The curious case of Phineas Gage……

For a short time Phineas may have been unconscious. His gang carried him to a nearby ox-cart where, sitting against its head board, he was driven to the Cavendish inn where he lived. He alighted unaided. Then from a chair on the ‘piazza’ he told his story to the bystanders. He greeted Edward Higginson Williams, the first medical practitioner to arrive, with ‘Doctor, here is business enough for you’.

Malcolm Macmillan – Phineas Gage; Unravelling the myth

phineas_gage_35quot_buttonA 25 year old Phineas Gage is a name synonymous with biological explanations to criminal behaviour. Reportedly a mild mannered individual who after having a significant brain injury from a tampering iron transformed him in terms of his behaviour and personality, giving rise to a new way of thinking regarding the relationship between brain and behaviour.

Pertinaciously obstinate, capricious, and vacillating’ about his plans for the future – ‘no sooner arranged than they are abandoned’

Harlow 1848

But how accurate are the stories of this seemingly Jekyll and Hyde case….?  An article published be the British Psychological Society via  Malcolm Macmillan is Professorial Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Melbourne is attempting to put the record straight.  Click on the picture to read about this fascinating case.

Find out here what the textbooks don’t tell you about Phineas Gage!



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).

The truth about lies and deception…….honest.

I have read the terms and conditions. Surely the single greatest lie ever told, certainly in terms of the volume of us who have ticked that box knowing that really we haven’t.  However, deception breeds deception and with now defunct computer game shop Gamestation taking advantage of the aforementioned ‘fib’ by fiendishly incorporating into the smallprint of their online terms and conditions- that they owned the very soul of anyone whom blindly ticked the box -‘the immortal soul clause’ as it was called.  Over 7.500 people were caught out on April 1st 2010- they were refunded their soul in an email.


However lying, deception, untruthful, false, dishonest, mendacious, perfidious, duplicitous, dissimulating, dissembling and double Janus-facedness is a normal human behaviour, not just human, animals deceive too. Koko the Gorilla had been taught sign language and ruthlessly blamed the ripping out of a sink from a wall on her pet kitten (Koko signed on the return of her keepers…..”The cat did it!”).  If we are to take an evolutionary view it is a survival mechanism, a simple smile to someone you despise or you feel threatened by is a useful tactic to hide any weaknesses that may be exploited by them and hide, deceive them of your true feelings. However false smiles can be detected if you know where to look – the muscles that generate a warm and honest smile are different to those that are created  when creating a false smile. It’s all in the eyes…you see.

Those lying eyes

real-eyesThe eyes truly are the window to the soul. However don’t be fooled by so called Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques  (a good example of pseudoscience) that if someone is looking up when telling you something then they are lying there is little evidence to support this but is something that your hear still being pedled around every now and then.

And there lies the crux of the matter…are there any reliable physical cues to deceptiouniversal-facial-expressionsn?  Maybe a more fundamental question is are there any universal responses of facial expression or body language? (The eyebrow flash for recognition of someone  is thought to be pretty universal as an involuntary response.)   Certainly classic research by Ekman into facial expression has suggested that there are a handful of truly universal expressions. However deceivingly there is a long tradition of supposed cues to deception or ‘tells’ as gamblers would say little unconscious signs of anxiety, uncertainty due to knowingly attempting to convince someone of something you know not to be true. Going red, not being able to look someone in the eye, looking at someone for too long in the eye, rubbing the back of the neck, rubbing the ear lobes, scratching the nose, excessive blinking (note that psychopaths reportedly blink less and maybe that is why they are better at deceiving people) are all ways many think they can spot a liar – but where does the truth lie?

Bad Lie detectors

Many of these are signs of anxiety not necessarily deception, blinkinghowever Polygraphs (aka lie detectors)  have been used for many years in criminal investigations in the United States (and on the Jeremy Kyle show) and provided as evidence, however it measures variations in physiological arousal (not lying) and therefore fundamentally flawed, the American Psychological Association concluded:

The development of currently used “lie detection” technologies has been based on ideas about physiological functioning but has, for the most part, been independent of systematic psychological research. Early theorists believed that deception required effort and, thus, could be assessed by monitoring physiological changes. But such propositions have not been proven and basic research remains limited on the nature of deceptiveness. Efforts to develop actual tests have always outpaced theory-based basic research. Without a better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which deception functions, however, development of a lie detection technology seems highly problematic.

