Freud and the FBI?

Sigmund FreudMind Hacks has a thoughtful item about an article Malcolm Gladwell (best known for the books Tipping Point and Blink) has penned for the New Yorker magazine about the underpinnings of the FBI’s system for profiling killers.

Ever since I was in graduate school I have heard from experimental psychopathologists that “profiling” was the last refuge of the police forces that had virtually to go on. But it turns out that things are far worse than I had thought. One of the most stunning revelations of Gladwell’s article is that the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) still relies on Freudian symbolic interpretations to do its work (as in: “The killer uses a W as his┬ásymbol, and W looks like two breasts, so when you find him he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit”). J. Edgar Hoover, longtime FBI DirectorOf course, if this panned out empirically, even only with the kinds of criminals profilers typically deal with, that might be understandable. But apparently the BAU does not publish their methods or research results in any journal but their own internal publication, and when outsiders have attempted to test these assumptions, as researchers at U. Liverpool did in 2004, things don’t turn out so well.

Something Santyana once said about not knowing history and repeating it comes to mind.


About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.