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Foundations of Psychological Profiling: Terrorism, Espionage, and Deception

CRC Press;; 226 pages; $69.95

“Profiling remains a hot topic,” Richard Bloom writes in the preface to his intriguing and complex book, Foundations of Psychological Profiling. It would be hard to dispute this observation, given the widespread media coverage and other publicity that the issue of profiling has received in recent years, including, as Bloom notes, in film and television shows. The disclosures this past year of the National Security Agency’s massive data mining of telephone calls and Internet activity of individuals is yet another example of the “hot” nature of the issue of profiling.

The book, however, is not just about profiling individuals who may be potential terrorists, criminals, or spies. Instead, it is a sweeping, oftentimes academic, treatment of many different aspects of profiling. As Bloom writes, “In its most generic sense…profiling takes one way beyond crime and the popular term criminal profiling to all events in all walks of life. Profiling is how we live.” Bloom further explains, “In this book…I’m advocating profiling to be about events from persons, situations, and their interactions—with the five components of predicting, post-dicting, peri-dicting, understanding, and influencing—bearing on not just crime but on anything that occurs in our world.”

That is a pretty broad scope, and Bloom tries some novel approaches to engage the reader in the process of profiling. For example, each chapter includes “learning outcomes” where the author urges the reader to apply what he or she has just learned to a segment from a famous movie that Bloom briefly describes. 

This innovative technique doesn’t always work, and part of the problem is that the writing style of the book is quite uneven. This appears to be a conscious decision by the author, and tangential comments are interspersed with the major text throughout. This type of writing can frustrate even the most patient reader hoping for clarity from the author.

This is unfortunate, because Bloom has some interesting things to say about profiling, particularly with respect to terrorism. He offers the controversial idea that “there truly are no structural root causes” of terrorism and that “the psychological constructs and processes advanced by most terrorism researchers to explain terrorism seem to me to be too logical, rational, and coherent.” He points out that “people engage in behaviors—especially extreme behaviors—that seem to be beyond understanding including their own. Also, people may be in the throes of cognitive, emotional, and motivational morass that seem to defy logical rhyme and reason. This does not mean that valid profiling is unachievable and that the whole matter is unknowable. It does suggest that an approach based on narrative founded on a matrix should be malleable for logical, illogical, and nonlogical phenomena as appropriate.” 

These intriguing and thought-provoking suggestions, unfortunately, tend to get buried in the book which has too many asides and distractions for most readers. Despite its limitations, however, Foundations of Psychological Profiling is still an important contribution to the literature on profiling.

Reviewer: Jeffrey D. Simon, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized consultant on terrorism and political violence. He is president of Political Risk Assessment Company, Inc., and a visiting lecturer in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. Simon is the author of The Terrorist Trap: America’s Experience with Terrorism and Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. He is a member of ASIS International.