Is criminal profiling basically cold reading? (with a special call out to Ianzin)

So I’ve been reading a book called What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures which is a compilations of articles by New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell. One of the articles is a piece on criminal profiling in which he compares it (rather convincingly) to a number of cold reading techniques use by psychics. He cites a book called The Full facts of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland (aka Ianzin on the Dope) which details specific techniques by name - for instance the “rainbow” ruse" which asserts both one characteristic and its opposite (“he’s sometimes quiet and sometimes extroverted”), the “fuzzy fact” and several other things. Gladwell compared these things to the literal text of criminal profiles and found that they were practically nothing but cold reading techniques. He used the particular anecdote of FBI profilers trying to nail down the BTK killer, and they were saying stuff like “He’s a lone wolf but can function socially.” “he’s either lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class.” “He has an IQ of over 105.” “He likes to masturbate.” (Those last two are “Barnum Statements,” i.e they are true of pretty much everybody), and my personal favorite,“he’s either never been married, is married or is divorced.”

Gladwell also talks about the confirmation bias that goes on after some of these guys are caught, how all the wrong stuff is forgotten if even one thing was right, and how these profiles rarely, if ever, actually lead to an arrest.
So is criminal profiling a total sham? Pure woo? A total fraud? Is there anything to it at all, or are these guys no different than John Edward and Allison DuBois (the con-artist who is the basis for the execrable show Medium)?

I’d especially like to know Ianzin’s thoughts since he was specifically referenced as an authority in Gladwell’s piece.

I never noticed any significant evidence that so-called “profilers” were any good at what they’re doing. I’ve seen LEO pointing at their uselessness or shrugging out the idea when asked if they worked with them or had requested their services.

Basically, I’ve never heard anyone that would be well informed praising them. As a result, I’ve always assumed it was bordering scam and that nobody was really taking them seriously, even more so since they appeared as main characters on TV crime series, hence were a bit “fictional”.

I could say that I realized quite late that they were for real, and actually worked for the police sometimes. But since my negative perception of them was already well-entrenched, it didn’t change my opinion. I’m putting them in the same category as, say, graphologists (the kind who state they can determine someone’s personality on the basis of his handwriting).

It never occurred to me, though, that they could use statements similar to those used for cold reading to make themselves appear knowledgeable.

I think that one could say that basically the entire industry of psychology, outside of neuropsychology, is still mostly bunk. On the other hand, I think that that’s because they’re still early in the process. They’re trying stuff and seeing what does and doesn’t work. But until you have tried a hypothesis out, there’s no way to know that it won’t work, so there’s no much help for it.

Psychology didn’t really get started as a science until maybe the 70s. Before that, they wasted a lot of time in Freudianism, where their own hypotheses were always proved correct via a feedback system. Since they’ve gotten out of that hole, there just hasn’t been a lot of time to start landing on things which provide actual results (except for medication).

My rule is that you’ll know the day when psychology has ceased to be bunk when a bunch of psychologists start to make a fortune playing the stock market.

As a slight aside, for further info on cold reading, Ian helped enormously with this staff report:

I also HIGHLY recommend his book. Even if you’re not planning on becoming a psychic, magician, or con-artist, it’s great reading to understand how they pull of these stunts.

I’ll send Ian an email to alert him to this thread.

And Gladwells piece is here, and like everything he writes it is a fun read.

I read John Douglas’s (guy who founded criminal profiling) book a long time ago. My impression, as I recall, was that on first glance it seems like a good idea. There are certainly characteristics that many perpatrators of a given crime are likely to share. So collecting all those characteristics in a book and then using that to try and solve crimes seems like a pretty good idea.

The problem, is that the characteristics are so strongly correlated that you don’t really need a professional class of specialists to figure them out, a decently experienced homicide detective is probably already aware of them. So the profiler shows up, tells the detectives a bunch of semi-useful theories the detectives were probably already aware of, and then, they aren’t much good. Knowing that a serial killer is likely to be an intelligent, lower middle class white male in his early thirites who was abused as a child is useful, but you don’t really need years of study to figure it out.

