Profiles in society describe the characteristics of people who are
likely to behave in particular ways, and, to the extent that they are
accurate, they increase the likelihood that individuals engaging in
certain behaviors will be identified.
The use of profiles is ubiquitous _ for example, to catch criminals
(from terrorists and drug couriers to car thieves and tax cheats), to
parole prisoners, even to determine the rates we pay for auto
insurance. It’s next to impossible to scrutinize every person crossing
a border or boarding a plane, so a profile can tell authorities who is
more likely to be doing something criminal.
The Internal Revenue
Service cannot carefully review tens of millions of tax returns, but a
profile can tell the IRS whose tax return deserves special scrutiny.
Our prisons are overcrowded, but some prisoners are too dangerous to be
paroled: Which ones would make better risks? Some drivers are more
careless than others or drive on more dangerous roads. Doesn’t it make
sense for insurance companies to use a profile to determine who should
pay more for insurance so that you and I, the good drivers, can pay
Consider also that all of us use profiles of one sort or
another in ordinary ways. These profiles may not be based on
statistical evidence, but they are profiles nonetheless. Who hasn’t
used experience to make educated guesses at a party about who might be
interesting to talk to, based on how they look or comments they have
made? Parents engage in profiling of sorts when they encourage their
children to look for romantic partners who are ambitious, rather than
lazy, because experience tells them that ambition increases one’s
chances for a happy life.
So how could it be argued that
profiling _ looking in a certain direction for certain kinds of people
who are likely to behave in certain ways _ can have very negative
First, we need to remember that profiles direct
our attention toward some people and away from others. We should
recognize, however, that “shifting our gaze” actually increases the
likelihood of finding evidence that increases our confidence in our
profiles _ even when individuals who do not fit the profile are
engaging in the targeted behavior just as frequently as those who do.
If there’s just as much mischief occurring on the left and right sides
of a classroom, but the teacher looks twice as much to the left as to
the right _ because of suspicion resulting from a profile about who
will misbehave (e.g., the boys with the baggy pants) _ guess what
happens. The teacher will find twice as much misbehavior on the left
side. And the teacher’s observation will give credence to the profile,
even though the profile is wrong.
Second, we should keep in mind
that when using a profile to find the people we’re looking for, there
are two mistakes we can make: a false-positive error and a
false-negative error. For example, the former may identify an innocent
person as a potential terrorist, and the latter may identify an actual
terrorist as an innocent person. Given a choice, most people would
prefer to err on the side of caution _ avoiding a false-negative error
_ considering the potential consequences of failing to identify a
Of course, our reaction might be very different if we
were the ones being misidentified, and experiencing the consequences of
being labeled a terrorist.
Third, we need to recognize that
decreasing false-positive errors usually increases false-negative
errors, and vice versa. When a profile casts too small a net, it
catches only a few of the people we’re looking for, and misses many
others. However, a profile that casts too big a net catches not only
some of the people we’re looking for, but also people who aren’t
engaging in the behavior we’re trying to prevent.
Unfortunately, profiling is not a perfect science, so the nets that are cast are always too big or too small.
The above concerns demand that we ask and try to answer two intimately related questions:
1) How can we evaluate the magnitude of the consequences of
false-positive and false-negative errors produced by less than perfect
2) Who does this evaluation?
Answers to these
questions are vitally important as we search for the proper balance
among people’s demands for security, civil liberties, and dignity. This
last element, dignity, has been ignored in most discussions of the
benefits and drawbacks of profiling _ except by those who experience
the effects of being wrongly identified.
Those of us not singled
out by authorities or fellow citizens at an airport, in a car, or on a
nearly deserted street in someone else’s neighborhood probably have a
very hard time understanding the impact that repeated false-positive
identification errors can have on the individual, and the resulting
alienation toward society.
Alienation may seem to be of interest
mostly to sociologists and psychotherapists, but if we’re prone to
wondering why patriotism isn’t what it used to be, or why people aren’t
buying into the political system we think is the best in the world,
perhaps a consideration of people’s alienation becomes less esoteric
and more pragmatic.
Some have suggested that certain
characteristics shouldn’t be used in a profile, even if they improve
the profile’s quality, because they produce too much harm for those who
are innocent but fit the profile (a false-positive error).
might respond that such a false-positive error is regrettable, but that
those misidentified must “get over it,” or “that’s the price we have to
pay for security” _ although they usually mean “that’s the price
someone else has to pay.”
If these thoughts have crossed your
mind, consider the sense of unfairness you experience if you pay a lot
for auto-liability insurance because of the town you live in, your age,
your sex, or your car _ even though you’ve never been in an accident or
gotten a speeding ticket.
Of course you can move to another
town, and you’ll eventually get older _ and, these days, you can even
change your sex if you’re so inclined. But the color of your skin, your
ethnicity, and your country of origin will always be what they are now:
Imagine if Catholics, Jews, or Muslims cheated on
their taxes a bit more than people of other religions. Would we
encourage the IRS to use religion as part of a profile to spot tax
cheats? Or would we ignore the small statistical advantage that might
be produced by including this characteristic in the profile of a tax
cheat because it would produce an unacceptable number of mistakes with
major consequences for others?
Is it important to think about
how we might assess the magnitude of those consequences and how that
assessment might interact with the number of people who experience
them? You bet it is. Errors produced by less than foolproof profiles
(i.e., all profiles) cause injustices that hurt others _ our fellow
citizens, our neighbors, even members of our own family _ in ways that
can scar them, ourselves, and our society.
As a society, we not
only have to decide whether we want to give up our civil liberties to
increase our security. We also have to decide whether, or when, it’s
wise to give up our dignity in the service of security.
we must determine whether the increase in security with profiles is
real or illusory, so that we can determine whether the price is
ultimately too high.
(Arthur Frankel is a professor of psychology at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.)