The Psychology of Decision Making in a Setting with Consequences.


A Jury’s decision at the end of a criminal case has been an established part of English law since 1168 when the first murder trial took place.   Benedict Graymond was tried and founder guilty for murder using a garden tool. How did the jury then and the ones that take place today come to their conclusion, is it a rational and considered analysis of the evidence culminating  in the majority decision, beyond reasonable doubt of a group of ordinary citizens (peers) or, are there key social cognitive elements influencing the final verdict that could be confounding? The answer is most likely a combination of both.

A key flaw into research investigating how juries reach a verdict, is the extent to which they are both reliable and ecologically valid.  The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (1993) recommended that section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 should be amended to permit genuine academic research but this was not implemented. This law  prohibits any person to obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinion expressed, argument advanced or vote cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations.  The discussion of the evidence of a case is therefore singularly considered by 12 individuals over the age of 18 and up to 70, making up the jury.

Hastie’s influential 1983 book investigated a range of issues relating to jury decision-making including the contents and dynamics of the deliberation process. Using primarily Mock trials, which is a close simulation of a full trial with all aspects replicated and observed however without the inevitable consequence of the jury’s decision the verdict, Hastie attempted to piece together the nuances of trial by jury.  The Mock Jury could be recorded, filmed, their interactions and discussions dissected and analysed  to identify the secrets of the decision-making process.   However, without any consequence to the decision, either guilty or not guilty the weight of that decision is purely academic. How is it possible to replicate the bias, unconscious or otherwise, the empathy with the victim or defendant and knowing your decision is contributing to possible life-altering or even life-threatening consequences?

Hastie identified a sequence that the jury goes through in terms of their interactions to come to a decision about the verdict;


In the U.K, the evidence of the case is presented and examined in front of a judge and jury  by the defence and prosecution in an adversarial  approach to justice, compared to the inquisitorial where it is the Judge that takes the active role and the presentation of a bias case is avoided.

The adversarial approach, therefore, allows for a degree of persuasion of either how to view the context of the evidence or the credibility of a witness.  There are many ways in which a barrister, may try to influence the jury many of which are well documented in psychology.  For example, Hovland’s Yale Model of Communication identifies a range of factors that increase rapport and influence to provide a more persuasive argument. The credibility of the source, the message itself, the medium in which the information is being given, who is the target audience and the formality of the situation are all key.  The model isn’t a specific forensic model as it is used widely in health and business situations, so is there any forensic research investigating methods of how the message is presented that can have a significant impact upon the verdict?

The Application of Cognitive Psychology in the Courtroom

Cognitive Psychology has long provided experimental evidence to support the view that information taken in at the beginning and end of a set of data tends to have the greatest level of recall.  This is known as the Primacy/Recency effect.  The serial position curve (below) shows where information tends to have the highest level of retention, based upon whether they have had enough rehearsal to be stored in the long-term memory or as in the case of the recency effect are still fresh in the short-term memory.  Below are the results of Murdock (1962) providing evidence to support this idea.


If this is applied to the order of which a barrister decides to place their witnesses to have the biggest impact it would follow to put their strongest witnesses at the beginning or end, irrespective of where they fit in the narrative of the crime. This technique to persuade the jury by manipulating the order that the witnesses are presented is called ‘Witness Order’.   The alternative method often employed is to keep the order of witnesses presented in court consistent with the order of the narrative or story of events, this is referred to as ‘Story Order‘.  Pennington and Hastie conducted a piece of research to investigate using a mock trial the effectiveness of the two approaches.  


The results showed a lack of construct validity for the impact of the primacy/recency effect in the context of ‘Witness Order’.  So why didn’t it work?  Murdock’s original study, like many memory based laboratory experiments, was based upon very simplistic single words whereas the complexity and nuances of content in a trial is vastly different.  The information is far too complex to simply be taken at face value of a over simplistic input, storage and retrieval model.  Pennington and Hastie discussed that jurors were likely to naturally reassemble the chronological order of events to give them the best opportunity of understanding them, into a schema or story and therefore the altering of the order just confused that process, especially when the alternative approach of ‘Story Order’ was based upon that idea.  What can we learn from Pennington and Hastie’s research?  The applied context seems to be clear; Story order is likely to be the most persuasive method of presenting witnesses in court and if the adversary is using witness approach – the impact will be all the greater.