And when educated professionals reach a point where their training won’t take them much further, I’ve noticed a tendency amongst at least some of them to start taking guesses and fooling themselves (and sometimes those around them) into thinking that they’re using their education, when really they’re just shooting in the dark. I suspect this is where the “cold reading” stuff comes in, they aren’t necessarily scamming others, but when a bunch of people are looking to you for some sort of special knowledge about a problem, and your supposed to know something they don’t, its easy to fool yourself into thinking your vague gut intuition is really some sort of special insight, when really your just making the same guesses anyone could make.

About ten years ago I went through a time where I read a lot of true crime novels, articles an et cetera. At the beginning my knowledge of criminal profiling was based entirely on what I had seen in popular culture, so my assumption going in was that it was a proven thing that genuinely worked often enough to be valuable. After anything more than cursory exploration into the area, I really think it quickly becomes obvious it’s totally worthless.

Now, the thing about cold reading versus criminal profiling is persons who use cold reading are doing it as part of a deliberate deception (either as entertainment or as a criminal confidence scheme) and I don’t know that I think criminal profilers are committing a genuine deception.

I basically think it is like polygraph examinations. Enough people in law enforcement have been trained in this technique that law enforcement at large believes in their validity. However, just like polygraph exams they really aren’t scientifically supported at all, and criminal profiling is almost always extremely vague and frequently directly incorrect whenever it isn’t vague.

(While I think polygraphs are pseudoscience I do see that they have value as an interrogation tool, and value in the law enforcement job screening process. However that is based on the perception people have of polygraph examinations and not on their technical functionality.)

Thanks for the call out!

Yes, my real name is Ian Rowland (it’s not a secret) and I was consulted by Malcolm Gladwell (by email) when he was preparing that article.

There are two main elements to ‘psychological profiling’ in this context. The first is simply statistical inductive reasoning. You look at the evidence in a case, and see which previous cases seem similar in nature. If 90% of those earlier cases were perpetrated by a working class white guy from the mid-West with a history of violence, then you have a statistical basis for saying this is probably the kind of guy we’re looking for. If you have five prime suspects, and one matches this profile and the other four don’t, there is a basis for allocating more time to watching the one guy who matches.

There are many problems with this approach, the chief one being that the assessment of what constitutes ‘similarity’ is to some extent subjective, and people often see whatever they want to see. Another obvious problem is that inductive reasoning can’t actually predict anything. It can only provide the basis for a prediction… which may turn out to be dead wrong.

The second element of Psy Profiling can be summarised as trying to ‘get inside the mind’ of the criminal. The claim is that by studying the crime in detail and focusing on the mind that perpetrated it, one can to a limited extent begin to build up a picture of the bad guy in psychological terms.

This is where to controversy lies. Some profilers claim this is a valid science, and that it has helped to nail some bad guys. Critics suggest that it has never been shown to work, and it only looks good if you are very selective with the evidence.

This leads us straight into the same sort of arguments you get with regard to the ‘efficacy’ of anything else – homeopathic remedies, astrological forecasting of share prices, and so on. You will always gets adherents who say it works, and detractors who say they are being selective with the evidence. Basically, as I never tire of pointing out, a chessboard only has white squares on it – if you are selective enough with the evidence.

If you have a story of a Psy Profiler working on a case and coming up with a profile that is subsequently seen to match the bad guy pretty well, it begins to look like a valid science that can help the cops. But suppose that’s the only time in 100 that it ‘worked’, and the other 99 times the Profiler was way off the mark?

Gladwell’s argument was that if it were a genuine, beneficial science, then it wouldn’t resemble cold reading and the twaddle spouted by travelling fortune-tellers and psychic con artists. But it does, so it is. QED. Naturally, the same charge of ‘selectivity’ can be levelled at him. How many cases did he examine? How many times does the profile closely resemble cold reading nonsense, and how many times does it not bear this resemblance?

