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How Do We Profile? Let me count the ways

This is the first in a series of 5 blog articles on the myriad of ways in which profiling has been or is being used in criminal justice to provide information about persons of interest, suspects, and unknown assailants. The first article will provide an overview of the history of activities/research efforts and results that can be defined as being profiling. In the body of this historical synopsis of those efforts will be the examination of the typical product outcomes of those efforts. Lastly, in
this blog piece, we will examine the generalized structure, efficiencies and effectiveness of the various types of profiling.

Original Night Stalker Sketch

To begin, I would first like you to consider that human beings are inherently prone to and like to put things, everything from living creatures, non-living things, feelings, artifacts, and other people into categories, types, and descriptive characterizations. These categories of descriptive
characterizations may also be referred to as profiles. This of course is using the broadest definition of profile available but it has value and will aid in our understanding of what profiling does for us whether we are profiling a variety of insects, architectural types, personalities, or serial killers.
If you look up the word profiling in a good thesaurus you will find that it is related to other terms such as: characterize, sketch, diagram, depiction, portrayal, identify, and inform, because that is exactly what the profiling of a species of fish or type of human behavior does, it sketches, or
illustratively outlines the features of that which we are studying. A profile, like a sketch, is not the thing itself, rather, it is a representation of the known features, kinds, and traits of the thing we seek to depict/describe. Think of it as blueprint for the mind, therefore, less bulky and
cumbersome than the thing itself.

One of the earliest known examples of profiling was sometimes done by members of the Roman armies as part of their preparation for the invasion and subduing of city-states or nations that had attracted the interest of their empire. They spied on, lived among, bought information, interrogated anyone they could get hold of or buy off, in order to find out the belief systems, political systems and intrigue, and weaknesses of the regions they intended to invade. They used the information they had gathered to determine how best to conquer their target and how best to rule/control them once they had them under their power. Moreover, rather than merely the using their study of that conquered nation to run roughshod over them by using military might and terror, the Roman’s tended to seize and maintain their control over conquered territories by learning how to manipulate the desires and fears of previously used by the established power- bases and the manipulation of that nation’s wealthy and political systems to their advantage.

Human beings have always had a curiosity about their own behavior, the behavior of others, and the sources of those behaviors. Our contemporary explorations as it regards criminal and noncriminal behaviors (motivations and ways of acting) therefore, has a long history rooted in the ancient past up to our contemporary time and surely continuing on and into our future.


The earliest attempts at systematic thought giving rise to the characterizations and categorizations of human behavior regarding individual and social life in the West were the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato (427-347 B.C.) and his disciple Aristotle (384-322
B.C.) who through their dialogs presented representations of individual characteristics and social constructs inherent in those characteristics. These early philosophers are followed by the likes of:

Auguste Comte: Auguste Comte is rightly called the founder of sociology because he was instrumental in the establishment of sociology as a science which would encompass the entirety of human life and associated activities. He was the first theorists to consider that all characteristics of social life are unified and that has an evolutionary structural base.

Emile Durkheim: Durkheim was the first modern theorists who highlighted the reality of society. He stated that social facts are exterior to the individual but provide significant impact (effect) and are the subject of a general science which can be arranged in categories.

Talcott Parsons: Parsons developed what he referred to as an action-frame in which an individual behaved, rightly or wrongly, in their activities. The action-frame contained four (4) elements of individual or group social action and a structure for understanding how values and norms within a society (or one’s place in society) impacted their roles and status within that society. The action-frame included: the individual, the end achievement of the actions undertaken, the situation in which the individual acted, and the means (methods, processes, or aims the means provided) that were
used by the individual to create/forward the end they intended or desired.


Of additional interest to our examination of profiling are several historically important persons in psychology whose methods and analysis are still considered and used in contemporary inquiry. Those persons are:

Sigmund Freud: Freud essentially was the founder of the discipline of psychology. His work argued that not all mental illnesses have physiological (biological) causes and provided evidence that cultural differences have an influence on psychology and behavior of the individual. His
work and writings contributed to our understanding of personality, abnormal psychology, and human development, although much of it has been discredited.

