Tucson Shootings: Why Criminal Profiling Failed

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Each day new information comes to light about Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman who killed six people and injured fourteen others in the recent Tucson shooting.

While news reports document Rep. Gabby Giffords's gradual recovery, they also reveal more information about Loughner's mental health issues, his brushes with the law, and so on.

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One of the many remaining questions is whether Loughner could have been caught before he acted. By all accounts, there were plenty of warning signs: a history of erratic behavior, threats, and anti-government conspiracy rants.

Could the FBI's much-vaunted criminal profiling division have pieced it all together and averted Loughner's attack?

In short, does criminal profiling work? 

"It depends on the meaning of work" Scott Lilienfeld, Associate Professor of Psychology at Emory University and co-author of "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," told Discovery News.

"If you mean does criminal profiling work better than chance, the answer is, sure, it works better than flipping quarters, but that's no great accomplishment. Certain basic facts about the characteristics of crimes and criminals are widely available, and it doesn't take a trained expert to know them."

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For example, most homicides are committed by young males who have access to guns. Loughner was a young male with access to guns. A very accurate and near useless profile.

"Now, if you ask, 'Are criminal profilers more accurate than people with minimal training?' the evidence is mixed and largely negative. Most studies show that individuals with just a bit of knowledge about the basic characteristics of crimes and criminals do almost as well, or even as well, as highly trained criminal profilers."

"It's tempting to think that profilers possess some sort of special intuition about crimes that non-profilers lack, but the evidence just isn't there."

So why do Americans have such misplaced confidence in the quasi-mystical abilities of criminal profilers? Lilienfeld notes that FBI profilers themselves like to perpetuate their mystique. But the belief is strongly fueled by popular depictions in the media, especially cop shows like Criminal Minds and Psych, as well as films like Silence of the Lambs.

Unfortunately the reality of forensic psychological profiling has a long way to go before it catches up with public perception — and the movies. In the end, crimes such as the Tuscon shooting are difficult or impossible to prevent, with or without criminal profilers.

Photo: Jared Loughner in March, 2010. Credit: Mamta Popat/ZUMA Press/Corbis

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