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.