The application of Social Psychology within the courtroom.

 One of the most well-known pieces of Social Psychology investigation the notion of conformity was conducted by Stanley Milgram’s mentor, Solomon E. Asch (1951).  Asch conducted a piece of research investigating the extent to which participants would change their response to a highly simple task on the basis that their answer would conform to that of the rest of the group, even if it was obviously incorrect.   Asch set up a situation where a group of men were given a simple line comparison task to complete, with each in turn speaking out their answer.  Simple.


Asch manipulated the situation by ensuring only one person in the room was a naive participant whilst everyone else was part of the research, a confederate, a stooge of Asch’s.  Would someone really knowingly give an incorrect response to ensure they didn’t go against the majority view?  If it does happen then this may have major consequences for the reliability of jury decision making.

On average 1/3 of participants changed their response as a result of majority influence.  This effect dramatically reduced when 1 other person gave a different answer -it seems, in the laboratory at least, you only need 1 ally to have the courage of your convictions.

However, once again we have the consequence issue, Asch’s research was done in a very artificial environment completing an artificial task, how much confidence can Forensic Psychologists have in the role of majority influence changing decisions in an actual jury deliberation.  Again ‘mock juries’ can provide some insight in terms of  the impact of a complex task in addition to a formal setting but we are still without those all important consequences of the decision and thus ecological validity.

The influence of the Minority on the Jury

Nemeth and Wachtler were interested in another area of social influence, that of minority infleunce.   Could the consistent and seemingly autonomous, (acting out on one’s own decisions) persuade the wider group to come to one person’s view?  The famous courtroom drama ‘12 Angry men‘, used this idea as a plot to show how a single voice could win over the many.  Review Nemeth’s research below- do you think it could occur outside of an experiment and a film?

Many psychologists take the view that it is indeed the small dissenting voices that over time can shift the views of many and society’s views.  The Suffragette movement could be one example of an initially minority view being accepted by the mainstream and changing the law.  When you think about it there have been many shifts in societies views that were once the view of the few.

The role of Attractiveness influencing the jury’s decision.

Edward Thorndike coined the term ‘Halo Effect‘ to describe The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings’.  A form of bias that  seduces and individual of having their perception of someone shaped by a single characteristic usually typically their attractiveness, (The ‘Horns effect’ is the opposite paradigm).  Are we so superficial as to be taken in by someone just because of the way we look?  Watch the video to take a look at how it works.

Castellow  decided to investigate how attractiveness might influence a jury. Castellow Capturefound that there was a statistically significant difference between how jurors viewed attractive vs unattractive defendants.  Attractive defendants were found guilty in 56% of cases where it was 76% for the unattractive ones. This research and many like it has confirmed this finding, however again only mock trials could be used reducing the ecological validity. However, it can be said that a defendant may want to ensure they are perceived in the best possible light by the Court by providing a smart appearance. The evidence could also be argued to support Lombroso’s view of the criminal man.  Is there a downside to being attractive?  Some new thinking and research in the area may shed doubt on the universal appeal of the halo effect.

Confidence as a variable for persuading the jury.

‘You can be 100% confident and 100% wrong……’

                                                                                                                                                        Penrod and Cutler

A consistent and autonomous approach has been seen to  persuade a majority to a new way of thinking (Nemeth), so it follows that an individual  who is confident may also excerpt a similar degree of influence.   Penrod anconfidenced Cutler conducted research manipulating a range of  factors to measure their impact on a jury.  Using a sample of undergraduates, eligible and experienced jurors, Penrod et al showed a videotaped trial of a robbery was shown in which eyewitness identification played a key role.  The witness testified that she was either 80% or 100% confident that she had correctly identified the robber. There were nine other variables all at both high and low levels, depending on the conditions. The participants experienced either the high or low condition variables on a random basis and were asked to decide whether the robber was guilty or not guilty after watching the film.  Witness confidence was the only statistically significant variable. The evidence in this field is consistent in showing that confidence is a poor predictor of witness accuracy. Furthermore, the trust that jurors place in the confidence of the witness is undiminished even if the judge advised the jury to be wary of it.

