Offender Profiling

Offender profiling: a method of working out the characteristics of an offender by examining the characteristics of the crime and the crime scene.

There are two types of offender profiling:

  • Top-down approach: profilers begin with categories of offenders in mind and use data from the crime scene to fit one of their pre-existing profiles
  • Bottom-up approach: profilers take evidence from the crime scene to build up a hypothesis of the offender's likely characteristics
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The Top-Down Approach

  • Developed in the 1970s by the FBI using data from 36 sexually motivated serial killers, including Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.
  • Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) - published an account of the 'lust murderer' and theorised that they are mainly categorised in two groups: organised and disorganised.
    • Organised offenders lead ordered lives and kill after a critical life event. Their actions are premeditated and planned. They are likely to be of high intelligence and employed.
    • Disorganised offenders are more likely to have committed the crime in a moment of passion. They are more likely to leave evidence and probably would not have planned their offence. Disorganised criminals are considered to be socially incompetent and are more likely to be unemployed.
  • There are four main stages in constructing an FBI profile: data assimilation, crime scene classification, crime reconstruction and profile generation.
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Top-Down Approach Evaluation


  • Has widespread support in the USA, where it is the preferred method of professional profilers


  • Based on a small sample of sexually motivated serial killers, which is not representative of the majority of offences so the model cannot apply to all crimes.
  • Alison et al (2002) - the approach is naive and based on old-fashioned models of personality that see behaviour as being driven by stable dispositional traits rather than external factors, which are always changing
  • Contradictory edivence from Canter et al (2004) - analysed data from 100 murders in the USA using 39 characteristics thought to be typical of organised and disorganised killers. Findings suggested evidence of a distinct organised type, but not a disorganised type.
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The Bottom-Up Approach

  • Investigative psychology: applies statistical procedures and psychological theory to the analysis of crime scene evidence. Main features of this approach are:
    • Interpersonal coherence - the way an offender behaves at the scene may reflect their everyday behaviour
    • Significance of time and place - may indicate where the offender lives, their work schedule etc.
    • Forensic awareness - focuses on individuals who may have been subject to police investigation before; their behaviour may indicate how mindful they are of 'covering their tracks'
    • Statistical procedures are then applied. Specific details of the crime are matched against the statistical 'database' of behvaioural patterns to reveal details about the offender, their personal history etc. This can also help determine if a series of offences have been committed by the same person.
  • Geographical profiling: uses information about the location of linked crime scenes to make inferences about the likely home or operational base of an offender
    • Canter's circle theory proposes two models of offender behaviour: the marauder (operates in close proximity to their home/base) and the commuter (who has likely travelled a distance away from their home/base)
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Bottom-Up Approach Evaluation


  • Arguably more objective and scientific than top-down.
  • Research support for geographical profiling from Lundrigan and Canter. Collated info from 120 murder cases in the USA, found spatial consistency in the killers' behaviour.
  • Can be applied to a wide range of offences, not just murders (as in top-down)


  • Has caused significant failures. Rachel Nickell's killer was initially ruled out of the enquiry because he was several inches taller than the profile created. 
  • Kocsis et al - chemistry students produced a more accurate profile on a solved murder case then experienced senior detectives.
  • Cannot distinguish between multiple offenders in the same area. Limited to spatial behaviour, does not consider personality characteristics.
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Atavistic Form

  • Lombroso (1876) - suggested that criminality is inherited and that someone "born criminal"' could be identified by their ‘atavistic (i.e. primitive) features
  • Suggested that they were ‘throwbacks’ who had biological characteristics from an earlier stage of human development that manifested as a tendency to commit crimes
  • Claimed that criminal types were distinguishable from the general population because they looked different
  • In a study of 383 dead Italian criminals and 3839 living ones he found 40% of them had atavistic characteristics.
  • These features include large jaws, low sloping foreheads, flattened or upturned noses, fleshy lips, long arms, insensitivity to pain, and even tattoos
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Atavistic Form Evaluation


  • Lombroso credited for shifting the emphasis in crime research away from moralistic discourse towards a more scientific realm, giving criminology greater credibility and status.


