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Profiling: How England does it

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Live from Liverpool! English psychological profiling. Move over, FBI: make room for the growing field of Investigative Psychology (IP)! If you have not heard about it yet, you probably will, given the popularity of profiling generally. This article offers you the opportunity to evaluate IP (if, for no other reason, than to be ready if the subject ever comes up - and to sound smarter than your friends.)

At the top of IP is David Canter, a respected psychologist and founder of the Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool, England. While Canter has a number of peers with whom he writes, second to Canter in IP advocacy is probably C. Gabrielle Salfati, now at the John Jay College in New York, but formerly, a lecturer at the Centre and course leader for the diploma in “forensic behavioral science.” In contrast to FBI profiling, IP was “designed from the beginning with science in mind. . . ,” and Canter and his colleagues “have attempted to use established psychological principles and research methodology to create a discipline that is empirically sound and open to peer review,” (Muller, 2000, p. 251). Does that not sound impressive? It does until we delve further into it. It does until Muller goes on to say “but this does not mean it is a science in itself” (p. 251). If Canter were actually using established psychological principles, his work might have the status of experimental psychology. Then again, if you are using established psychological principles and methods, why not consider what you do as a contribution to the field of experimental psychology, instead of maintaining that it is a discreet field of science?

Even more than the field of forensic psychology, which mentions, but does not follow, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ethics guidelines, which lays out the rules of science, IP has no ethics rules and, in this, follows the field of criminology. This, and the fact that Canter and Salfati’s work and ideas are far more akin to those of criminology than to psychology, should warn against a too-hasty acceptance of claims that IP applies psychology, and is a science - in itself.

Youngs and Canter (2005, p. 326) discuss how they draw on psychology:

A number of potential processes are postulated within social and psychological theories. These include psychodynamic [Freudian] theories and personality theories, as well as frameworks drawing on interpersonal narratives and on socio-economic factors [e.g. poverty]. Any or all of these theories could provide a valid basis for investigative inferences if the differences in individuals that they posit correspond to real variations in criminal behaviour. One general hypothesis is that offenders will show some consistency between the nature of their crimes and characteristics they exhibit in other situations (emphasis added, spelling intact).

Remember: something is not science just because someone claims it is. Science has to begin with the observable, so that others can come along and see or not see the same things. None of these theories or frameworks, aside from economic factors, fits what the APA's Publication Manual (2001, p. 348) describes as the “essence of the scientific method [which] involves observations that can be repeated and verified by others.” How does one observe the depth psychology (e.g. the unconscious) that Freud used for therapy? Even Freud (1932) did not think that was science. And, how does one observe a personality? Or interpersonal narratives, however you want to define that? Further, experimental psychologists have not used psychodynamics, or believed in consistent personality traits, for at least 40 years, as noted in a previous article on profiling (Ritter, 2013).

Gabrielle Salfati (2000, p. 267) wrote that “behaviors should be the focus of this [research] investigation because, first and foremost, they are what are observable at the crime scene.” What is observable is also more objective. And using a more objective unit of analysis “will produce a more readily applicable model for police. . . to more directly use the results of the research in investigations of murder” (p. 267). What? Even after the study, Salfati admitted that, because expressive crimes were found among offenders with both expressive and instrumental backgrounds, “At present, . . . there may be some limitations in the application” of this idea to profiling offenders.

What we do know is that IP researchers claim to study behavior, that is, they study the “behaviors” at the crime scene. That’s the closest they ever get to behavior. And unless you actually watch the crime being committed, what is left at the crime scene cannot really be considered behavior. You can say, for instance, that the body bears signs of strangulation, or was buried and therefore hidden, but going beyond that to make statements about what that means is not behavior. Yet Salfati, particularly, moves quickly to inferences about the motivations behind aggression, and from there, to the even more abstract idea that there are two types (or “themes”) of aggression – expressive (where the intent is to hurt the victim) or instrumental (where the aim is to gain something through the victim, e.g. sex or possessions, without a specific intent to harm). Is that behavior? Hardly. It’s a subjective idea, drawn from early aggression theorists (e.g. Feshbach, 1964), who are rarely mentioned today except in criticism. (See, for instance, Bandura’s, 1973, criticisms, Baker and Ball, 1969, and almost all other mass media researchers. One of the first issues to come in for thorough testing in mass media research was the concept of “catharsis,” i.e., that watching more television, or other media, violence reduces the readiness of the observer to behave aggressively. Feshbach, 1961, 1964, 1971, 1972, was one of the last and one of the most vocal adherents for this proposition.)

To be continued . . . .