Reactance Theory and The Backfire Effect in the Courtroom

The notion of free will is still a matter of huge debate in Psychology.  As many approaches (Social, Cognitive etc369f0deae91a0faec4ed291c760fdeec.) are trying to provide singular  deterministic factors establishing cause and effect however without a unifying paradigm, the discipline will always be fragmented.   Maybe free will is one of the missing elements that would contribute to a more unified psychology?

Reactance theory, Brehm (1968), suggests that when someone’s notion of freedom to choose a specific course of action is threatened this motivates them to actually be more likely to exhibit that behaviour, to reassert their free will as a form of reactance.  When we are vigorously told not to do something this motivates us to actually do it.  Pennebaker and Sanders (1976) put one of two signs on University bathroom walls. One read ‘Do not write on these walls under any circumstances’ whilst the other read, ‘Please don’t write on these walls.’ A couple of weeks later, the walls with the ‘Do not write on these walls under any circumstances’ notice had far more graffiti on them.  This is often also referred to as the ‘backfire effect‘, the notion that someone is trying to persuade someone else so much and it backfire’s as they do the opposite.

Pickel (1995)  applied this to a court setting.  Could Barristers manipulate/persuade the jury into having a reactance against the judge?  In court, there are some types of evidence that are not allowed, due to being collected illegally (such as wire taps), or  it is unreliable such as polygraph results?  What if, for example, the prosecution introduces evidence that they know is ‘inadmissible‘  knowing that the Judge will have to tell the jury to ignore it?  This may then motivate at least some of the jury members to react against the Judge’s orders of ‘not taking any notice of the evidence’ and actually  persuading them otherwise. In Pickel’s research participants listened to an audiotape of the trial, which contained a piece of critical evidence. The critical evidence was information about a prior conviction of the defendant’s, which therefore, favoured the prosecution team and would have been inadmissible.   The critical piece of evidence was a prior conviction of the defendant. The item was objected to by the attorney of the defence team. The conditions varied at this point, some participants would hear the judge allow the evidence and the others would hear it disallowed.


When the jurors were instructed to ignore the inadmissible evidence this ruling was sometimes supported with a legal explanation. The judge would express that the evidence should be disregarded as it might be suggestive of bad character and bias the jury members.  In one of the conditions no legal explanation was given when the evidence was ruled as inadmissible.

Participants were then asked to complete a questionnaire asking them to make several decisions about the case:

  1. Verdict: Guilty or not guilty
  2. Estimate the probable guilt of the defendant
  3. State how much the knowledge of the prior conviction caused them to believe the defendant was guilty on a scale of 1 to 10.
  4. Give a rating of the credibility of each witness.

Calling attention to inadmissible evidence makes it more important to the jury and they pay more attention to it. This has some real life application as it is a tactic that could be used by prosecution and defence to draw attention to specific pieces of evidence, which may confound upon the juror’s verdict despite being ruled as inadmissible.

Once again, a lack of ecological validity via a mock trial impacts on the usefulness of the findings,

The right to a fair trial – Does the use of shields in Court  give an unfair advantage?

The has been huge steps over the past 30 years to ensure that children as witnesses receive special attention in terms of their testimony.  The Cognitive Interview has ben a useful methodology in ensuring the testimony of many51juxeuWwSL
witnesses, young and old, is gathered reliably and without bias. The Memorandum of Good Practice (1992)  provides a range of techniques and methods to ensure that a child can provide a coherent testimony.   This is important as Psychologists  have identified how the testimony needs to be perceived as credible by the jury if it is to be believed.  This is defined as; Credibility Inflation: when the child’s testimony is more believable, because they are not so distressed and can answer questions in a confident way.  Credibility Deflation: when the child’s testimony is seen as unreliable, because they are distant and needing special support.  Such methods of support could be a shield to provide a physical block between witness/victim and defendant, another method is to provide a video link to another part of the court, to again allow a reduction in anxiety of the witness.  Does this imply guilt? Does this bias the jury to a viewpoint that the defendant is so dangerous that physical barriers are required to ensure everyone’s safety, thus confounding the right to a fair trial.

