Criminal Minds

Criminal Profiling 101

I’m going to talk about basic criminal profiling in this article. Some of the details below may be a little bit upsetting so please only read this is you are interested in criminal profiling, and I will endeavour to write more articles on social body language in the near future.

Criminal profiling is the process of discovering potential identities of criminal offenders based on their crimes and without prior direct knowledge of the criminal themselves. The goal is to discover an identity so that law enforcement can track down a dangerous criminal. Due to the nature of profiling techniques, this is often one of the few ways to track down a serial murderer because the crime-scenes, victims and situations often yield clues as to the identity or general ‘profile’ of the criminal.

Tracking Methods

Criminal profilers use a variety of techniques and estimations to find an offender who is unknown to them. Often they will refer to this person as the “unknown subject” or “unsub” as opposed to by any names that might be circulated in the media. If the media is calling the unsub “The Route 9 Strangler,” for example, this is actually more likely to prejudice the search team to look for crimes that fit this MO (‘Modus Operandi’ meaning the ‘Method of Operation’) rather than ensuring that they are attributing offences to the right person. If every strangle victim they find on route 9 is attributed to this person they might find that they are missing another killer who is copying this MO (a ‘copycat killer’) or that they may miss other victims from the same unsub that do not fit. The unsub may have tried other methods before or after strangulation, as it isn’t uncommon to find an unsub who alters his/her methods.

Things a Criminal Profiler Needs

A criminal profiler needs evidence to read an unsub. This could be a crime scene, a body or a string of missing persons reports in an area. All of these things, and others, can be used to make educated guesses at the identity or attributes of a criminal offender.


Motivation is often the first point that a criminal profiler will use to discern the identity of an unsub. If a serial killer is always murdering blonde, overweight middle-aged women then you could reasonably assume that this ‘type’ is important to the unsub. Perhaps the victims represent the look of a person who the unsub would like to kill, but doesn’t have the courage or opportunity to. This can be discerned through examining a crime scene or extrapolating from a series of suspicious deaths or missing persons reports.

Dr. Emmanuel Hammer, a leading forensic psychologist, put it like this:

“[a] common denominator is that the victim must be a symbolic representation very vital and important to the killer’s life.”

As an example of this, the serial killer Robert Hanson abducted young, attractive women and took them to Alaska in order to hunt them for sport. He had been rejected frequently by women his whole life and for him, the victims represented  the women who rejected him, and as such he could kill them as a kind of vengeance. (Biographical Summary)

A criminal profiler looking for this man might notice several missing girls, young and attractive and fitting a kind of type. They could assess that perhaps an unsub was abducting them, and that his basic profile might be an unattractive man, unable to get a girlfriend. It would be a fair guess to put this man between the ages of 25-50. This is based just on the type of victim.

Most often the serial killers and violent offenders requiring the use of profiling are men. It is estimated that 85% of serial killers (a person who kills three or more people) are men, and that 90% of single murders are performed by men. Often with serial murderers there are strong implications of psychopathy, having very low empathy and emotion. A high proportion of people currently in US jails are psychopaths, up to 500,000 according to an article in Scientific American Mind (link). As suggested earlier, most of these are men.

However this does not mean that there are no female serial killers.

Aileen Wuornos of Rochester, Michigan was found guilty of the murders of six men, five of which she pleaded guilty to, and was put to death in October 2002. (Biographical Summary)

The first victim, Richard Mallory, she murdered with a handgun after he picked her up in his car. She had been working as a prostitute and claimed self-defence for this first murder.

This first murder may well have been self-defence, but the fact that it continued probably shows that Aileen found some kind of pleasure in the killing, and a good criminal profiler could see the difference between a first kill and a subsequent one based on the crime scenes. Richard Mallory was shot 4 times. Subsequent victims, David Spears and Charles Carskaddon were shot 6 and 9 times respectively. This shows a clear escalation. The latter two victims were affiliated with police, also showing a rise in confidence.

Profiling women tends to be more difficult, as their motivations are usually not as clear as men’s.


Criminal profiling is very difficult as many of these points are just possibilities. It is not an exact science and reading behaviours may give multiple, mutually-exclusive leads. It is important to maintain a clear and logical head when using criminal profiling techniques.

Reading interpersonal body language at a coffee shop

Try this one out, it can be amusing, funny and interesting and you’ll improve your reading skills just by thinking about what it is you’re looking for.