  • Distinct racial undertones in the features he identified (curly hair, dark skin). Gave scientific credence to the eugenic philosophies and racist policies at the time, whether this was intentional or not.
  • Lombroso's research was flawed. Had no control group and failed to take into account other variables that may have confounded the results, e.g. poverty, history of psychological disorders.
  • Goring - compared 3000 criminals and 3000 non-criminals. Found no evidence that criminals were a distinct group characterised by unusual facial/cranial characteristics, but did find that many criminals had lower intelligence.
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Genetic Explanation of Offending Behaviour

  • Suggests offenders inherit a gene or combination of genes that predisposes them to commit a crime
  • Two genes, MAOA and CDH13, have been implicated in offending behaviour
    • MAOA - too much serotonin, brain becomes insensitive to it, causes aggression
  • Often supported by twin studies, where there is a higher concordance rate of offending for MZ twins than DZ twins as they have identical DNA
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Genetic Explanation Evaluation

Supporting research:

  • Tilhonen et al. - Genetic analysis of nearly 900 offenders. Abnormalities on two genes, MAOA and CDH13, that may be associated with violent crime.
  • Lange - 13 MZ and 17 DZ twins. 12 MZ twins and 2 DZ twins had a co-twin who was also in prison.
  • Christiansen - 87 MZ and 147 DZ twins. Concordance rate for criminality of 33% for MZs and 12% DZ.


  • Not 100% concordance for MZ twins, so not only genetics at work
  • Early twin studies including Lange's were poorly controlled and judgements on zygosity were based on appearance, not DNA
  • Ethical dilemma of a 'criminal gene' as it would suggest that criminals have no control over their behaviour. Implications for legal system.
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Neural Explanation of Offending Behaviour

  • Suggests offenders commit crime because of dysfunctions of the brain and nervous system
    • Includes activity of brain structures and neurotransmitters
  • Raine's research using PET scans found abnormalities in some parts of the brains of violent criminals, most of whom have been diagnosed with APD:
    • Prefrontal cortex, regulates emotional behaviour. Lower activity found, which is associated with a lack of empathy, which characterises many convicted criminals.
    • Amygdala, linked to emotion regulation and aggression. Abnormalities found in offenders charged with murder/manslaughter.
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Neural Explanation Evaluation


  • Could lead to treatment. For example, if low serotonin causes aggression in criminals, they could be given diets that enhance serotonin levels. Supports the external validity of neural explanations as they have the potential to reduce offender behaviour.


  • Cannot determine whether abnormalities are the cause of offending behaviour, the result of it or just an intervening variable. Cannot prove cause and effect, only a correlation.
  • Most neural (and genetic) explanations relate only to violent crimes. Does not account for non-violent crimes, such as fraud and theft.

DIATHESIS-STRESS MODEL. Combination of internal and external factors. Genes/brain structure creates vulnerability, environment acts as a trigger.

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Psychological Explanations: Eysenck

  • Personality represented in 3 dimensions: neuroticism/stability, introversion/extraversion, psychoticism/normality (latter added later)
  • Offending behaviour caused by criminal personality, neurotic-extravert as measured using the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI)
  • Offenders also score highly on measures of psychoticism
  • Criminal personality biological in origin, caused by the nervous sytem:
    • Extraverts have a chronically under-aroused nervous system so they constantly seek stimulation - more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours
    • Neurotics have a reactive sympathetic nervous system, meaning they are unstable, react quickly and become upset easily
    • Psychotics are aggressive and lack empathy
  • Innate, biological personality linked to offending behaviour via socialisation
    • Eysenck viewed offending behaviour as developmentally immature
    • Neurotic-extraverts have nervous systems which make them difficult to condition, so will not learn to respond to antisocial impulses with anxiety
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Eysenck's Criminal Personality Evaluation


  • Supporting evidence from Eysenck and Eysenck. Compared 2070 male prisoners' scores on the EPI with 2422 male controls. Prisoners scored higher on measures of psychoticism, neuroticism and extraversion than controls across age groups.