Ross et al 1994, conducted research investigating the impact of both shields and videotapes, using a mock trail. They found no significant difference in the percentage of convictions. The control group received 51% guilty verdicts, The Shield46% and Video49% a nominal variation of 5% between all condition. The findings show no significant difference across the conditions a guilty verdict was slightly more common in open court and slightly less likely when the child was screened, but these differences are not statistically significant. These results suggest that protective shields and videotaped testimonies can be used for child witnesses in a way that does not prejudice the jury against the defendant, but it is important that these measures are used carefully.

And finally……

It seems clear that there are seemingly many factors that can influence in the courtroom, attractiveness, the role of shields, the order in which evidence is presented, the confidence of a witness, the strength of a Judge’s instructions to ignore evidence as well as key influences within the deliberation room, the role of the majority and the influence of the minority, however all of these pieces of evidence have been collected using artificial environments and therefore, their application to real-world settings are always going to be difficult to confirm.

One case of a jury’s deliberation was confirmed, the jury could not decide whether a defendant was guilty of murder and so decided to contact the victim to ask…via a Ouija board. The Jury returned a verdict of guilty.  One jury member  spoke up allowing the defendant the right to appeal, however, the original verdict was maintained.

There are many other issues such as age, race and gender that also have been explored using similar mechanisms.

UPDATE Nov 2015;  Read the story here of a juror who was so bored that she posted her thoughts on the case…to Facebook!

Further Reading/activities 

The Warrior Gene; A genetic predisposition for violence?


In philosophy and psychology, the nature Vs nurture debate is the oldest dispute to be had and still very much rages on.  Most views take an interactionist approach, taking the view that human behaviour is a meeting between genetic predisposition and that potential shaped by experience.  However, there are some basic human behaviours that are so entrenched that they are considered to be almost purely constitutional such as aggression.  Freud believed that aggression was an innate force caused by hydraulic drivers and displacement.   However, modern science allows access to information that allows us to look at he genetic makeup of an individual at a micro level.  MAOA (Monoamine Oxidase A) is protein-coding gene like the other 24,000 genes making up the human experience.  MAOA is an enzyme that metabolises monoamines, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. A version is referred to as MAOA-A, also known as ‘The Warrior Gene‘.

Brunner and beyond

‘The story of the warrior gene dates back to the early 1990s, when several groups reported a link between violent aggression and a gene on the X chromosome that encodes for an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), which regulates the function of the neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. The correlation first emerged from studies of a large Dutch family whose male members were mildly retarded and extremely violent. Two were arsonists, one tried to run over an employer with a car, another raped his sister and tried to stab the warden of a mental hospital with a pitchfork. The men all lacked monoamine oxidase A, suggesting that they possessed a defective version of the MAOA gene.’

                                                                                                                                              Scientific American 

Brunner’s syndrome is isolated to 14 individuals as part of the extension of the same family and therefore, does not give much assistance on our understanding of wider criminality in society, however, it has prompted research into the natural variations in levels of MAOA coupled with childhood experience to give a more generalised account of aggression, anti-social behaviour and criminality.  One key piece of such evidence is that of Moffit and Caspi (2002), as can been seen from the results below the trends for antisocial behaviour becomes elevated with the genetic predisposition of low MAOA activity.  Read the full study here. 


So it seems the Nature Vs Nurture debate for aggression and criminality is still deciding the key factors between the interaction between the two and which exerts the most influence.  Or is the naturally occurring ‘Warrior gene’ an atavistic device acting as a defence for the human race – like human army ants?

Further Reading

Research papers

  • Cary Frydman et al., MAOA-L carriers are better at making optimal financial decisions under risk, Proc. R. Soc. B, (2010)
  • Rose McDermott et al., Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) predicts behavioral aggression following provocation, Proc. Natl Acad. Sci., (2008)
  • Beaver et al., MAOA Genotype is Associated with Gang Membership and Weapon Use, Comprehensive Psychiatry, (2009)

Forensic Psychology: Advances in Facial Recognition Methods

The ‘Margaret Thatcher Effect’ as it was first done with an image of her. Processing faces can sometimes be difficult.

