Criminal profiling is very popular in fictional crime shows, but also used in reality. A profiler uses the known data about the case to create a profile of the person that commited the crime. This profile is used to focus the investigations and track down the perpetrator.

Does criminal profiling work? Are there any studies that evaluate the success rates of profilers?

5 Answers 5


A very nice and complete paper on the subject was written by Damon A Muller at the Australian National University1.

[...] empirical evaluations of the effectiveness of profiling are equivocal at best. Where such analyses do exist, they tend to be limited, and feature flawed methodology and low numbers of experimental subjects.

The paper goes in-depth in explaining what types of profiling exist, what challenges are there to actually measure the effectiveness and pretty much debunks profiling as a last-chance option not supported by hard scientific fact.

1: http://ceps.anu.edu.au/events/criminal_investigations_workshop/papers/Damon%20Muller%20-%20Does%20Criminal%20Profiling%20Reduce%20or%20Increase%20Uncertainty.pdf


It's not a scientific paper by any means, but Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about the pseudoscientific nature of profiling in the New Yorker in 2007. He makes a pretty good case that much of it really boils down to same techniques as cold reading.

  • 2
    Malcolm Gladwell writing an article about pseudoscience?
    – Borror0
    Mar 10, 2011 at 1:07
  • 3
    Ironic, isn't it?
    – Tim Farley
    Mar 16, 2011 at 13:49

Some years ago I was one of the Home Office (British government department responsible for the police) scientists working on offender profiling. I was tasked with reviewing the state of the field as it then was and my conclusion then was that there were no scientifically validated techniques which had been shown to make a practical difference to the course of a real investigation. The FBI unit had had some undoubted successes but these seemed to be based on the contributions of some very experienced detectives applying policing knowledge rather than any formal psychological technique.

After I left the Home Office work went in a different direction and the best-known application was to the Rachel Nickell murder investigation. This led to the identification of a suspect, who was put on trial and acquitted. in 2008 another man was convicted for the case on DNA evidence. The original suspect received a formal apology and compensation.

In the UK there are now academic departments studying profiling at Liverpool and Starthclyde universities. It seems that research is shifting to broader and more scientifically based questions such as the nature of the detection process and the reliability of witness statements.


I agree with Tim. I did some of my own research into it back in 2009(?) trying to find any cases that were solved by profiling. I was only able to come up with one case (and it was supposedly the first) where profiling broke the case. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Was this case really, literally solved by profiling? That was unclear to me in the reading and I haven't had time to research it further.

It seems obvious that whatever the facts are behind profiling the process is not very effective at solving crimes. It may be better at helping police understand their quarry - but does it actually solve cases? Not very often - if at all, as far as I've been able to tell.

  • As a follow-up - the case mentioned above concerned John Duffy. There was a profiler involved but according to the wikipedia article about the case the actual arrest came from Duffy behaving suspiciously. (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Duffy_and_David_Mulcahy) Key point being "Duffy had started to rape alone and he was arrested while following a woman in a secluded park, he was questioned also about the spate of rapes and murders, and the next day charged on all counts." So the arrest was not the product of profiling. Duffy fit 13 of 17 profiler traits - but that wasn't what got him.
    – user331
    Mar 10, 2011 at 5:02
  • ...but then again the New Scientist article says that the police were trailing Duffy already because of his profiling match. This is intriguing and I need to do more research. Was it really CLUES or PROFILING that led to this arrest? A curious case indeed. Regardless, there is still a dearth of arrests brought about by profiling.
    – user331
    Mar 10, 2011 at 5:07

Profiling can help reduce the set of likely suspects, which might be enough to bring that number down to something that's small enough to be manageable by the available forces. Of course when the profilers get it wrong (for whatever reasons, in practice often political correctness, being afraid to concluded that the most likely perp is a black female with an incomplete high school education for example) it can stall the case for a long time too.

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