Most normal people like to be closer to people they like and further away from people they don’t like. Human body language can very clearly show who we want to be near and who we don’t, but it may be more complicated than simply leaning away from someone. I like to employ a principle from Nevarro’s work that allows me to understand what a particular movement in an interaction might mean without having to memorize it exactly. This principle is Ventral Acceptance or Denial, and it basically refers to how openly you share your personal space with someone.

This is a simple stock image that indicates that a discussion is going on, but look at the participants body language. The woman on the right is all closed up like she doesn’t want to share, and the man in the middle has his unused arm across his body. These may mean nothing or they may indicate defensive posture.

You may have heard of defensive body language, and that is a type of ventral denial. Think further than just folding your arms across your chest to more subtle body language movements you might do when you want to keep someone at bay. You might extend your arms or, while sitting, cross your legs to create a barrier. Ventral denial is denying someone any means by which they might attack your front, and it is a very primal instinct, and as such it is very hard to avoid doing.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The human torso holds all of the essential organs, your stomach, your heart, everything! So it makes sense that when you feel threatened you would pull that away, protect it with your more durable and non-essential arms, legs or back. It will be more subtle, but try to look out for people folding their arms, turning their torso away from the person talking to them, and even standing side-on which is a strong indicator that a fight may break out.

This is a very open and friendly posture. You might reasonably expect that these two people have a mutual trust.

So next time you’re in a coffee shop or a restaurant, take a look at some of the people talking to their friends and learn to pick up on how they feel about one another simply by watching how close they are and how open their posture is.

How to Jumpstart Your Micro-Expression Reading Skills

Alright, so now that you’ve read the basics of what the universal expressions look like, how do you spot them when they only display on a person’s face for 1/5th of a second?

The Micro-Expression Training Tool is a great first place to start. The Paul Ekman Group has developed a training tool that shows a face that changes very briefly in a way that mimics a micro-expression. Independent research has shown that your ability to read these expressions when they occur in everyday life is drastically improved in just one hour of training on this tool.

The basic training offered on Ekman’s site is invaluable for learning how to read these expressions when they occur so briefly in the real world.

I would seriously recommend going to the site and checking out the demo. It will give you an idea of where your baseline is in terms of how well you can do at reading faces without any training. You get better very quickly, and after years of studying this I still boot up my old METT disc and practise to remind myself to watch out for these expressions.

Anyway, that’s it for today. Expect some articles on body language very soon.

Micro-Facial Expressions 103 – Fear and Surprise


Fear is exceptionally important for humans. It tells us when a situation is not a good one, it tells us that we shouldn’t jump off a tall building and it tells us that running away from a charging rhino is probably a good idea. While the latter of these two threats is relatively rare in our modern lives, we still find a fear expression in people who fear being caught or beaten. Watch the face of a child who has been caught red-handed with an open cookie jar on the table and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Many in the past have referred to the Fight or Flight nervous system response; this theory dictates we respond to threats in these ways instinctively. This is incomplete, as really our first response is to freeze, like a deer in headlights. Nevarro argues that normally you won’t feel a strong desire to fight a threat, as realistically this is the least successful option in most cases. Ever tried fighting a natural predator like a tiger, a bear or even a big dog? It’s not gonna end well. However a lot of creatures respond to movement, so if your ancestors were hiding in the brush while a bear wandered past you can expect staying down and quiet is a far better option than getting up and either legging it away from or towards the beast. This instinctual reaction is about drawing as little attention to yourself as possible.

So really it makes sense that it should be freeze, flight or fight in that order (Nevarro, 2008).

Fear is a natural response to threats, and will often be seen in the faces of people who know that they are in serious trouble!

When we see fear the biggest and most obvious indicator will be widened eyes, with the upper eyelids rising and the lower ones tensing. The eyebrows pull together and upwards, and the lips stretch horizontally towards the ears. This can often cause the tendons in the neck to tense, creating vertical ridges in the neck.


Surprise is an instinctual response. Humans are hard wired to be alert all the time; we use an extraordinary amount of energy keeping our brains ready for anything. Surprise is almost always a very brief and quick emotion, a response to something novel or unexpected, so it is surprisingly easy to detect fake surprise.

For example if you accuse someone of something that they may have done they might drop their jaw and look surprised for seconds at a time, and in most cases this is fake surprise and should be questioned further. It is unlikely that social situations would cause shock, the only real reason for prolonged surprise.