With the advent of computer systems, there is an opportunity to create an ever msteve_peter_morphore sophisticated method of reconstructing faces to aid the police (Bruce, Frowd, and Hancock).  However, such devices while impressive in their ability to create something that looks like someone they still depend upon the reliability of the minds cognitive processes to  accurately recall unique information about  the features of the face, was that a Roman nose, were they olive shaped eyes? Research suggests humans have a natural inclination to process and recognise faces above all other information  from an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense.  However reconstructing from recall those faces does not come as easily. Factors such as ‘Weapon Focus’ (Loftus, 87) and post witness  identification influences such as confirming feedback (Wells and Bradfield 1998) call into question the accuracy of any eye-witness testimony. Pawan Sinha published an influential article on key factors that impact upon the accuracy of facial reconstruction read it here. Try a facial recognition test here.

The variability of someone’s ability to accurately recall a face can be seen evidently below…..


Believe it or not the above image contributed to the perpetrator being caught…


The difficulty of constructing faces from our memory has been known for over 30 years (e.g. Davies, 1978). We are not good at the tasks required – describing and selecting individual facial features – instead we process faces ‘holistically’, more as a complete entity (e.g. Young et al., 1987). For example, the perception of facial features changes in the presence of other features (e.g. Tanaka & Farah, 1993), and so the features and their position on the face are both important. Modern facial composite systems, where witnesses choose individual features in the context of a complete face, apply this idea to some extent.

Frowd, Bruce and Hancock (2008) Changing the face of criminal identification

However Evofit can and does prove accurate and, therefore useful, and the infamous ‘Beat of Bozeat’ case was such an example. Frowd and Bruce used this as part of their research.


The use of ‘Holistic’ based software such as EvoFit allows factors such as trustworthiness or aggressiveness can be added in the face as Sinha identifies recall of faces tend to be greater when we have associated an emotional component to them.  _76579650_facecartoons

 Watch below how the Police are using ‘EvoFit’ recognition, of faces rather than actively trying to recall features in their work with witnesses.


Frowd & Bruce also conducted some different research attempting to investigate the importance of internal and external features when recreating faces.  Do we have cognitively process internal and external features differently based upon our familiarity of the individual or is there a difference in accuracy just because internal features are more difficult to replicate? –Read the study here.

The Police are now using ‘super recognisers’ to spot faces in large crowds to assist with identifying criminals!

Your turn

Find out how difficult it is trying to reconstruct a face from memory use the software here to create the face of someone you know but isn’t present.  Consider why it is so difficult.

Further resources

Macro Geographical Profiling; If a criminologist had invented Google Earth.

Data is the ‘life blood’ of academia, this is no exception for Forensic Psychologists, Sociologists and Criminologists.  The following is a link to a website that has collated data on a global scale regarding official homicide statistics including rates per 100,000 as well as historical trends, gender of victims (overwhelmingly male) as well as in some cases data on choice of weapon.  It seems if you are a planning a visit to the edges of the arctic circle Iceland is a much safer bet than its neighbour of Greenland.  Who knew?

Click on the image below for the feed;


Forensic Psychology; The Cognitive Interviewing of witnesses

IMG_3167The Cognitive interview is derived from a range of sources of cognitive evidence relating mainly in the psychology of memory.  It was formulated by combining a number of techniques to assist in allowing an interviewer, such as a police officer, to provide conditions that would allow for the greatest level of accuracy possible, in essence a systematic set of tools to allow access to someone’s memory without inadvertently altering it or not gaining the full insight due to poor phrasing. The Cognitive Interview (CI) is primarily used for witnesses and victims as it needs to assume a willing party. Suspects cannot be relied upon to tell the truth for obvious reasons, hence alternative approaches have been created for their interviewing, such as the controversial  Reid Technique.  The Cognitive Interview can also be used with children as witnesses, which is a significant advancement in police methods as to the historical ‘credibility deflation’ of child interview that were considered to be unreliable as to a lack of confidence or a change in responses due to demand characteristics (Samuel and Bryant).  Fisher and Geiselman conducted research investigating the effectiveness of the Cognitive Interview.