  • Farrington et al. reviewed several studies and found that offenders tended to score highly on psychoticism measures but not for extraversion or neuroticism. Also found little consistent evidence in EEG measures between extraverts and introverts.
  • Bartol and Holanchock studied Hispanic and African-American offenders and divided them into six groups based on criminal history and nature of their crimes. All 6 groups were less extraverted than a non-criminal control group. Culture bias.
  • Reductionist. Theory assumes personality is consistent. Many psychologists instead support a situational perspective, suggesting people may be consistent in similar situations but not across situations.
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Cognitive Explanations: Cognitive Distortions

  • Cognitive distortions: faulty, biased and irrational ways of thinking 
  • Perception of self, others and/or the world does not match reality and is usually negative
  • In the context of offending behaviour, they allow an offender to deny or rationalise their criminal behaviour
    • Hostile attribution bias - the tendency to misread other people's behaviour as aggressive and/or threatening when in reality they are not. Allows offenders to rationalise a disproportionate and often violent response to someone's non-aggressive cues by blaming the victim.
    • Minimalisation - downplaying the seriousness or trivialising the importance of one's own offence to try and make the consequences seem less significant or damaging than they really are. Helps the individual accept the consequences of their own offence and reduces negative emotions, e.g. guilt, associated with their crimes.
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Cognitive Distortions Evaluation


  • Supporting evidence for HAB from Schonenberg and Justeye. Presented 55 violent offenders with images of emotionally ambiguous expressions. More likely to perceive the images as hostile than controls.
  • Supporting evidence for minimalisation from Barbaree. Among 26 incarcerated rapists, 54% denied having committed an offence at all, and a further 40% minimised the harm they had caused the victim. Pollock and Hashmall reported that 35% of a sample of child molesters argued that the crime they had committed was non-sexual, and 36% stated the victim had consented.
  • Real-world application. CBT involves fixing cognitive distortions, and is often used in rehabilitating sex offenders to help them face up to the seriousness of their actions. Studies suggest that reduced incidence of minimalisation in therapy is highly correlated with reduced risk of re-offending.
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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning

  • Moral reasoning: how an individual draws on their own value system to determine whether an action is right or wrong
  • Kohlberg developed a stage theory of moral development from interviews of boys and men about the reasons for moral decisions
  • Three levels, each containing two stages:
    • pre-conventional morality (punishment orientation/reward orientation),
    • conventional morality ('good girl/boy' orientation, social order orientation),
    • post-conventional morality (social contract and individual rights orientation, conscience orientation)
  • Offenders more likely to be classified at the pre-conventional level, which is characterised by the need to avoid punishment and gain rewards
  • Individuals at this level may commit crimes because they feel it is justified to break the law if the rewards outweigh the costs or if punishment can be avoided
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Kohlberg Evaluation


  • Supporting evidence from Palmer and Hollin. Compared moral reasoning between 126 convicted offenders and 332 non-offenders using 11 moral dilemma questions. Delinquent group showed less mature moral reasoning.


  • Kohlberg's research was flawed. Only used male sample, but applied theory to all genders (beta bias). When he studied women he found them to be less morally developed, exaggerating the differences between the genders (alpha bias). Gilligan found that men favour justice orientation while women favour a caring orientation. Neither is superior. Low external validity of Kohlberg's theory as it may not apply to women in the same way as men.
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Differential Association Theory

  • DAT: through interaction with family, peers and/or friends, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques and motivation for criminal behaviour
  • Operant conditioning - if offending results in positive consequences (acceptance from peers, money etc.) the person is more likely to offend again
  • SLT - presence of role models (offending friends/family), motivation (desire to fit in, need/desire for money etc.), reproduction (learning behaviours from offending peers)
  • Socialisation - if exposure to pro-criminal attitudes outweighs exposure to anti-criminal attitudes, the person is more likely to offend
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DAT Evaluation


  • Can account for crime within all sectors of society. Some types of crime may be more common in working-class communities, while affluent groups may commit different types of crimes. This theory accounts for differences in crime within different sections of society and why crime may differ across cultures.
  • Moves away from blaming the individual (e.g. atavistic form) and points towards social factors (such as dysfunctional social circumstances) as to blame for criminality. Realistic solution as environments can be changed; far more ethical than eugenics.
  • Osborne and West - where there is a father with a criminal conviction, 40% of sons had committed a crime by the age of 18, compared to 13% of sons with non-criminal fathers
    • correlational; may be genetic as fathers/sons share DNA


  • Danger of stereotyping people from crime-ridden backgrounds as 'unavoidably criminal'. Environmental determinism. Exposure to pro-criminal attitudes may not be enough on its own to cause someone to offend. Individual factors ignored.
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Inadequate Superego