Often this emotion is followed by another emotion that informs the surprise. A person may feel surprise for a moment and then feel happiness (surprise party), anger or sadness (walking in on a cheating spouse) and these following emotions are often intensified because of the reaction to the event. This should make them easier to see, so using surprise can be a good way to expose emotional responses that you want to elicit.

Surprise displays in a very clear way, but as I mentioned earlier it is very brief, and may last only 1/5th of a second. A surprised person may open their mouth slightly, raise their eyebrows and widen their eyes. Sometimes this emotion may only display in a very subtle way, without the open mouth and only the slightest widening of the eyes, and this subtler expression is very difficult to see with the naked eye.

Surprise will not linger for long, and you have to be very quick so as not to miss it!

These are the very bare basics of Ekman’s research, and I will of course be exploring his work in more detail in future articles. For now I’m planning on finding some pictures and video’s of body language displays and trying to get my viewers to figure out what isn’t being said.

Micro-Facial Expressions 102 – Anger, Disgust and Contempt


Anger is another of the basic emotions, one that we have all felt. Early in the previous century, psychologists believed that human aggression was a direct result of frustration (Dollard, 1939), and that anger was simply the social component to frustration build-up.

Anger is particularly easy to spot on a human face as it is a stark warning – if you see someone looking at you with this expression you will be acutely aware of its implications.

Tim Roth from Fox’s brilliant show ‘Lie to Me’ displaying Anger

The most obvious way to spot anger is narrowing of the eyes: squinting. This is because this narrows the field of vision, the proverbial ‘seeing red’. As a natural predator it allows us to focus on a target. People feeling this emotion will tighten their lips and narrow their eyebrows as well.


Often confused for Anger, this emotion is a little more complicated to spot, and in my opinion has more implications in social life. Disgust as a social emotion stems from our need to avoid poisonous and unpleasant smells and food. If you smell something that you do not like it will be obvious to anyone around you, and it is very hard to avoid displaying this emotion as it is hardwired into our brains.

Spotting this emotion is not difficult, and if you look for the nostrils flaring upwards it will be pretty obvious. This is based on our nervous system blocking off our nasal passages to avoid unpleasant smells, and a person displaying this emotion will wrinkle their noses, and often squint. Think if it as trying to experience as little of an unpleasant thing as possible, most often wrinkling the nose, raising of the upper lip, squinting and turning the head away.


Contempt is the least researched of Ekman’s Universal emotions, and as such is not as enshrined as the other six. However contempt is one of the more interesting and in the western world is far easier to spot. It is a uni-lateral expression, and these types of body language cues are most often an indication that the person is being deceitful or false. A shrug with a single shoulder is another example of a uni-lateral body language, and it often indicates a lack of confidence in what one is saying. With both it is more of an “I don’t know” statement.

Normally contempt is visible on the face as a kind of half smile. One corner of the mouth is drawn inwards and upwards, signifying an extreme dislike that is different to disgust and anger. It shows a feeling that someone or something is inferior, lacking or worthless, and is a very dangerous emotion, and is more often the expression associated with hate than Anger or Disgust would be.

Contempt: image sourced from Ekman’s Micro-Expression Training Tool

Next article will be on Fear and Surprise, two more emotions that are sometimes confused but, as you can tell, have very different implications.

Micro-Facial Expressions 101

Paul Ekman – Micro-Facial Expressions Part I

Paul Ekman’s work with Wallace Friesen on Micro-Facial Expressions is absolutely fascinating. Their studies in remote communities (without access to television or modern communications) in Papa New Guinea showed that social and cultural biases didn’t influence the recognition of certain emotions. From Ekman’s work we can say that there are 6 universal emotions (and a seventh which is very replicable), and that these display on the face in a universal way. These emotions are Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, Anger and Disgust (and Contempt). These are biologically programmed into each of us, and many psychologists agree that the function of this is for infant development and for quick warnings in time sensitive situations. How will you know if your baby is upset if he/she doesn’t look sad, and would you have enough time have someone explain to you in words that he is frightened of the bear chasing him?

Emotions give context to situations in a very rapid and meaningful way that allows us to quickly act upon signs as reliable information.

