A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

criminal profiling: cold reading for cold cases

Psychologist Ray Hyman tells the story of how he got interested in the psychology of self-deception. He was a college student, earning money as a palm reader. He'd read several books on the art but didn't believe any of it. He got so much positive feedback from his customers, however, that he started to think that maybe he did have psychic powers. The self-deception didn't last long, however. In an interview with Michael Shermer, Ray explained:

The late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example. I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself. This was one of the reasons I went into psychology—I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I am not as confrontational as Randi, because I actually see that “there but for the grace of God [sic] go I.”

It turned out, Ray found, that it didn't matter what he told them, his clients would figure out a way to make him right. Ray would later become an expert in understanding cold reading and subjective validation, the words we now use to describe the process of making claims with no basis in fact or study and having them validated as true by others. As a palm reader, Ray had become an adept cold reader, assisted by the efforts of his customers to selectively ignore his errors and misses and to focus on items they could make sense out of or give meaning to. As Ray notes, his clients wanted him to succeed in his reading and they would do everything in their power to help him.

We now think that the processes of cold reading and subjective validation explain how psychics, psychic detectives, astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers, graphologists, mediums, and the like work so well in the eyes of their many satisfied customers. It has also been argued that certain methods used in psychotherapy that appear to be highly accurate are actually cases of cold reading and subjective validation, e.g., Rorschach ink blot readings.

Some cold reading is based on simple observation. You can tell a lot by the clothes a person wears, the person's age and gender, for example. Sometimes people tell you things about themselves and when you repeat these things they forget that they, not you, are the source of the information. Linus Pauling's Rorschach was made public and he responded to the blots in ways that anybody could read:

"The two little central humps at the top suggest a sine curve. . . ." "This reminds me of blood and the black of ink, carbon and the structure of graphite. . . ." "I'm reminded of Dalí's watches. . . ."

Even non-wizards can guess that the person who produced these Rorschach responses was well educated in mathematics ("sine curve") and chemistry ("the structure of graphite"), and probably had broad cultural interests (the reference to artist Salvador Dalí).*

Some cold reading uses Barnum statements, assertions just about anyone could agree with:

"This patient's emotions tend to be inconsistent in terms of their impact on thinking, problem solving, and decision-making behaviors. In one instance thinking may be strongly influenced by feelings. In a second instance, even though similar to the first, emotions may be pushed aside and play only a peripheral role. . . ."

Vague or ambiguous statements often work in a cold reading because they can be shoehorned to retrofit events that have already happened.

Mentalist Ian Rowland has written the book (literally) on cold reading. In his Full Facts Book of Cold Reading 3rd. edition, he lists 38 different ploys to use, eleven of which are designed to extract information from the client. He gives a telling example of the essence of cold reading in explaining "the Push Statement" (statements designed to be rejected by the client at first). He was demonstrating cold reading in a TV production meeting  and used "the shoe and the party" push statement (a narrative about an impression involving a shoe and a party) and the name "Charles." Nobody in the meeting could connect the name with the shoe or the party. Ten minutes after the meeting ended, a young woman very excitedly told him that she now remembers a party from her teen years at which she broke her shoe while dancing with Charlie! She was very impressed that Rowland had perceived this detail from her past that even she could hardly remember. Rowland hadn't perceived any such thing, but no matter. The story exemplifies the essence of successful cold reading: This works because our species is hardwired for finding significance and sometimes the brain works overtime in reading more into things than is there.

