Profiler performance

"CRIMINAL PROFILING: the reality behind the myth" (July/August Monitor) poses the question: "Does profiling really work?" and summarizes several studies. The data of those studies actually are far more negative about profiler performance than the studies' authors happen to mention in their discussions of the findings.

In Pinizzotto and Finkel's study, FBI profilers did have the highest number of accurate statements, but that is because they made the most total statements. They also had the highest number of inaccuracies. Accuracy as a proportion of total statements for the rape case was as follows: profilers 82 percent, detectives 81 percent, psychologists 82 percent, students 91 percent; for the homicide case: profilers 76 percent, detectives 83 percent, psychologists 76 percent, students 84 percent.

Profiling no doubt could benefit from some serious psychological research. But so far most of the help it has received is just hype--something the field has no shortage of.

For a fascinating review of the phenomenon, the history, the law, the dubious science and the PR of profiling, see Risinger, D.M., & Loop, J.L. (2002). "Three card monte, Monty Hall, modus operandi and 'offender profiling': Some lessons of modern cognitive science for the law of evidence," Cardozo Law Review, 24, 193­285.

Arizona State University

The politics of terror

SOMEONE SHOULD inform Dr. Staub ("The route to prisoner abuse in Iraq," July/August Monitor) that "we" (Americans) did not create "hostile images" of the enemy. The Arab terrorists who have repeatedly murdered noncombatant men, women and children have created their own images by their psychopathic choices and actions.

Dr. Staub is correct in stating that such images "inspire wrath and aggression." I would add that this is good; civilized people should be outraged and inspired to action.

While Dr. Staub stops short of recommending a coke machine in every Islamic terrorist's jail cell, he is out of touch.


DR. STAUB QUITE PROPERLY makes the point that the power imbalance in prisons creates a climate where abuse and sadism can flourish. I find his section on demonizing the enemy less compelling. Sometimes the only proper thing to do is call evil by its name.

We were fighting evil in World War Two, and creating a psychological climate that demonized the enemy was needed to motivate us to believe that we absolutely had to win that war. It's important to remember that the Guantanamo detainees, although they do contain innocents that we are releasing, were some of the people who were executing women in soccer stadiums for the temerity to have their hair done, and burying homosexuals alive. They are the enemy in this world war we're fighting.

Dr. Halpern ("Rising above the situation," July/August Monitor) is preoccupied with the images of Iraqi prisoners brutalized at Abu Ghraib, and I agree with her that this was deplorable. It's interesting that she made no mention of other images that were contemporaneous--innocent people having their heads slowly cut off. She might have mentioned other mind's eye images also--people trapped in the elevators at the World Trade Center as flaming aviation fuel cascaded down on them.

We're in a religious, cultural war against a very determined foe, well-financed, well-organized and determined to kill as many of us as they can. They are especially dangerous because they believe in death as both a means and an end in itself.


DIANE HALPERN'S SURPRISED OBSERVATION about how little we seem to know about average people "who refuse to go along" reminds me of a recent article ("The price of valor," July 12/19, The New Yorker) that describes as a "dead elephant in the living room" certain human behaviors that the discipline of psychology seems not to notice.

As it happens, some years ago in "Encounters with Unjust Authority" (Dorsey Press, 1982), Gamson, Fireman and Rytina identified some provocative variables that predict who might resist authority, and Milgram also did further studies on the same question, according to Blass in "The Man Who Shocked the World" (Basic Books, 2004). Yet, this research remains virtually unacknowledged in the psychological literature.

The real question, then, concerns not the average person but research psychologists. Why, indeed, after more than 50 years, do we know so little? Perhaps we need to seriously investigate why we seem unaware of important gaps in our knowledge and, even more strangely, why we ignore research that might help us address these gaps? Meanwhile, I strongly recommend the Gamson et al. study as a starting point for addressing Halpern's initial question.