For now, although the idea of a lie detector may be comforting, the most practical advice is to remain skeptical about any conclusion wrung from a polygraph.                                          Cited;

F.B.I training focusses upon a range of techniques for detection .

Good lie detectors

Where humans on average can detect lies at marginally above chance level – 54% but surely professionals such as Police officers are better?  When Samantha Mann conducted research into a new area of lie detection and found some interesting results, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on story cues rather than the historic notion  body language cues of the more experienced and stronger lie detectors used in the research.  Detecting true lies; Police officers abilities to detect true lies.  Mann and Vrij’s research supports the view that often the focus on lie detection is in behavioural cues rather than the more accurate experienced police officers who also rely on story cues as a method of detection.

There have been a number of publications integrating a range of approaches to lie  detection.

Here is an overview of  an alternative piece of research conducted by Mann and Vrij investigating high stake liars.

Professor David Canter and colleague  may be  about to turn the whole area on its head with current research taking place at the Centre for Investigative Psychology on revisiting the use of polygraph techniques in the UK. 

The BBC recently compiled a practical overview of lie detection – View it here. 

The fun of deception

However, the detection of lies can be fun…………… a light entertainment kind of way.  The story cues on the clip below may seem so far fetched that it must be a lie…it must be………..mustn’t it?

Psychologists in focus; Kevin Dutton

Dutton takes the view that we often miss what should be the obvious anomaly sidelined by the charm – But is it all smoke and fingers?

Kevin Dutton is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford.  He is specialises in the study of Psychopaths, but rather than the traditional forensic route Dutton takes interest how the ‘symptoms’ of psychopathy can have an advantage in a modern world that is fraught with stressors.  The psychopath often described as  having a selection of specific traits such as cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, callousness and lack of empathy, charm, grandiose estimation of self, need for stimulation and pathological lying.  Not the best characteristics to put on a C.V.  It is included in the DSM under the classification of Antisocial Personality Disorder.   However in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths Dutton discusses how these traits are rewarded in society particularly as resistance to stress where others feel the pressure, psychopaths are able to thrive. Self doubt and fear can impair decision making, the psychopath is arguably resistant to this – but would you want one as your boss?  Dutton is clear that this is far from the glorification of violent psychopaths (stating only a small minority of psychopaths are violent) rather acknowledging that the ‘spectrum of psychopathy‘ which all people can be measured and the right characteristics in the right circumstances can be a force for good – hence his term ‘the good psychopath‘.

Here is a quote from Dutton’s book the Wisdom of  Psychopaths, from James Geraghty cited as one of the UK’s leading neurosurgeons.

I have no compassion for those whom I operate on. That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theatre I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. When you’re cutting loose and cheating death high above the snowline of the brain, feelings aren’t fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy, and seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.”

Do we need people like this in such high stakes roles where emotion maybe a hindrance rather than a help?  Or is compassion an essential characteristic that allows a surgeon to consider the long term impact of their work?

In fact jobs that Psychopaths are believed to flourish in are;

Kevin Dutton

1. CEO
2. Lawyer
3. Media (Television/Radio)
4. Salesperson
5. Surgeon
6. Journalist
7. Police officer
8. Clergy person
9. Chef
10. Civil servant

here’s the list of occupations with the lowest rates of psychopathy:

1. Carer
2. Nurse
3. Therapist
4. Craftsperson
5. Beautician/Stylist
6. Charity worker
7. Teacher
8. Creative artist
9. Doctor
10. Accountant

At what age can psychopathy develop?  A recent study in the journal of abnormal child psychology argues that reliable cues of psychopathy can be observed as young as the age of 3 and in some cases younger.

 “We essentially found that preschoolers that show impaired development of conscience are deficient in how they process emotions, similar to what we find in older adolescent and adult populations with the same problems. These children are poorer at recognising other people’s emotional expressions, and images depicting others in distress don’t capture their attention like it does for typically developing children as young as age three,” Dr Kimonis

Read an article reviewing the ideas here from the Independent.  

Could you spot a Psychopath?  Take the test here.