Now comes a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool who conclude that FBI profiling of criminals is little more than cold reading and subjective validation at work. This was apparent to many people about ten years ago when Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, was caught and the profile was matched to the man. The FBI said the Unabomber would be in his late 30's or early 40's. Kaczynski was 53 when caught. The profile was correct in predicting a white male, though this doesn't seem like a tough trait to guess.  The FBI said he'd be 5'10" to 6' tall, 165 pounds, with reddish-blond hair, a thin mustache, and a ruddy complexion. Kaczynski was 5'8", weighed 143 pounds, had brown hair, pale skin, and was bearded. The profile predicted he would be a blue collar worker with a high school degree. Kaczynski hadn't had a job in 25 years and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan in addition to being a graduate of Harvard University. The FBI profile predicted the Unabomber would be a meticulously organized person, reclusive and having problems dealing with women. Kaczynski was a recluse (again, not a tough call) who apparently did not deal with women at all, but he was slovenly and unkempt. The FBI profile was wrong about almost everything regarding a man they'd been tracking for years.

The Liverpool psychologists argue that profiling won't work the way the FBI does it. (FBI profiling assumes a stable relationship between configurations of offense behaviors and background characteristics, which is not supported by the research evidence.) Second, they note that the FBI claims a high degree of accuracy for the method that supposedly shouldn't work. Then, they explain the illusion of accuracy as due to subjective validation. The whole sordid story is detailed in Malcom Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker, "Dangerous Minds - criminal profiling made easy."

According to Gladwell, the psychologists tested the FBI's profile of serial sex-offender killers, who the profilers divide into two types based on their level of organization.

First, they [the psychologists] made a list of crime-scene characteristics generally considered to show organization: perhaps the victim was alive during the sex acts, or the body was posed in a certain way, or the murder weapon was missing, or the body was concealed, or torture and restraints were involved. Then they made a list of characteristics showing disorganization: perhaps the victim was beaten, the body was left in an isolated spot, the victim’s belongings were scattered, or the murder weapon was improvised.

If the FBI was right, they reasoned, the crime-scene details on each of those two lists should “co-occur”—that is, if you see one or more organized traits in a crime, there should be a reasonably high probability of seeing other organized traits. When they looked at a sample of a hundred serial crimes, however, they couldn’t find any support for the FBI’s distinction. Crimes don’t fall into one camp or the other. It turns out that they’re almost always a mixture of a few key organized traits and a random array of disorganized traits.*

It also turns out that it shouldn't be surprising that the profile is bogus. It wasn't based on a representative sample. According to Gladwell, the FBI profilers who came up with the serial killer profile, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, chatted only with convicts who were in prison in California. Furthermore, they had no standardized protocol for interviewing their subjects. There are other reasons FBI profiles are bound to be inaccurate. I noted some of these in a newsletter five years ago. Even if the profilers got a representative sample of, say, serial rapists, they can never interview the ones they don't catch nor the ones they catch but don't convict. Also, it would be naive to believe that serial rapists or killers are going to be forthright and totally truthful in any interview.

FBI profiles are based on the assumption that there is a pattern where in fact there is none. The assumption is that facts about the crime will match up with facts about the criminal. The Liverpool psychologists tested this hypothesis:

the Liverpool group selected a hundred stranger rapes in the United Kingdom, classifying them according to twenty-eight variables, such as whether a disguise was worn, whether compliments were given, whether there was binding, gagging, or blindfolding, whether there was apologizing or the theft of personal property, and so on. They then looked at whether the patterns in the crimes corresponded to attributes of the criminals—like age, type of employment, ethnicity, level of education, marital status, number of prior convictions, type of prior convictions, and drug use. Were rapists who bind, gag, and blindfold more like one another than they were like rapists who, say, compliment and apologize? The answer is no—not even slightly.*

As one vocal critic of FBI profiling, Brent Turvey, put it: "The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons."* Turvey supports a method of profiling known as Behavioural Evidence Analysis, which is not discussed here or in Gladwell's article. "You’ve got a rapist who attacks a woman in the park and pulls her shirt up over her face," says Turvey. "Why? What does that mean? There are ten different things it could mean. It could mean he doesn’t want to see her. It could mean he doesn’t want her to see him. It could mean he wants to see her breasts, he wants to imagine someone else, he wants to incapacitate her arms—all of those are possibilities. You can’t just look at one behavior in isolation.”