State University of New York, Empire State College

The path to good sleep

DR. JAMES MAAS'S SLEEP TIPS ("TIPS FOR SLEEP success," July/August) seem intuitively to be good advice, except for one. Writing down troubling thoughts at bedtime may be a setup for disturbing sleep. Perhaps remembering three good moments of the day at bedtime, as suggested by Martin Seligman in a positive psychology exercise, would be a better prelude to relaxing sleep. If, as Dr. Maas suggests, our dreams attempt to make sense of our day's events, we may be better off dwelling on the good of the day, rather than the bad.

Beverly, Mass.


SELIGMAN'S POSITIVE THOUGHTS WORK, BUT if something is troubling you--better to jot it down before sleep than have it interrupt your sleep! You just put it down on a "to do/solve/think about tomorrow" list-- not dwell on the problem!

Cornell University

Stopping fire-starters

MELISSA DITTMANN'S ARTICLE "STOPPING young fire-starters" (July/August Monitor) prompted me to share the experience of mental health professionals and firefighters in Oklahoma City. Participating communities reduced child-set fires from 365 in 1993 to 133 in 2003.

The effort includes 23 fire departments, area mental health professionals, school counselors and the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments. It has three components: risk reduction, fire education and a program called Operation FireSAFE (OFS), which targets juveniles involved in fire-play or fire-starting.

Within OFS, fire department personnel provide individualized fire education to the child and his or her family and complete Federal Emergency Management Agency risk forms. The children with high-risk scores are referred to mental health professionals in the community for assessment and treatment or referral.

Based on their work, this professional group recommends adding "impulse control" to the types of fire-starters described by Dittmann. A child's ability to refrain from risky behaviors, including fire-setting, may be compromised by poorly managed impulse control sometimes associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The group also notes the Child Behavior Checklist (for ages 6 to 18) includes an item on fire-setting, which may serve to screen the clinical population.

Oklahoma City County Health Department

Is happiness the goal?

CHRISTOPHER PETERSON'S AND MARTIN Seligman's work accentuating the strengths ("Accentuating the positive," July/August) is a welcome change from psychology's traditional focus on people's weaknesses and problems. Their work provides the practitioner with the next step in helping people live a full and satisfying life.

Their work raises the enormous question, however, of the goals toward which we should be helping people move. I question if "happiness" and "life satisfaction" provide the final total goals needed by people and society. For example, I do not see in the article's brief review where either caring for the next generation, using Eriksonian terminology, or for the environment is clearly identified. Yet both are necessary traits for the survival of the human race.

Bryn Mawr College

Consumerism considered

THE JUNE 2004 ISSUE ON CONSUMERISM FOCUSES on a legitimate topic. I agree that we as a culture are overly focused on acquisition and outward show. Here in Southern California, radio and TV commercials tell us that "you are what you drive," and we need not discuss plastic surgery as a new must-have.

However, the articles seem to have a socialistic, anti-American undertone, which I find distressing and inappropriate for the profession of objective psychology.

San Diego

Complimentary coverage?

IT WAS WITH SOME SURPRISE, AND NO LITTLE irony, that I saw Melissa Dittmann's article "Alternative health care gains steam" published in the same edition as Geoffrey Mumford's "A rallying cry for psychological science" (June Monitor).

Dittmann cites the concern of Margaret A. Chesney, PhD, that "There's little to no scientific evidence that many of these [complementary and alternative] therapies...are safe and effective." Despite this, and despite the fact that APA is committed to promoting psychological science, the article goes on to discuss a very controversial area of health care in terms that are wholly uncritical. The word "complimentary"--rather than "complementary"--sprang to mind.

On closer inspection, one of the reasons Dittmann's piece could afford to be gentle on alternative therapies is that it dealt with unthreatening examples of the field (e.g., meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis) while avoiding its more wacky manifestations (e.g., healing crystals, homeopathy, distance healing, cranial realignment, ear candling, iridology, magnet therapy, and so on).

Complementary and alternative medicine frequently sets itself outside the scientific mainstream, and its proponents--although happy to wear the cloak of science before a public audience--habitually pour scorn on traditional scientific values such as empiricism, determinism, rationalism and skepticism. From sequestering itself within its own journals and conference circuits to championing gurus and miracle cures, it bears all the hallmarks of pseudoscience.

National University of Ireland