The overall picture is clouded by the fact that the cops have to be seen to be using every means at their disposal. Suppose they ignore a piece of evidence that seems to be irrelevant nonsense… but it subsequently turns out it would have helped them nail the killer sooner? The politicians and the media (unfairly) jump all over them. So they have to at least look as if they are welcoming and following all leads. If a guy with a string of qualifications says ‘This profile will help…’ they don’t gain anything by saying ‘Take your crystal ball voodoo and get lost’.

The picture is also clouded by movies like ‘Red Dragon’ and TV shows like ‘The Mentalist’ and ‘Lie To Me’ that play up the ‘detective psychologist’ angle. Sadly, they bear precisely zero relation to real life. I’ve lectured to the FBI on cold reading. It is useful to crime-fighters, but not in any way that looks as smug or as flashy as what you see in movies and on TV.

In conclusion, I don’t think one can draw an equals sign. Criminal profiling does not equal cold reading. But to the extent that a Psych Profile resembles a cold reading exercise, it’s safe to dismiss it as useless guesswork by someone eager to help but with nothing to offer.

Thanks, ianzin. A very helful post.

Maybe I’m missing something, but in “cold reading” you have the actual person right in front of you, and you can tease information out of them by the us of leading questions and being good at reading body language. In criminal profiling, you don’t have the person of interest available. Seems like two completely different situation to me.

You don’t need the person on front of you to do cold reading. Psychics do it all the time when they “assist” law enforcement. Astrologers do it with horoscopes. The essentials are just making vague enough statements that it will seem valid to the marks. With criminal profiling, the UNSUB isn’t the mark, the cops and the public are.

OK. I had never heard the term “cold reading” before, and didn’t realize it was a broader term that included those situations. I was focusing on the classic “gypsy” fortune teller who says there is a tall, dark stranger in your future.

That definitely allows for some “warmer” techniques, but (to my understanding, and maybe inazin will correct me on this), the coldest readings are the the horoscope type techniques, and the more information/feeback you’re able to get, the “hotter” the reading becomes.

ETA, I guess profilers could arguably have some “heat” available to them if they have some kind of statistically valid probablities about sex/age/race, etc.

I would think a hot reading is if you know something about the person in advance; a warm one, where you can guess by looking at or talking to them. If they have the hands of a farmer, are wearing dirty jeans with cow shit on the boots, they’re probably not a white-collar office clerk.

Within the trade, ‘hot’ denotes using information obtained in advance (either covertly or otherwise) and ‘cold’ denotes giving a reading without this advantage. It has nothing to do with utilising feedback obtained during the reading, which is part of standard cold reading technique.

As someone with previous experience in criminal investigative matters, let me state for the record that “psychic assistance” almost never happens, and the widespread cliche is mainly perpetuated by the psychics themselves. There are specific procedures which must be followed to build a case against someone, and “woo” stuff ain’t one of them.

Genuine criminal profilers, I’d imagine, would be highly offended at the comparison of their job to reading tea leaves and other nonsense. :rolleyes:

I know that psychics don’t really assist law enforcement, hence the scare quotes over “assist.”

I imagine criminal profilers would be offended by the comparison, but so what? That doesn’t make the comparson invalid, and they have no better success rate than psychics. Profiling isn’t evidence either. No one’s going to get convicted simply because they match a profile.

Psychics get indignant to when they get called out as frauds. That’s no reason to stop doing it.

The word “almost” is unnecessary in that sentence.

“Genuine” psychics are highly offended when you call them on their tricks-it doesn’t mean they are legit.

I’ve heard tell of magicians who have just struck up a perfectly ordinary conversation with one of the audience before the show, and then get that person to “volunteer” and proceed to amaze them with all sorts of details about their life, that the person told them directly not a half-hour before.