How does it work?

A great video reviewing the Cognitive Interview as a technique with reference to a range of research;

Offender Profiling; the history of the US ‘Top Down’ Approach.

A tale of two approaches: Top Down(US) and Bottom Up (UK).

Offender profiling attempts to describe a tool that aims to narrow the scope of a criminal investigation. This is broken down into 3 key aims (Holmes and Holmes 2002);F.B.I wanted poster for Ted Bundy

1)  Identify characteristics of the suspect.

2)  Create an evaluation of their belongings.

3)  Bespoke interview strategies.

Boon and Davies (1992) coined the labels ‘top down‘ and ‘bottom up‘ approaches to offender profiling.  The aim was to distinguish between those that take a more evidenced based profiles using strong data collection strategies to build a picture of the crime from the bottom up as opposed to the notion of a more intuitive application of prior knowledge  and experience that is then applied from the top down to the scene.  The ‘Top Down’ approach is often cited as being more akin to The U.S -F.B.I methodology and the ‘Bottom Up’  applied to the more distinctive British approach which is often used to describe David Canter’s Investigative Psychology.

However, it could be stated that British profilers such a ‘Jigsaw man‘ Paul Britton could be classed as ‘top down’ due to the profiles he generated from his experience as a Clinical Psychologist and therefore the geographical labels are only as a guide.

The historical roots of the Top Down American Approach 

The starting point to profiling arguably goes back to the start of policing itself.  The techniques themselves are not new either  The work of John Snow (this one did know something!) in the Victorian era using data and deduction to narrow to the source of a cholera epidemic can be seen in the techniques used in geographical profiling today. Jack the Ripper, Hitler had all been the targets of forms of psychological profiling and prediction of future behaviours to allow a strategy to be formed for their plotted downfall. Walter C Langer in his secret wartime report; The Mind of Adolf Hitler famously predicted that Hitler was commit suicide if he rationalised the war was lost.  In the text Langer argues;


This is the most plausible outcome. Not only has he frequently threatened to commit suicide, but from what we know of his psychology it is the most likely possibility. It is probably true that he has an inordinate fear of death, but being an hysteric he could undoubtedly screw himself up into the super-man character and perform the deed. In all probability, however, it would not be a simple suicide. He has too much of the dramatic for that and since immortality is one of his dominant motives we can imagine that he would stage the most dramatic and effective death scene he could possibly think of. He knows how to bind the people to him and if he cannot have the bond in life he will certainly do his utmost to achieve it in death. He might even engage some other fanatic to do the final killing at his orders. Hitler has already envisaged a death of this kind, for he has said to Rauschning: “Yes, in the hour of supreme peril I must sacrifice myself for the people.” This would be extremely undesirable from our point of view because if it is cleverly done it would establish the Hitler legend so firmly in the minds of the German people that it might take generations to eradicate it.


James A Brussel and the case of The ‘Mad’ Bomber

However, the work of James A. Brussel is often cited as being the first meaningful ‘Profile’ of the modern era.  After a sustained series of bombings between 1940 and 1956 in New York placed in deliberately very public spaces the Police picture-of-brussle-holding-his-bookexasperated turned to local psychologist, Brussel. The profile stated the suspect was most likely middle aged, overweight, and probably not married. It was possible that he lived with a relative, maybe a brother or sister. The offender probably had skills in engineering or mechanics, and may have come from Connecticut or surrounding areas. According to Brussel, he noted that the bomber had a particular grudge against Consolidated Edison, which was New York’s main power company at the time.

“He goes out of his way to seem perfectly proper, a regular man. He may attend church regularly. He wears no ornament, no jewelry, no flashy ties or clothes. He is quiet, polite, methodical, prompt… Education: at least two years of high school. The letters seem to show that. They also suggest that he’s foreign-born or living in some community of the foreign-born…He is a Slav… One more thing,” I said, my eyes closed tight. “When you catch him—and I have no doubt you will—he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit….And it will be buttoned,” I said. (Brussel, 1968)

All of this information led police to George Metesky, who was a former employee of Con Ed. In 1957, Metesky was arrested, and surprisingly confessed at once to the bombings. Ironically, Dr. Brussel noted that the bomber would be dressed nicely and neatly. When George Metesky was arrested, he changed into a neat, clean, double-breasted suit from his pyjamas, which he dutifully buttoned.

