significantly higher than the police detectives
and the controls. The profilers were also more accurate
than the controls on the physical features submeasure and
more accurate than the police detectives and controls on
the social history and habits submeasure. Importantly,
however, the profilers did no better than any of the com-
parison groups on the cognitive processes and offense
behaviours submeasures. To summarize, only five of the
twenty comparisons of profilers predictive ability to non-
profilers predicitive ability in this study favoured the
profilers. This study, hence, did not provide compelling
support for the predictive abilities of profilers.
The Kocsis, Middledorp, and Try (2005) study: This study
compared the predictive accuracy of 5 profilers against 5
chemistry students. Two control groups that were tested
in previous studies conducted by Kocsis and his colleagues
were also used for comparison purposes in this study. The
profilers and chemistry students were presented with pre-
viously solved homicide and arson cases and instructed
to complete a 33-item multiple choice questionnaire. The
profilers’ absolute accuracy scores were 46% for the homi-
cide case and 62% for the arson case. On the homicide
case, the profilers were significantly more accurate than
the chemistry students (28%) and the controls (31%). On
the arson case, the profilers were not significantly more
accurate than the chemistry students (51%) but were sig-
nificantly more accurate than the controls (50%). This study
provided meagre support for profilers’ predictive abilities.
Meta-analysis of predictive validity: In an attempt to quan-
titatively summarize the previous findings, Snook,
Eastwood, Gendreau, Goggin, and Cullen (2006) per-
formed a meta-analysis of the results from the previous
studies.1 A meta-analysis is a method of statistically com-
bining results from a research area to produce an overall
measure of an effect or outcome (i.e. profilers’ overall pre-
dictive ability). Snook et al. converted comparisons between
profiler and non-profiler groups into Pearson’s correla-
tion coefficients (r) and averaged the r values. Positive r
values suggest that profilers outperform non-profiler
groups and negative r values indicate the reverse. Snook
and his colleagues also calculated the respective 95% con-
fidence intervals (CI) around the r values as a way to mea-
sure the precision of the estimate regarding the profilers’
1 The Kocsis et al. (2002) study was not included in the meta-analysis
because it did not include a profiler group, and the Kocsis et al.
(2005) study was not included because it was published after the
meta-analysis was completed.
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A Review of the Validity of Criminal Profiling
predictive ability. For example, obtaining a CI of -.2 to .2
means that there is a 95% chance that the obtained r value
falls within this range. Wider CIs indicate greater uncer-
tainty, and for the purposes of that study, CIs with a width
greater than .10 were defined as imprecise. Also, a CI that
spans 0 indicates an inconclusive effect, as the true result
could favour either the profiler or non-profiler group. An r
value between .1 and .3 signifies a small effect, an r value
between .3 and .5 signifies a moderate effect, and an r value
greater than .5 signifies a large effect (Cohen, 1988).
Snook et al’s meta-analysis produced an average
Pearson’s r of .24 (SD = .47), with an associated CI = -.03 to
.51 (width was .54; spanned 0). The r values also favoured
the profiler group across four submeasures of predictive
accuracy, however all r values were less than .24, all CIs
were wider than .10, and one CI contained 0. Given the
low r values and wide CIs produced by this meta-analysis,
it was concluded that there is no compelling evidence for
the idea that profilers possess a level of predictive ability
beyond various non-profiler groups.
Before drawing any conclusions regarding the validity
of criminal profiling, a number of caveats and potential
limitations of the CP research reviewed in this article need
to be highlighted. Regarding face validity, results produced
from surveys are dependent on how the questions are
framed and the available response options. An obvious
example where this is a concern is in the Jackson et al.
(1993) study. Jackson et al. found that five of the six police
officers they surveyed found CP advice to be useful, but
two of the three available responses indicated that CP had
some degree of ‘usefulness’, thereby increasing the likeli-
hood that respondents would indicate that CP was useful.
A detailed critique of the surveys reviewed above is be-
yond the scope of this article, but it should be noted that
there are certain limitations to the conclusions drawn from
self-report research such as surveys (Clark-Carter, 1997).
There are numerous methodological concerns with the
studies that have assessed the predictive validity of crimi-
nal profilers. For brevity, some of the specific concerns with
CP predictive validity studies are highlighted here. First,
the number of profilers who have participated has been
miniscule compared to the number of individuals currently
providing CP services around the world. Indeed, there is
some indication that profilers have been very reluctant to
subject their abilities to experimental scrutiny (Kocsis et
al., 2000). The results can thus not be generalized to all
profilers world-wide because, as we know, there is signifi-
cant variation in the education, experience, and approach
of different profilers. Secondly, some of the questions con-
tained in the questionnaire were ambiguous and subjec-
tive, with answers dependent on the view of the respon-
dent. A related problem is how the accuracy of the an-
swers to some questions, such as an offender’s fantasies or
feelings of remorse, was measured, given the subjective
nature of assessing and confirming these factors. In addi-
tion, Kocsis and his colleagues’ studies also lacked real-
ism because the experiments were set up so that no inter-
action could take place between participants or between
participants and the researchers, although real-world CP
is generally seen as an interactive process (Douglas & Bur-
gess, 1986), and furthermore the participants’ predictions
were limited to the response options provided on the mul-
tiple-choice questionnaire. Using multiple choice measures
is also a concern because a certain level of accuracy can be
expected by chance, regardless of predictive ability. These
and other methodological and conceptual limitations with
the studies conducted by Kocsis and his colleagues have
been discussed previously (see Bennell, Jones, Taylor, &
Snook, 2006, for a comprehensive critique). Given these
concerns, conclusions reached in the majority of the stud-
ies included in this review should be treated with caution
until further replications using improved designs are per-
We acknowledge that the current services offered by
profilers to police agencies go beyond the original purpose
of providing a list of characteristics about the unknown
offender. We, however, were concerned with whether
profilers possess a sufficient level of predictive accuracy.
The limited evidence suggests that police officers think
that CP is a useful investigative tool, but the empirical evi-
dence does not support the scientific validity of profilers’
predictive abilities. Given the fact that the impact of CP
advice on criminal investigations is unknown, police of-
ficers should use caution if they choose to request the ser-
vices of a profiler until properly conducted scientific re-
search demonstrates that criminal characteristics can be
predicted from crime scene evidence.
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