Carl G. Jung: He was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. Jung’s work remains influential in the fields of psychiatry, anthropology, archaeology, literature, and, philosophy. He examined areas of the human mind and behavior that constitute the psyche, and the way in which beliefs held and expected/required behavior influenced one another. He surmised that humans project a persona, or the impression of ourselves that we wish to present to the world (other persons) and hide (from ourselves and others) what, he called our shadow, or those aspects of ourselves that contain our concealed anxieties and repressed thoughts. Works by Jung that might be of interest to the aspiring profiler include, “Man & His Symbols”,

Psychological Types, and Psychology of the Unconscious.

Albert Bandura: His work focused on social learning theory (remember Freud’s cultural differences?), and stressed the importance of how human beings learn through observing others, imitation of others, and modeling others in seeking connection, reward, and success within the social environment (family, community, etc.) in which one dwells. Works by Bandura that might be of interest to the reader include, Social Learning Theory, Social Learning & Personality Development, and Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. The list of theorists and researchers noted above in sociology and psychology is not meant to be a complete list but rather serve as an example of persons who have contributed to our contemporary understanding of human behavior and motivation. Other theorists may be equally deserving of attention, even those we have come to know or understand that their earlier works may have been interesting but were inherently incorrect. Knowing and understanding the pitfalls and advances are equally important as both serve to illuminate the way ahead.

Early Profiling

One of the first criminal offender profiles created was that of Jack the Ripper. Of the eleven deaths in the White Chapel area five were believed by the police to have been committed by the same person. The underlying basis for that belief and elements of the profile included the facts that each victim had their throats cut, that the wounds had been received from someone using a slashing motion from left to right, and that each victim had been extensively mutilated. Based on the facts that the offender preyed on known prostitutes, traveled undetected in the more squalid parts of London, hunted his prey alone at night, and managed to convince his victims to go with him or take him to locations hidden from direct view, that “Jack” (a diminutive of the name John … and a John a name used to refer to the customers of prostitutes) was someone who would have been considered an unattractive middle-aged male who lived by his financially independent means (Marriott, 1888).

One of the first profiles created regarding a person to help those who were trying to understand the individuals’’ motivations, beliefs, and potential actions and reactions of another was created by the United States military during World War II. The subject of the profile was Adolf Hitler. The profile included an analysis of his known socio-economic history, his interpersonal
behaviors with familiars and subordinate cabinet members of the military, and predictions of his future behavior as the war progressed and after the defeat of Germany. The document was created by Harvard psychologist. Henry A. Murray, MD in 1943 entitled, Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler with Predictions of this Future Behavior and Suggestions for Dealing with him now and after Germany’s Surrender.

The Mad Bomber of New York City terrorized New York from 1940 to 1957. It was not until 1956 that investigators approached James A. Brussel M.D., a psychiatrist at a New York hospital known to have some expertise working with criminals and understanding of criminal behavior. Dr. Brussel employed what he then referred to as “reverse psychology” utilizing the information he obtained from the investigating officers regarding the physical evidence and crime scenes, he applied his training, experience, and extensive readings of psychological techniques to provide a profile that narrowed the search for the bomber. His profile was so accurate that, as he expected, when the subject, George Metesky was arrested he dressed in the type of suit Dr. Brussel had predicted.

As mentioned, human beings like to categorize things into manageable classifications that provide what we hope are practical and informative briefs for all manner of things. Thus, we depend upon knowledgeable persons and their fields/disciplines of study to provide accurate, pragmatic, and informative information in discovery and investigation into those varied arenas. Ultimately, when we seek out and discover the facts and information available in those fields, we frequently provide ourselves with greater opportunities for success in our own endeavors and sometimes, we improve our chances of our own survival or the survival of others because of that information.

Some Source Material
Cannel, M. (2017). Unmasking the Mad Bomber: When James A. Brussel used psychiatry to think like a criminal, he pioneered the science of profiling.
Canter, D. (2000). Offender profiling and criminal differeiantion. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 23-46.
Marriott, J. (1888). The Imaginative Geography of the Whitechapel Murders. London: Werner.
Murray, H. A.(1943). Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler with Predictions of this Future Behavior and Suggestions for Dealing with him now and after Germany’s Surrender.

More by Janet McClellan: A Study of African American Serial Killers, by Janet McClellan, Ph.D. at Barnes & Noble ISBN 9781987015003 (paperback) ) and e-book (2940161249994).

Blog: Serial Murder Mayhem

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