4/24/13 - the fbi's use of psychological profiling

In today's selection -- the FBI's use of psychological profiling has become world famous through books, television, and movies including The Silence of the Lambs. However, it may be less useful than commonly believed:

"On the surface, the FBI's system seems extraordinarily useful. Consider a case study widely used in the profil­ing literature. The body of a twenty-six-year-old special-education teacher was found on the roof of her Bronx apartment building. She was apparently abducted just after she left her house for work, at six-thirty in the morn­ing. She had been beaten beyond recognition and tied up with her stockings and belt. The killer had mutilated her sexual organs, chopped off her nipples, covered her body with bites, written obscenities across her abdomen, mas­turbated, and then defecated next to the body.

"Let's pretend that we're an FBI profiler. First ques­tion: race. The victim is white, so let's call the offender white. Let's say he's in his midtwenties to early thirties, which is when the thirty-six men in the FBI's sample started killing. Is the crime organized or disorganized? Disorganized, clearly. It's on a rooftop, in the Bronx, in broad daylight -- high risk. So what is the killer doing in the building at six-thirty in the morning? He could be some kind of serviceman, or he could live in the neigh­borhood. Either way, he appears to be familiar with the building. He's disorganized, though, so he's not stable. If he is employed, it's blue-collar work at best. He prob­ably has a prior offense, having to do with violence or sex. His relationships with women will be either nonexistent or deeply troubled. And the mutilation and the defecation are so strange that he's probably mentally ill or has some kind of substance-abuse problem. How does that sound? As it turns out, it's spot-on. The killer was Carmine Cala­bro, age thirty, a single, unemployed, deeply troubled actor who, when he was not in a mental institution, lived with his widowed father on the fourth floor of the build­ing where the murder took place.

"But how useful is that profile really? The police already had Calabro on their list of suspects: if you're looking for the person who killed and mutilated someone on the roof, you don't really need a profiler to tell you to check out the disheveled, mentally ill guy living with his father on the fourth floor. ...

"In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed 184 crimes to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a crimi­nal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That's just 2.7 percent. ...

"A few years ago, [the author of The Forensic Psychologist's Casebook, Laurence] Alison 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 FBI'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.

          'Moving on to career matters, you don't work with children, do you?'

Rowland will ask his subjects, in an example of what he dubs the 'Vanishing Negative.'

          No, I don't.
          'No, I thought not. That's not really your role.'

"Of course, if the subject answers differently, there's another way to play the question:

          'Moving on to career matters, you don't work with children, do you?'

          I do, actually, part time.
          'Yes, I thought so.'

"After Alison had analyzed the rooftop-killer profile, he decided to play a version of the cold-reading game. He gave the details of the crime, the profile prepared by the FBI, and a description of the offender to a group of senior police officers and forensic professionals in England. How did they find the profile? Highly accurate. Then Alison gave the same packet of case materials to another group of police officers, but this time he invented an imaginary offender, one who was altogether different from Calabro. The new killer was thirty-seven years old. He was an alcoholic. He had recently been laid off from his job with the water board and had met the victim before on one of his rounds. What's more, Alison claimed, he had a history of violent relationships with women, and prior convictions for assault and burglary. How accurate did a group of experienced police officers find the FBI's profile when it was matched with the phony offender? Every bit as accurate as when it was matched to the real offender."


Malcolm Gladwell


What the Dog Saw


Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company


Copyright 2009 by Malcolm Gladwell


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