We need to be able to recognise these emotions to function in certain situations such as the ones above, but if we are supposed to recognise them biologically then what do we need to study them for? Surely if we are designed to recognize them then all of this information will be old news. The answer is that society teaches us not to recognize these signs. I share the opinion of many psychologists that social life forces us to accept other people’s words rather than their emotions and feelings because of politeness, manners and convention. If you ask someone who looks sad “how are you?” and they tell you “I’m fine”, what do you do? Say “No you’re not you look sad”? It is a tough situation and the majority of people would rather accept the words than delve deeper; obviously this is an over-simplified example but in reality I believe we learn to ignore signals in order to minimise our confrontations with other people.


Happiness is recognisable by upturns in the corners of the mouth, and stretching of the Orbicularis Oculi and Zygomaticus Major muscles of the face. Oftentimes it is possible to recognise a social smile (a smile that is not a direct result of a feeling of happiness) because the skin around the eyes does not wrinkle, as the Orbicularis muscle does not tense.

You might find that people will deceive others with fake smiles, and that it will be easier to spot when you notice that the skin around their eyes does not wrinkle and that tell-tale line between their nostrils and the corners of the mouth does not appear.

Happiness is easy to see – just look at this baby and tell me what emotion he is feeling!


Sadness is also very easy to recognize. in genuine sadness not only do the corners of the mouth turn down, this is commonly misconceived as the easiest way to spot sadness. The biggest indicator is the reliable facial muscles, the eyebrows, and they will curve in and upward towards the middle of the brow as in the photo below.

Notice how the eyebrows point upward and towards the middle of the face.

This is exceedingly difficult to do by force of will. Try it right now in the mirror if you like. Without training and muscle techniques it is nearly impossible to force your face to look genuinely sad, and this is another way in which you can spot someone trying to emotionally manipulate you or others around you. Crying with real tears is easier to fake than having a genuine look of sadness that takes into account involuntary movements and complicated expressions, so be sure to watch the eyebrows.

Conclusion of Happiness and Sadness

This is a short introduction to two of the six (seven) universal emotions. It is very important to understand that these will display on your face in varying degrees depending on the intenseness of the emotion and the character of the person. Even the most stoic character may show a strongly felt sadness on their face for a split second before it is covered up or ‘squelched’, which is when one emotion is hidden using another, such as hiding sadness with anger.

Stay tuned for my next piece on Anger and Disgust, two emotions that are often mistaken for one another but that have very different meanings.

Reading People – Everyone can do it!

Hello everyone, welcome to my blog on reading body language. I plan to post tips on a regular basis on how to read people and understand what their reaction to you is. Hopefully through reading this blog you will find understanding people’s reactions a little less confusing.

First thing I will want to clarify is that I am not just making this stuff up – this is not pop science or references to the slew of TV shows about this subject. The tips and ideas I will present here are all either researched or stemmed from logic; I will always source when I can, and I will always mention when something I say has not had proper research.

I have a degree in Philosophy with Psychology from the University of Warwick and the most interesting thing I did throughout my studies was to start learning all about reading body language. I have always wanted to understand why people do the things they do, and I enjoy siting in a coffee shop and watching people: literally every person alive will give off signals about the way they feel and think, and there are ways you can learn to read these signals! You watch a young guy talking to a girl and you can tell whether he is interested in her, whether she is interested back, what kind of conversation they are having or who is taking control of the conversation just from looking at the way they sit or move, their facial expressions or even something as simple as what direction their feet are pointing.

Often people feel uncomfortable at being analysed in this way. Many people dislike the fact that you can point out to someone how they are feeling, and many consider it to be an invasion of privacy and exceedingly rude to read them. People who are naturally good at reading people are praised for their insight, and as long as you do not go around telling everyone that you study their body language and you know what they are thinking then there is no reason for them to feel like their privacy is being invaded. Simply keep your knowledge to yourself and use it to better understand what people around you want.

And there are a whole host of benefits to reading people. These benefits carry over into every facet of life, whether it be business, relationships, friends or strangers – it is universal: everyone in the world past present and future will be affected in a physical way by their emotions.

I may write some articles on conversation analysis and criminal profiling as well, as these are particular fascinations of mine. The words people pick when they talk to you are very relevant to what they mean. Sometimes you can tell just from thinking about why a specific word was used what your friend or business partner actually wants rather than what they will put up with. Also criminal psychopathology is intensely interesting, and while it is sometimes a little disturbing I still find it fascinating to think about how the brain of a psychopath might work.

Also if anyone has any questions please feel free to comment on my posts or contact me with situations to analyse – sometimes it is easier from outside of a situation to understand what something means.

Best wishes, and I’ll be posting my first proper article about Ekman’s work on Micro-Facial expressions.