Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology

Psychological profiling

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019

Paul Britton, the man known as 'The Real Cracker', is perhaps the UK's leading psychological profiler. He has helped police solve some of the country's most shocking crimes. How did he get started?

Paul Britton Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

"Unless I help to get it right then someone who is hurting people might very well stay out there, continuing to hurt them."

"I had a telephone call from the head of CID in Leicestershire, explaining that they had a murder that they hadn't been able to solve and would it be possible for me to look at what had happened and perhaps give some advice about the characteristics of the offender." 

Paul believes that in order to cope with the horrific scenes that can confront those who have to investigate violent crimes it is necessary to take a step backwards and put the emotional response to one side.

"It's very important that a person has the ability to detach themselves from the pain: look at the scene, look at the post-mortem material and be able to do it in a detached analytical and observational fashion."

Paul's psychological profiling may help lead police to their man but Paul also offers some explanation as to the route causes. "Some of the most dreadful offenders came to be that way as a consequence of what they experienced through not developing empathy, through their not developing the ability to feel for and with other people. Most killers kill in domestic circumstances. The killers that people see on the television screens tend to come from a very small group of people – they are egocentric."

Whilst Paul agrees that crime has always been a part of society, he suggests that, "we do see an increase in violent crimes, serious crime, crimes against the person. There are sociological causes, we have deprivation, poverty and we also have more opportunity than perhaps we used to. I think that if you have an offender then it's necessary to work with them, to help them to change whatever psychological deficit it is that brought them there in the first place."

Given Paul's high profile it seems unbelievable that he hasn't spent his entire life working in this field, yet he points out that "I came to psychology probably later than most people start their academic careers. I had a wife, I had two children, I had a mortgage, so the actual making it happen wasn't particularly easy."

His success shows that changing career isn't impossible, and Paul would be the first to offer encouragement to someone thing about making a change, "For a person who is at a point of uncertainty in their lives I would ask them firstly not to give up. If they find that whatever it is they're interested in, if it's psychology, psychological profiling, don't let anyone put you off. Don't be in a situation where as you approach the later part of your life you find yourself saying 'If only … I might not have made it but really wished I'd had a go.'"

Do you agree with Paul that most serious offenders came to behave as they do because they have no empathy - they have not developed the ability to feel for and with other people? Is the increase in crime due to sociological causes such as poverty and deprivation?

Viewer's Responses

I also hold the view that empathy is something people have to think about in order to acquire it. It is compassion and compassion comes through intelligence too. I believe Aristotle said something along the lines of "nobody is evil (from their own point of view), for if they thought their act was evil they wouldn't do it." My belief is that comprehension of others, of others' points of view, is something that has to be thought about in order to be acquired. While empathy is often thought of as a single entity, I believe it isn't. Like self-confidence, for example, we are empathetic (or self-confident) about something in particular. When someone is generally self-confident or empathetic, then we tend to see empathy/confidence as an entity in its own right. This means that empathy is learned through concrete examples of human interactions and tends to remain localised and parochial to that activity until more and more concrete paradigms are experienced. Paul, are careers in psychological profiling generally available? Do have any more information? I'm seriously interested.
Andre Hopper

I think it must be an argument that people who commit serious crime have not developed empathy. Often when reading the accounts of brutal murders or assaults I wonder how anyone can do such things to another human being. Then again I think some people know exactly how the other feels and that is why they do unspeakable things. One only has to look at crimes against humanity on the wider scale to realise that some people just enjoy killing and maiming others. It is comforting for us to think that there is an underlying psychological reason for people to commit crime and in a number of people there probably is. However I don't think we can discount the importance of the environment. It may be that there is a cumulative brutalising effect of the built environment, bad socialisation and poor psychological development that contributes to casual and seemingly unprovoked attacks on people. I think that there are overlapping sociological and psychological reasons why some people do not acquire empathy but I suspect that socialisation may have a lot to do with how children develop psychologically and poverty and deprivation are a part of that too.
Marion Gooding

I've taught damaged children who had no ability to empathise with others. They were often mindlessly cruel to animals and had little ability to empathise with themselves, and that needs explaining! They couldn't, except at the very simplest level, put themselves in a 'victim' position and imagine how they would feel. They seemed to live in a solipsistic universe where their 'now' feeling was all that mattered. Potential torturers and mass murderers? That has certainly worried me, but my fears have usually been happily confounded by the powerful effects of teen socialization and relationship building, (love).
David W

Open2 discussed female crime writers 14/7/01 and Alice Beer suggested women had reinvented a limited genre to make it socially aware, more intellectual and more literary. This is doing an injustice to Hammett and Chandler, who transformed the pulp crime story of their day into just this, a literate, socially-aware form capable of treating serious social and moral issues, without recourse to the genteel, English style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers. In Chandler's case his model was Classical and Elizabethan tragedy. No coincidence his detective was called Marlowe - he was explicit about this in his essays. He thought only the detective genre could tackle the realities of modern life and the struggle for truth against compromise which true literature engaged. Today's writers, male and female, have inherited a genre already made intelligent, but which easily becomes ironic, post-modern pastiche and so on in reuse. I am glad they are carrying on nonetheless - the interest of the genre for women writers and their success in reusing it seems to me to be specifically about taking on and considering as women the archetypal male modes which the Detective represented. Marlowe would say this is a lot of weak talk, I guess.
Tom Westcott

I am currently researching image related to anxiety. It seems that there might be a link here. Whilst lack of empathy would appear to be a necessity to enable violent crimes to be committed, in the wider personality structure the criminal's self image must surely play a part in the complexities of motivating factors. At a subconscious level is there some sense of personal satisfaction in the violent act? Does it in some way feed the desire for esteem and / or situational power or control?
Trish Clelland

Dear sir, I just caught the last 5 minutes of your programme on DNA profiling and wondered is anything being done about a national database? I would think that if blood samples were taken from all new born babies and everyone immigrating to Britain, in about 15 years or so the database would be so good that anyone committing a crime and leaving a DNA trace would be doomed!!
Keith Merchant


Try one of our interactives






Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?