The 1970’s -onwards

In the 1970’s a melting pot of specialists in serial crimes became the catalyst for how profiling is shaped today.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation started to develop its own profiling techniques, Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany were key members of the newly formed Behavioural Science Unit.    In addition to this Robert Keppel and Richard Walter published a manual called ‘Profiling Killers’ partly based upon their wide experiences of working within Michigan prisons. Ressler, Burgess and Douglas started to develop the idea of a typology of serial offenders.

Watch the following video clip that discusses the start of profiling in the 1970’s with an interview with serial killer; John Wayne Gacy.

After interviewing 36 of America’s most dangerous serious offenders, they identified key characteristics that would allow law enforcement agencies to ‘read’ a crime scene that correlated with a type of individual and their stereotypical behaviours summarised below into the organized and disorganized typologies.


Watch the video clip that summarises all approaches of profiling with a focus on the Top Down typologies.

Howitt (2009) identified a key 4 stage process to the approach;


However Dr Tom O’ Conner suggests;

This classification stage of analysis is, however, considered unnecessary by those who: (a) advocate inductive (or non-FBI) methods; or (b) find that there is no empirical validity or reliability from classification.  Godwin (1998) and Canter et al. (2004) are representative of those who consider classification along FBI lines to be invalid.  Nonetheless, the FBI method of classifying the basic “type” of the offender early on has existed since 1974 for good reason.  Douglas, Ressler, Burgess & Hartman (1986) recount successful use of the method, best explained in Ressler, Burgess & Douglas (1992), as having value for narrowing down, early on in investigation, a possible list of suspects quickly sorted by psychological “indicators,” much like the DSM-IV checklists used in counseling psychology (Douglas, Burgess & Ressler 1997).  The FBI method involves classifying offenders very narrowly by whether they are “disorganized” or “organized,” and not only is there debate over whether these terms have any utility, there is debate over whether these two categories are a typology, a dichotomy, or a continuum (Turvey 1999).  Essentially, they are substitute terms for psychotic (disorganized) and psychopathic (organized); i.e., watered-down psychiatric terms for the benefit of law enforcement training.  Most of all, they are generalizations, not conclusions.  An offender, so categorized, only “tends to” have the characteristics associated with their type.  No magical capture of the offender is expected from use of this typology.

Case Study -The Washington Sniper

 Watch the following video clip using the infamous ‘Washington Sniper‘ case and consider how the experience of the individual profiler can produce contradictory perspectives creating an obstacle rather than a useful tool for law enforcement agents.

Profiling today.

There has been much criticism of the F.B.I approach on a number of fronts in terms of its reliability as being fit for purpose.  As it tends to be used for serial cases which are high profile its successes and failures are often well documented, warts and all.  In addition many academic evaluations have been performed on the accuracy of the typology with existing, retrospective data arguably the most damning is that of David Canter’s paper of 2004 which statistically analysed solved cases and how they correlated with the typologies.  Only two of the characteristics provided any correlation.

Read about Professor David Canter’s own approach to profiling here.  

Exam based resources

Other Resources

Origins of Criminology; Cesare Lombroso and the face of crime.

Are criminals actually a sub-species of humanity?  Do they have physical, observable differences in their facial features that would allow us to identify them?  If so, is crime an act not of free will but is determined by influences that we seemingly have no control over?  Should we then punish someone for something that they have no control over?

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) often hailed as one of the founding fathers of Criminology was interested in the atavistic view of criminality, he was heavily influenced by Darwinism.  In 1871 he became director of the mental asylum at Pesaro, and in 1876 he became professor of forensic medicine and hygiene at the University of Turin, where he subsequently held appointments as professor of psychiatry (1896) and then of criminal anthropology (1906).  Lombroso’s ideas were outlined in his text of 1876, The Criminal Man‘.

