How Did Forensic Psychology Affect the Development of Criminal Profiling?


Over the last one hundred years, the field of forensic psychology has grown from a sparsely practiced curiosity to a courtroom mainstay. The application of scientific principles to patterns of criminal behavior, aided by certain high-profile cases, has captured widespread public attention. Fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple continue to hold many peoples’ interest in the subject, but most are unaware of what exactly it is that a forensic psychologist does, and how the gradual implementation of forensic psychology has affected the development of criminal profiling.

Here are a few examples of how the two have intertwined over the years.

Forensic Psychology Introduced Behavioral Analysis to Crime Solving

In the mid-20th century, there was a famous “mad bomber” case which had New York police stumped. Dozens of small explosives were planted in inconspicuous public locations, such as theaters and phone booths, over the course of more than ten years. State psychiatrist James Brussel was able to come up with a detailed profile that applied well-understood behavioral patterns, and which led police right to the perpetrator: a Connecticut resident named George Metesky. Among James’ conclusions, which had previously evaded law enforcement notice, was that the bomber would likely be in his early to mid fifties; this was extrapolated from the age at which paranoia normally peaks, driving a person to commit acts of random public terrorism, coupled with the time frame police were working with by that point.

Criminal Profiling has Developed to Accommodate Current Trends

Typical social behaviors change depending upon a number of factors. In America, people commonly ascribe behaviors to particular decades, but a trend might last for far longer than that — or it may disappear in a matter of months. Forensic psychology takes the details that result from direct observation and extrapolates them, based upon that which might be inferred (such as through the knowledge of a subject’s age, race, and gender). This kind of work often calls for a well-rounded background in other psychological disciplines, such as developmental psychology.

Forensic Psychology has Accelerated Criminal Profiling as a Career Field

Up until the mid-19th century, many police departments didn’t conduct detailed investigations as a matter of course. In America, the wealthy could afford to hire detectives, such as the famous Pinkertons, but their individual methods were varied (and highly questionable). The introduction of forensic psychology took a lot of the guesswork and simple assumptions out of criminal profiling, and transformed the profiler from “that one cop with a nose for the guilty” into a viable career. Suddenly, criminal profiling was solving more and more cases, as the methods applied by psychologists earned more respect (and as forensic psychologists improved their understanding of criminal behavior).

More About Forensic Pathology

There is a lot of information available online about the subject of forensic pathology, including how it has come to affect the understanding behind criminal profiling. Profilers work at every level of law enforcement, including local, state, and federal. Those interested in forensic psychology as a career path are advised to consider pursuing a degree in psychology or forensic psychology, as well as criminal justice. They will also need to attend a law enforcement academy.

Related resource:

Top 20 Graduate Degree Programs in Forensic Psychology