Does this sound familiar? The same problem exists with the polygraph, a favorite tool of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. The polygraph measures such things as heartbeat, blood pressure, and respiration. The polygraph is not a lie detector because changes in heartbeat, blood pressure, and respiration can be caused by many things. Nervousness, anger, sadness, embarrassment, and fear can all be causal factors in altering one's heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration rate. Having to go to the bathroom can also be causative. There are also a number of medical conditions such as colds, headaches, constipation, or neurological and muscular problems that can cause the physiological changes measured by the polygraph. The claim that an expert can tell when the changes are due to a lie and when they are due to other factors has never been proven. Why do so many people, in and out of law enforcement, believe the polygraph is a lie detector? For the same reason that many believe that profiling is accurate, that their daily horoscope is right on, that their tarot card reader is clairvoyant, that John Edward gets messages from the dead, that graphology can reveal the true character of a person, and that Rush Limbaugh is a national treasure: the belief is rooted in cold reading and subjective validation, and grows in soil fertilized with a lot of confirmation bias and communal reinforcement.

Laurence Alison, one of the leaders of the Liverpool group and the author of The Forensic Psychologist's Casebook: Psychological Profiling and Criminal Investigation, examined one of the FBI's prime exhibits for the validity of their profiling method, the profile of the so-called "rooftop killer." He found, according to Gladwell, that the profile was written in unverifiable, contradictory, and ambiguous language so that "it could support virtually any interpretation."


from Malcolm Gladwell's "Dangerous Minds"

Let’s pretend that we’re an FBI profiler. First question: race. The victim is white, so let’s call the offender white. Let’s say he’s in his mid-twenties to early thirties, which is when the thirty-six men in the FBI’s sample started killing. Is the crime organized or disorganized? Disorganized, clearly. It’s on a rooftop, in the Bronx, in broad daylight—high risk. So what is the killer doing in the building at six-thirty in the morning? He could be some kind of serviceman, or he could live in the neighborhood. Either way, he appears to be familiar with the building. He’s disorganized, though, so he’s not stable. If he is employed, it’s blue-collar work, at best. He probably has a prior offense, having to do with violence or sex. His relationships with women will be either nonexistent or deeply troubled. And the mutilation and the defecation are so strange that he’s probably mentally ill or has some kind of substance-abuse problem. How does that sound? As it turns out, it’s spot-on.


Alison "gave the details of the crime, the profile prepared by the FBI, and a description of the offender [who had been caught] to a group of senior police officers and forensic professionals in England." They rated the profile as highly accurate. Alison then gave another group of officers the same case materials to evaluate, except that he created an imaginary set of traits for the killer. Again, the officers rated the profile as highly accurate. Like Ray Hyman discovered years ago, it doesn't matter what you tell people; they'll validate your claims if they want you to be right. They'll ignore what doesn't fit and work hard to find meaning and significance in your reading or profile.

I hope that the police community reads Gladwell's account and recognizes that it is not an accident that some of them think that people claiming to be psychic sometimes seem to be right. They'll at least get a laugh, as I did, when Gladwell reports that after Douglas told a group of detectives what traits were likely in the bad guy they were after, one of the detectives asked him if he were psychic. He wanted to know because the FBI profiler was saying the same things a psychic had told them the week before.


If you want to learn more about cold reading, take a look at Skeptico's posting for Nov. 12. It's about tomorrow night's "Larry King Live" show that will feature two cold readers who call themselves mediums, James Van Praagh and John Edward. There is even a Bingo game card to help you see what is going on while you watch the performances—a good exercise for those new to the study of cold reading.

At least one psychic has made the connection between cold reading and profiling, although she doesn't have a clue what she's done. Julianna Suranyi of Brisbane, Australia, claims she's psychic and an intuitive profiler. She even offers seminars on profiling.

further reading

Psychological profiling 'worse than useless'

...according to a team of psychologists at Birmingham City University, the practice of offender profiling is deeply unscientific and risks bringing the field into disrepute....Behavioral profiling has never led to the direct apprehension of a serial killer, a murderer, or a spree killer...

