If you’ve ever watched popular true crime shows like CSI, you may have heard the term “psychological profile” used in the context of a criminal investigation. A psychological profile, or psych profile, is a tool that helps criminal investigators determine the personality traits of the perpetrator they’re looking for.
But how do these crucial reports relate to mental health? Find out what a psych profile is and how it helps an evaluator get inside the mind of their subject.
What Is a Psychological Profile?
The practice of creating a psychological profile was first put into use by the FBI in the 1960s, when psychiatrist James A. Brussel profiled a serial bomber in New York. Using collected evidence, a study of the perpetrator’s victims, established psychological theory and conclusions drawn from the scene of the crime, psychologists can help investigators understand what makes perpetrators tick.
Nowadays, psych profiles are usually applied to cases involving serial killers. However, they’re also helpful and used in cases of product tampering, serial rape, kidnapping, homicide or arson.
Are Personality Traits Part of a Psych Profile?
Personality traits are an important part of a psychological profile. However, the profile often contains other information to paint a complete picture of the offender’s life.
Evidence used in the psych profile isn’t just from the scene of the crime. Witness statements, victim interviews, photos and autopsy findings are also included. Using all these details, investigators work to identify the perpetrator’s emotional patterns, behavioral tendencies and cognitive processes — which can be critical in predicting their next moves.
Why Is a Psychological Profile Important in Mental Health?
A psychological profile can be part of a mental health assessment that shows practitioners if a person is at a higher risk of developing mental illness due to various psychosocial factors. Examples of psychological trauma that can increase the chances of developing a mental illness in adulthood include:
- Emotional, psychological or sexual abuse
- Loss of a parent in early childhood
A psychological assessment conducted by a therapist or psychologist may look at these lived experiences and use them to better understand the symptoms of conditions you’re experiencing.
Methods of Creating a Psychological Profile
Criminal profiling doesn’t eliminate the need for detective work; rather, a psychological profile of a perpetrator can aid detectives in their search by better understanding the person they’re looking for. To create a psychological profile, the investigator typically starts by evaluating the criminal act and specifics of the crime scene.
There are four common approaches to creating a psychological profile.
This method is used when investigators suspect the perpetrator may have a psychological condition or mental illness. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists weigh in and aid in creating the profile to accurately depict how someone suffering from these suspected conditions may act and think. Investigators may look at diagnostic criteria to see if any of these points match traits of the offender.
A typological method of creating a psychological profile looks at the characteristics of the crime scene as a way to put the perpetrator into a commonly identified group. A typological approach views the offender based on behavioral tendencies and operates under the assumption that they fall into a broader category or archetype.
The geographical approach uses information from the crime and crime scene to develop an idea of where the perpetrator might live or work. Looking at patterns in the location of the criminal activities, times that crimes are occurring or proximity to a specific area all aid investigators in learning more about the offender.
The investigative method uses psychological theories and techniques common to criminal psychology to anticipate a perpetrator’s emotional patterns and behavioral characteristics.
Examples of Psychological Profiles
Psychological profiles are commonly used in criminal investigations to help law enforcement and detectives track down offenders. Famous cases where psychological profiles played an important role in catching a killer or searching for a suspect include:
- Jeffrey Dahmer: A forensic psychiatrist was able to look at Dahmer’s crimes and create a psychological profile on him based on his destructive behavior. He expressed a mixture of hostility and ambivalence towards victims and collected memorabilia of each murder. Dahmer was arrested on July 22, 1991, and was convicted, receiving 15 consecutive life sentences in 1992.
- Ted Bundy: Ted Bundy’s psychological profile suggested he was someone who was charming enough to entice victims while being deceptive, callous and assertive. Bundy was arrested and charged for his heinous crimes in 1978.
- Jack the Ripper: Jack the Ripper was an infamous English serial killer who murdered female prostitutes in 1888. Part of the psychological profile for this perpetrator based on crime scene evidence suggested he had a hatred for sex workers and was misogynistic. Unfortunately, despite obtaining this information, investigators never caught the killer.
Are Psychological Profiles Used in Noncriminal Situations?
Psychological profiles are also a useful tool for psychologists and psychiatrists when evaluating patients. In psychology, psychological profiling is also called psychometric or psychological testing and can be a part of a mental health evaluation.
What Are the Implications of These Profiles on Treatment?
While psychological profiles may be useful in some instances, they can’t tell a mental health professional everything they need to know about a patient’s condition and treatment needs. However, some psychosocial factors about a patient may put them into a typological category that aids a practitioner in recommending treatment options.
For example, a young woman who’s pregnant and visits a psychiatrist for severe anxiety or depression is likely to be prescribed a different course of treatment than a young man or a young woman who’s not with child, simply because of their physical condition and what medications are considered safe at that time.
The cognitive processes involved with diagnosing a mental health condition and recommending a course of treatment are too complex to rely solely on a psychological profile. But in the course of developing a treatment plan and evaluating a patient’s mental health, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists may use this tool to help them better understand a patient who hasn’t fully opened up to them yet.