Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Gladwell on Criminal Profiling

From Dgital Hive

"On a recent transcontinental flight I was catching up on recent issues of the New Yorker and discovered a very interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in the November 12th issue.

We've all heard about criminal profiling - the process of using factoids about an unknown criminal to get into the offender's mind and motivation in order to capture him or her. I'm interested in profiling because it's so often been likened to account planning (interestingly, an APG conference about 10 years ago had a leading criminal profiler as a guest presenter).

Gladwell's article is a fascinating read for anyone who likes puzzles and problem solving. It was particularly interesting to me because it debunks the credibility of the long-worshiped craft of profiling - and therefore raises some issues about how we planners pursue our craft.

He reveals: "In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed a hundred and eighty-four crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That's just 2.7 per cent." Clearly profiling has gotten more credit than it's due.

He cites a number of specific failings of profilers' typical techniques. First off - vagueness which masks a lack of logic and rigor. He writes about a number of investigations where the profile - compiled by an "expert" - was ill-defined, and outright wrong, in part because the profiler relied too heavily upon intuition rather than facts.

A key driver for error: incorrectly ascribing motivation to action. He quotes Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist who has been highly critical of the FBI's approach: "The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons. 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 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."

Unlike criminal profilers, we planners aren't solving crimes, and our role is seldom a matter of life and death. And it doesn't inspire Big Ideas to quote facts - using our imaginations and being playful help us to inspire the team. But we need to strike the right balance of inspiration and information. So we have something to learn here.

First off, rigor is critical. We can't just pontificate and make stuff up, we must study consumers to truly understand why they do what they do. Second, we need to be careful when assuming what rationale is driving a behavior; that's why we blended behavior and attitude in our recent WebDotDigitas work. Finally, we need to constantly track how successfully our impressions of consumer motivation translate into in-market results - and continually improve our approaches. This means paying attention to measurement results and thinking about how we can use them to improve the work."

Download the Gladwell article here.

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