Whodunnit? by Jon Ronson
Criminal profilers were once the heroes of police work, nailing offenders with their astonishing psychological insights. So why did it all fall apart? "On 15 July 1992, 23-year-old Rachel Nickell was found murdered on Wimbledon Common. She'd been stabbed 49 times in front of her two-year-old son. The police, as had become customary in cases like this, asked [famous profiler Paul] Britton to draw up an offender profile. Britton visualized the crime scene: "Closing my eyes I tried to step back into the pretty woodland glade on Wimbledon Common... I rubbed my eyes until white stars bounced across the ceiling," he later wrote. "I'd been concentrating so hard it was difficult to refocus" – and emerged to say the killer would be a single man, a manual laborer who lived at home with his parents or alone in a bedsit within walking distance of Wimbledon Common, and owned a collection of pornography. His deviancy would be escalating, he added. This would be his first murder (it was messy and amateurish) but he'd already be known for minor sexual offences.

It is, in retrospect, sort of understandable why they wrongly believed Colin Stagg was their man. In a terrible twist of fate, he fitted Britton's profile even more snugly, in fact, than the actual killer, Robert Napper, would turn out to. For instance, Stagg did indeed live in a bedsit a short walk from the common, whereas Napper lived 17 miles across London, in Plumstead."

"Criminal Profiling: Granfalloons and Gobbledygook." 2008. Brent Snook, Paul Gendreau, Craig Bennell, and Paul J. Taylor. Skeptic. volume 14, number 2, pp. 42-47. In this article, the authors claim that police and the general public believe profiling "works" for the same reasons that they believe psychic detectives are operationally useful. Believers rely on anecdotal evidence. There is significant communal reinforcement of the beliefs and a great deal of selective thinking and confirmation bias. There is widespread belief that profilers and psychics have some sort of expertise that others lack. They don't. The claims of both profilers and psychics are often vague or ambiguous, allowing for retroactive validation of just about anything claimed by the profiler or the psychic. The media feeds into the inability of many people to distinguish fact from fiction with its many television shows and movies that portray fantastic feats by profilers and psychics. In addition, with regard to criminal profiling, police and many laypersons put too much emphasis on personality characteristics and not enough on situational factors when evaluating behavior (what is called the fundamental attribution error).

Other questionable practices of the FBI

Silent Injustice Bullet-matching Science Debunked - Washington Post

Q & A on Silent Injustice

FBI, DOJ Stonewalled Bullet-Lead Record Requests for Years -WebWire

Judge bars use of partial prints in murder trial

Judge's decision on admissibility of fingerprint evidence in State of Maryland v. Bryan Rose

and, of course, the polygraph


'DNA bungle' haunts German police (For fifteen years, German police have been hunting for a serial killer whose DNA has been found at numerous crime scenes, including six murder scenes. It turns out that the DNA came from contaminated cotton swabs from an unnamed worker in the Bavarian factory that supplied the swabs.)

*Report Finds Forensic Evidence Lacking (The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has issued a report that says much of so-called "forensic science" doesn't meet scientific standards. Of all the forensics used, only DNA analysis "has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.")

*Studies show possible error rates of 1 to 4 percent in fingerprint analysis and of 10 percent or more in paint, fiber, and body fluid analysis. "Recently, Miller-McCune.com investigated the unique problems plaguing the fire investigation industry and found that forensic investigations and the rush to declare a fire as an act of arson often sadly lags behind current science." According to the NAS, even long-accepted evidence technologies like shoeprint, weapon toolmark, bite mark, and blood splatter analysis are seriously flawed. The NAS report "calls for mandatory certification for all forensic scientists, lab technicians, medical examiners and pathologists, and mandatory accreditation for all crime labs. It also calls for crime labs to cut ties with, and no longer be beholden to, law enforcement agencies."

last updated 13-Mar-2015

* AmeriCares *

© Copyright 1994-2016 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.