  • Freud's research has been applied to offending by other psychologists
  • Suggest that unconscious conflicts rooted in early childhood and determined by interactions with parents drive future offending behaviour
  • Blackburn - if the superego is deficient or inadequate then offending behaviour is inevitable
  • Three types of inadequate superego:
    • Weak/underdeveloped superego - if same-sex parent is absent during phallic stage, the child cannot internalise a fully-formed supergo as there is no chance for identification. Makes offending behaviour more likely because they have little control over anti-social behaviour and are more likely to act in ways that gratify the impulses of the id.
    • Deviant supergo - child internalises deviant values from same-sex parent so does not associate wrongdoing with guilt.
    • Over-harsh/overdeveloped superego - child internalises superego of a very strict same-sex parent. Individual is crippled with guilt and anxiety because they feel bad when they give in to their id's desires. May unconsciously drive the person to offend with a wish to be caught in order to satisfy the superego's need for punishment, thus reducing their feelings of guilt.
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Inadequate Superego Evaluation


  • Alpha bias. According to Freud, women develop a weaker superego because they do not experience the Oedipus complex, which would suggest that women are more likely to offend. However, statistics of the male:female ratio in prisons does not support this. Additionally, research has found little gender difference in the morality of children - and when they have, girls tended to be more moral than boys. Lacking in external validity.
  • Lots of undermining research. Little evidence to suggest that children raised without a same-sex parent develop less of a conscience or are less law-abiding. Offenders raised by criminal parents may do so due to genetics, not a deviant superego. Overdeveloped superego lacks face validity; criminals go to great lengths to avoid being caught.
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Maternal Deprivation

  • Bowlby - ability to form meaningful adult relationships dependent upon forming a warm, continuous relationship with mother figure in childhood
  • If maternal deprivation occurred during the critical period (up to 2 1/2 years) the consequences would have irreversible consequences
  • One such consequence is affectionless psychopathy, characterised by a lack of guilt, empathy and responsibility
  • Such individuals are more likely to offend and cannot develop close relationships with others as they lack the necessary early experience to do so
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Maternal Deprivation Evaluation


  • Supported by Bowlby's 44 thieves study. Of the 14 thieves classes as affectionless psychopaths, 12 had experienced prolonged separation from mother in their first two years of life. In the control group, 2 had experienced maternal deprivation but none were classed as affectionless psychopaths.


  • 44 thieves study was flawed. No cause and effect, other variables (e.g. genetics, differential association) may be involved. Cannot strongly support the internal validity of maternal deprivation theory as the sole cause of offending.
  • Both psychodynamic explanations lack falsifiability. They are based on unconscious concepts that cannot be empirically tested. They can only be judged on face value. This means they are only pseudoscientific and may not contribute much to our understanding of offending and how to prevent it. 
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Custodial Sentencing


  • Deterrence - to put off the individual and society at large from committing that offence
  • Incapacitation - offender taken out of society to protect the public
  • Retribution - justice for the victim / victim's family
  • Rehabilitation - to reform the offender

Psychological effects

  • Stress and depression - hopelessness, loss of control
  • Prisonisation (socialisation, inmate code, 'school of crime')
  • Overcrowding, lack of privacy
  • Deindividuation - associated with increased aggression and treating people in inhumane ways
  • Effects on the family - guilt, separation anxiety when a parent is in prison
  • Labelling - loss of employability as an ex-convict

Positive effects - access to education, training, treatment

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Custodial Sentencing Evaluation


  • Access to education and training while in prison. Increased chance of employment upon release. Treatment programmes may reduce recidivism.
    • However - not all prisons can afford this level of rehabilitation; long-term benefits inconclusive


  • Suicide rates among offenders approx. 15x higher than general pop. in last 20 years. Prison Reform Trust reported 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis.
  • High recidividm rates (approx. 50%). Offender may see the sentence as punishment for being caught, so they would just learn to avoid capture.
  • DAT suggests prison would increase recidivism. Latessa and Lowenkamp - placing low-risk offenders with high-risk offenders makes it more likely that low-risk offenders will reoffend.
  • Prison is costly and has many problems, so alternatives may be preferred.
    • Alternatives (e.g. restorative justice) may be considered 'too soft'
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Behaviour Modification

  • Application of the behaviourist approach to treatment
  • Operant conditioning - reinforces obedient behaviour in the hope they will repeat the behaviour, while punishing disobedience to try and make it extinct
  • Token economy in prisons
    • tokens given immediately after the offender performs a desirable behaviour
    • tokens are secondary reinforcers; can be exchanged for primary reinforcers such as phone calls, extra food, cigarettes, time in the gym etc.
    • can take away tokens for negative behaviour as punishment
    • behaviours changed in increments (shaping) so the desirable behaviour is broken down into small stages which can be reinforced one step at a time
    • must be applied by every person who comes into contect with the prisoner
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Behaviour Modification Evaluation


