gladwell dot com on profiling

If you didn’t catch it in the New Yorker, take some time to read Dangerous Minds

“The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons,” Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist who has been highly critical of the F.B.I.’s approach, says. “You’ve got a rapist who attacks a woman in the park and pulls her shirt up over her face. Why? What does that mean? There are ten different things it could mean. It could mean he ”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.”

A few years ago, Alison went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse—the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”)

And it continues on, listing more tricks and how they dupe the hopeful. As we all ache for answers, it’s good if we remember all the ways we can be fooled as well.