An online study with over 2 1/2 million British participants found the following results relating to psychopathic tendencies.


Dutton discusses how Psychopaths process ethical dilemmas differently.

Follow Kevin Dutton on twitter

Profiling the Profiler…..Professor David Canter

David Canter without doubt is one of the most influential psychologists of the era.  His work 15555891_Birthday_371167cfocusing on ‘Offender Profiling‘ and the development of geographical profiling is well documented and is  a stalwart  of Forensic Psychological text and reference for 30 years.  Canter is known for his applied methods of profiling which are a stark contrast between the FBI approach utilising a systematic to approach to data analysis of evidence to narrow the scope of an investigation rather than a more subjective ‘intuitive’ approach. Canter says, ‘Investigative psychology, includes many areas where psychology can contribute to investigations–including profiling. The goal of investigative psychology’s form of profiling, like all profiling, is to infer characteristics of a criminal based on his or her behaviour during the crime. But, Canter says, the key is that all of those inferences should come from empirical, peer-reviewed research–not necessarily from investigative experience. Canter is one of the most prolific academics in the area and is cited all over the world pertaining to his research and experiences in the area.

 Canter applied the concept of Circle Theory based upon the notion that all peoplerobhouse_4b and thus offenders operate in a limited spatial mind set creating imagined boundaries based upon pre existing knowledge.  Canter provided evidence that offenders can be divided into two sub categories when interacting with their environment, Commuters and Marauders.  The John Duffy case saw the formation of Circle Theory based upon the locations of the first 3 crimes.

Watch the documentary of the case which interviews Canter and details the case in which Canter made his name and is now synonymous with offender profiling. * Warning graphic descriptions are included in the video. Click the pic to watch.


Canter has been the face of profiling,  with best selling books such as Criminal Shadows and Mapping Murder  as well as successful series again called Mapping Murder.

Here is an extract from David Canter’s own blog discussing Offender Profiling

OK, the time has come to write about the bugbear of my life, ‘Offender Profiling’.  Recent publications  have encouraged me not to keep quiet about this any longer. Now is the time to explain why I find the term ‘profiling’ so problematic yet get stuck with using it.  For many people ‘offender’ or ‘criminal’ or ‘personality’ profiling implies everything that psychologists and other behavioural and social scientists contribute to law enforcement.  One consequence of this popular myth is the growth industry of Criminology and Forensic Psychology courses in universities. Crime fiction fills the television schedules and crime fact the news programmes. So if you are interested in people and society but want to get out there and do something or just ‘get into the mind’ of miscreants, there is a natural drift towards the fictional, heroic figure of the ‘profiler’. This character knows what makes offenders tick and follows directly in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes that ordinary mortals cannot.

In case you haven’t read anything recently on Psychology and Crime I had better explain very briefly how I come to be caught up in all this.  A quarter of a century ago, by a roundabout route, I provided some elementary (Holmesian reference intended) guidance to a major police investigation into a series of linked rapes and murders around Greater London. Without checking with me that they had understood what I had suggested or why, the police drew on my comments to prioritise one of the handful of suspects they had identified through a systematic trawl of the criminal records. This individual was convicted and the police lauded my contribution as very helpful. The myth emerged that I had solved the crime with an uncannily accurate account of the person the police were looking for.  The advantage of this myth was that I was called in to give advice in many other investigations and get access to information the police hold on crimes and criminals so that I could start doing proper research in this area.

It is easy to forget that before I was given access in the early 1990s to information held by the police, to carry out studies from a psychological perspective and to build up empirically based models of differences between crimes and criminals, that this was a very unusual activity. Now, as for example illustrated by papers in The Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, (hey ho – impact factor 0.533…) which is in its tenth year, that has become a common form of social science research around the world. It is instructive to note that it was the recognition by the police that this form of research may be useful to them which made the research possible.  This research did not come about because of recognition by academics and professionals that the information collected at the tax payers’ expense could be harnessed to elucidate the nature of criminality.

I still bristle at how difficult it is to get access to these police files even after all the research that has shown their value over the last twenty-five years, despite ethical and professional controls on their use. Politicians complain at the amount of paperwork the police have to deal with and generate sound bites about the need for more ‘coppers on the beat’. They don’t seem to realise that all the records being collected (I repeat at tax payers’ expense – they are not the private property of the police) are a potential gold mine for researchers who could greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of police work if only given access.