  • Hobbs and Holt - observed token economy used in a state training school for delinquents aged 12-15. Split into 4 groups, one control which did not take part in token economy. Mean percentages for social behaviours increased by avg. 27%; no increase in control group.
  • Easy to administer - no need for special training, cost-effective, easy to follow


  • Ethical concerns. Seen as dehumanising and manipulative by critics as basic privileges and neven necessities may be withheld from prisoners. Participation is not optional, and some prisoners may be unable to earn tokens because they cannot control their behaviour.
  • Cohen and Fitzpatrick - less likely to reoffend than control group 2 years later, but after 3 years, recidivism rates reflected the national average.
  • Some respond better than others. May not be suitable for violent criminals e.g. murderers, but is resonably effective in adolescent delinquents.
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Anger Management

  • Novaco - the cognitive factors which trigger the emotional arousal (anger) generally precede aggressive acts
  • Becoming angry is reinforced because the individual feels in control of the situation when they are angry
  • Anger management is a type of CBT that aims to enable offenders to recognise their anger triggers and develop techniques for conflict resolution without violence
  • Based on the stress inoculation approach - vaccination against future 'infections'

Stages of anger management:

  • Cognitive preparation. Offender learns to recognise their anger triggers. Therapist can challenge their irrational interpretation of events that trigger anger.
  • Skill acquisition. Techniques learned to deal with anger-provoking situations more rationally.
  • Application practice. Offender applies their new skills in a role play of past situations that have caused them to act violently in the past. Success met with positive reinforcement from therapist. Can later try this out in the reak world, thus reducing the likelihood of them reoffending.
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Anger Management Evaluation


  • Ireland - significant improvements in an experimental group who had 12 anger management sessions when reassessed 8 weeks after baseline data was collected, no changes in control group. Supports short-term effectiveness.
  • Multidisciplinary approach (cognitive, behavioural, social). May be more likely to reduce recidivism by addressing multiple elements.
  • May be more successful than behaviour modification because it addresses the thought processes underlying offending behaviour, not just the surface behaviour.


  • Blackburn - may have a noticeable effect in the short term, but little evidence for its long-term effectiveness. May be because the application stage focuses on role play, which is not necessarily reflective of how the offender will behave in real life.
  • More expensive and requires more commitment than other methods of dealing with offender beaviour. Not all offenders can partcipate, so other methods (e.g. behaviour modification) which are easy to implement may have a greater effect.
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Restorative Justice

  • Focus on rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims
  • Both offender and victim encouraged to be active participants in the process
  • Focus on positive outcomes for survivors and offenders, and acceptance of responsibility and change for offenders
  • Involves supervised meeting between both parties and a trained mediator
  • Offender may make financial restitution to the victim reflecting the physical or psychological harm done, or may repair the damage themselves
  • Can be an alternative to custodial sentencing, an 'add-on' to community service, or an incentive which may lead to the reduction of an existing sentence
  • Addresses two key aims of custodial sentencing, rehabilitation and retribution
  • Also reduces victim's feeling of victimisation as they are in a position of greater power and they have their own voice
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Restorative Justice Evaluation


  • UK Restorative Justice Council reported 85% satisfaction from victims in f2f meetings with their offender(s). Avon and Somerset police reported 92.5% victim satisfaction with restorative justice for victims of violent crime.
  • Sherman and Shang - reviewed 20 studies of f2f restorative justice in the UK, USA and Aus. All showed reduced reoffending and none linked to higher reoffending 
  • Retribution, rehabilitation and deterrence can all be achieved while avoiding the negative psychological effects of custodial sentencing. It is also cheaper - despite the expense of specialist mediators, the Restorative Justice claimed that reduced reoffending means that £8 is saved for every £1 spent.


  • Relies on the extent to which an offender feels genuine remorse. Offender may fake their remorse in order to avoid/reduce their sentence.
  • Tends to be regarded as 'too soft' by the general public
  • Ethical concern - victim may feel worse. Women's Aid have called for a ban on the use of restorative justice in domestic violence cases because of the power imbalance.
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