The Criminal Man

Lombroso believed that there was a biological (and therefore deterministic) explanation to criminals that they were an evolutionary throwback, a more primitive creature.  Through his extensive research over the years investigating the physical features, mainly from postmortems on criminals and the ‘insane’, Lombroso theorised various anthropometric differences.  The criminal therefore had a distinct anthroposcopy or physiognomy – facial features correlated with their lack of evolutionary development, a sub species of humanity ‘homo delinquens’.

CaptureCesare Lombroso 1876


These facial and cranial characteristics that Lombroso had studied throughout his medical career culminated in a list of specific features; sloping forehead, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face, prognathism, excessive length of arms, asymmetry of the cranium, receding forehead, strongly developed jaw, strongly developed cheeks, left handedness, low brain weight, curly hair, as well as other physiological defects such as a third nipple or six fingers.  Lombroso identified at least five or similar abnormalities needed to be present.


The man with the golden gun (1974)….super Bond villain and ultra criminal Scaramanga famously had a third nipple, what would Lombroso think?

Criticisms of Lombroso 

The theory supports the nature side of the nature/nurture argument and there are many other theories that may not agree with Lombroso but take a biological stance, such as that of Raine’s investigation brain dysfunction or that of Brunner’s view in the notion of the ‘Warrior gene‘ as a genetic predisposition to criminality. Lombroso’s extreme biological view can also be described as reductionist as well as biologically deterministic. However, Lombroso did acknowledge the role of the environment and the casual and occasional criminal who slips into criminality due to opportunity or poverty, the ‘Criminaloids‘ as he referred to them. Lombroso’s theory has been rejected for many years, even if there was significant evidence that there were deviations in facial features these could as easily be through environmental explanations such as the self-fulfilling prophecy where as people are treated on how they are expected to behave due to superficial indicators like looks and therefore those individuals eventually conform to the stereotype created for them.  If you look like a criminal people will treat you like one –does that mean you are more likely to become one?


Thorndike’s Halo effect provides some assistance as those deemed as attractive tend to be attributed with more positive characteristics, trustworthiness and honesty for example.  Unfortunately the same works in reverse – The Horns effect.  Lombroso did identify an asymmetrical face as part of his theory and recent evidence suggest those who are perceived as attractive do tend to have greater symmetry in the face.  Forensic psychological evidence suggest that such an effect can influence a jury to be more lenient in coming to a guilty verdict – as much as 20% in one study by Castellow.  Other more recent research  such as that by Brunner that suggests a biological factor may also suffer with the same self full-filling prophecy.

In the news

More recently on social media there has been controversy over a number of offenders who seem to provide a counter view – too beautiful for prison;


Other resources

  • Can you tell a serial killer just by looking at them?  Take the test.
  • Other examples of biological determinism – the 2D4D ratio
  • Lombroso’s female offender research 
  • BBC documentary programme only available in the UK covers some of Lombroso’s work.  Click the link for a clip that leads on to the documentary – over 16’s only.
  • A useful study of Lombroso is H. G. Kurella, Cesare Lombroso: A Modern Man of Science (trans. 1911). See also Hermann Mannheim, ed., Pioneers in Criminology (1960).

Tea Break Psychology- 4 Change Blindness

On the go or short of time…but want a little Psychology in your day…..? Welcome to the latest feature on the blog tea break Psychology, quick, easy little snippets of thought provoking information to mull over with a cuppa and a biscuit.

Selective attention enables us to focus ourselves on whatever task we are doing with a single miarticle-0-0C98C05C000005DC-927_468x380ndedness allowing people to produce great feats of creativity and dedication to whatever the mind is set to. But what are the side effects? It goes without sating that if you are so preoccupied with one thing you may miss another. There are various examples of this used in Psychology, for example research into ‘Weapon focus‘ in Forensic Psychology as recall of the features of the individual wielding the weapon are impede rather the witness focusses their attention on the weapon itself  However you don’t need to go to those lengths to experience ‘attentional narrowing’  ….here are a few of the favourites. (We’ll give the basketball players a break)

Count the black squares;

A video explaining the psychology with a real world example;

Sometimes the peripheral information actual distorts that which we are seeing….or more accurately our mind dictates what we perceive…just like ‘the dress‘ and the chessboard…the chess pieces here are exactly the same.  (You will have to take my word for it as you can never unsee it it!)