Although access to real information on criminals is still challenging there are an increasing number of researchers around the world who are overcoming these challenges. (Interestingly it seems to be most problematic to get access to criminals themselves in the US, but much easier in developing countries such as India or Turkey.) These studies of crimes and criminals are going far beyond the idea of the lone, brilliantly insightful individual who solves crimes for the police – The Profiler. They also inevitably overlap with related areas, such as police interviewing processes, the detection of deception and the complex decision making tasks that Senior Investigating Officers face. In the way of these things the work has also generated decision support tools, notably ‘geographic profiling systems’ that draw on where crimes occur to indicate where detectives should look for a criminal. Taken as a bundle it seems to me that this wide range of research activity, nearly all of which is offline, in the sense that it is not a direct part of any investigations, does not really fit with the notion of an ‘offender profiler’ or ‘criminal profiling’, so cherished by crime writers. That is why I called this area Investigative Psychology.

That label ‘Investigative Psychology’ is increasingly used in textbooks and for university centres and for some police units, notably in Israel, Japan and South Africa. But terms that carry a mythical heritage are hard to kill off. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Anne and Curt Bartol, one of the most well established and highly regarded forensic psychology couples in the US, produced a book this year on Criminal & Behavioral Profiling.  Drawing on the skill that so dominates US texts, of taking an amorphous topic and turning it into something that can be taught to undergraduates, they have laid out an academic framework for something that really was a mass media invention.

They identify a number of areas of ‘profiling’ activity. What is really exciting, though, is that in their scholarly way they evaluate each of these areas and show them wanting. The area closest to crime fiction ‘crime scene profiling’ is characterised as “presenting new thoughts in difficult-to-solve cases”. Many social scientists with recognised this as the general contribution of social science to most areas of human decision making.  It is perhaps slightly disingenuous to grace this with the exotic term ‘profiling’.

Another area the Bartols identify is ‘suspect based profiling’. This is the sort of activity that leads police to stop and search a higher proportion of people from some ethnic groups than from others. It is therefore highly contentious and, as Bernard Harcourt points out in his excellent 2007 book Against Prediction, has a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in it. The more people of a certain sub-set you look at the more likely you are to find something dodgy about them supporting your views about what a dodgy lot they are.

The activity of carrying out a ‘psychological autopsy’, in other words creating a psychological  profile of a dead person, especially when the causes of death are equivocal, is also an aspect of ‘profiling’ that the Bartols make clear is fraught with difficulty. It is not really clear what it involves or how reliable it is. They support the view that it “requires far more empirical support before its scientific basis is established”.

However, these are not just the concerns of academics. Nor are they only of interest to crime writers, like those who approach me every now and then, trying to get an authentic view of what ‘profilers’ are like and what they do. There are increasing attempts to get ‘profiles’ into court. This is either by the prosecution to demonstrate the defendant has all the psychological features of the person who committed the crime, or by the defence to claim their client was just not the sort of person who would do something so heinous.  Fortunately, given all the scientific doubts about criminal profiles, courts in the US, and even more so in the UK, are very reluctant to allow this type of evidence.  The slightly more focussed attempt to show from behaviour alone that a number of crimes were committed by the same person, known as ‘linkage analysis’, has fared slightly better in US courts but in the great majority of cases has not been allowed. This has not stopped lawyers trying to use linkage analysis in complete ignorance of the psychological and social issues. One even approached me to see if I would agree that offences had a common perpetrator because they were all committed on the same day of the month!

All in all, ‘Profiling’ is going to stay with us, fanned by popular interest and the fascinating challenges it poses to empirical research. I see it as rather like the James Galway effect that Capturegot so many youngsters interested in orchestral flute playing and consequently improved the quality of flute playing in general.  The continued fascination with the criminal mind and how to profile it is drawing in many very capable students and scholars. So although, as the subtext in the Bartols’ book makes clear, psychology and related social sciences have a long way to go before they can make a major impact on the processes of law enforcement, the path is now being cleared of the myths and half-truths that so inspired fiction writers. The way forward is now obvious.

Follow David Canter on Twitter