Canter et al., (2004) – ‘The organised/disorganised typology of serial murder myth or model?’

Canter et al., (2004) – ‘The organised/disorganised typology of serial murder myth or model?’, Psychology, Public Policy,and Law, 10 (3). pp. 293-320. ISSN 1076-8971


This is the second study we will be looking at from Making a Profile, as part of your OCR A2 Forensic Psychology course.

The background this study is the same as Hazelwood and Douglas (1980). It is highly recommended that you look that these two studies in series, first studying Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) because this study is an evaluation of  Hazelwood and Douglas (1980)

The background study for this theory, is Holmes and Holmes (1989).

Firstly, what is profiling? Offender or criminal profiling is simply the attempt to predict and create the likely traits and behaviours of an offender of a crime. The likelihood is that you already could begin to have a guess at the type of person that committed a crime. For example three women are found strangled and sexually assaulted at three different, but closely located train stations. It is more than likely that a male committed these offences. Criminal profiling done by professionals is in essence what we just did, but it goes into more depth.

Holmes and Holmes (1989) identified 3 aims of profiling:

Aim 1: Social and Psychological Assessments – considering the following: 

  • Personality
  • Age
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Type of Employment (or employed status)
  • Marital Status
  • Level of Education

Aim 2: Psychological Evaluation of Belongings:

Once aim 1 has been completed and a profile of the offender has been made, the profiler should attempt to suggest any possessions that may be linked to the crime scene, for example:

  • Scene Souvenirs (i.e victims shoes etc…)
  • Specific Pornography that could be linked to the crime in question

Completing this aim allows the Police detectives involved in the case the ability to list such potential evidence in a search warrant.

Aim 3: Interviewing Suggestions and Strategies

Once a profile has been made the profiler should make suggestions about how best to interview the suspect. The reason for this is that individuals will respond to questioning differently depending upon: the nature of their crime, their personality and their motivation for committing the crime. For example a person who has committed a crime simply to see if they can get away with it is going to try and outsmart the interviewers, as such the interviewers should prepare accordingly.

According to Boom and Davis (1992) there are two primary approaches to profiling.

  • The Top Down Approach used by the American FBI
  • The Bottom Up Approach used by the British

 The Top Down Approach used by the American FBI

The top down approach was produced from a series of in-depth interviews with 36 convicted sexually orientated murderers including Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

The profiler uses the evidence from the crime scene to create the profile of the offender and then uses typologies to advise the Police of interview techniques and the potential of reoffending. An example of the typologies: If the crime has been well-planned and it is a murder, then it suggests the likely characteristic of an offender with an above average IQ.

The top down approach attempts to classifies offenders into types. These types are based upon the nature of the crime, the violence involved, the motivations and the offenders likelihood to reoffend.

Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) describe the beginnings of the top down approach in their theory.


To test the reliability of organised and disorganised typologies.

Method and Design

Content analysis using the psychometric method of multi-dimensional scaling.

Multi-dimensional scaling is simply a way in which similarities are identified in a dataset.

Source Material

100 cases of the third crime by serial killers in America.

‘This material was collected from published accounts of serial killers and their crimes
that were cross checked with court reports and, where possible, with investigating officers’.

– Canter et al., (2004)

There was also secondary sources consisting of nationally and internationally known United States’ newspapers, periodicals, journals, true crime magazines, biographies, trial transcripts, and case history narratives.

Between the sources for the cases studied, there was very little disagreement, making the source materials reliable.


The 100 cases were assessed to find out if the features hypothesised by Hazelwood and Douglas (1980) of the different typologies are consistently distinct and different.

Canter et al., (2004) used the Crime Classification Manual from Douglas et al., (1992) to classify the studied crimes as either organised or disorganised as far as was possible given the information of each individual case.


Disorganised offences were significantly more commonly identified than organised offences, based upon crime scene evidence, which suggests that either: disorganised crimes are easier to identify, or disorganised crimes are more common.

The top three most frequently occurring features of organised crimes were (the percentages reflect the percentage of crimes of that typology in which the feature occurred):

  •  Victim alive during sex acts (91%)
  •  Body positioned (75%)
  • Murder weapon missing (67%)

The top three most frequently occurring features of disorganised crimes were:

  • Vaginal rape (74%)
  • Overkill (70%)
  • Multiple sex acts (66%)

There were only two crime scene co-occurring behaviours in organised cases:

  • The body was concealed in 70% of cases
  • Sexual activity occurred in 75% of cases

Further statistical analysis failed to separate the variables for organised and disorganised offences clearly.

Canter (2004) Findings
Canter’s Small Sample Analysis

This shows the behaviours that were found in the cases. The closer they are to the middle of the graph, the more frequently they occurred. Other behaviours surrounding individual behaviours were more likely to have occurred in the same crime.


There is no distinction between the two types of serial murder, all such crimes will have an organised element to them.  Canter suggests that there is a lack of empirical validity to the typologies.

The differences between serial killers may be the different ways in which they may show the disorganised aspects of crimes.

Canter suggests that it would be better to study the individual personality differences between offenders than the organised and disorganised elements to their crimes.

Canter et al., (2004) Evaluation

+ The source material used showed both concurrent validity and reliability.

– Ethnocentrism – The results and conclusions cannot be generalised to other crimes as the only crimes studies were the third crime of a serial killer.

+ Shows a weakness in the validity of organised/disorganised typologies.

+ Large sample – the results are therefore likely to be highly reliable.

+ Validity – the crimes were analysed using statistical analysis.

+ Ecological Validity – the study analysed real crimes.

+ Standardised analysis – every 3rd crime was studied. This allowed the development of the modus operandi of each criminal.

+ Useful in increasing the validity of Police suspect selection

+ Highly scientific and Objective

+ Unlike Hazelwood and Douglas (1980), Canter et al (2004) accounts for individual differences.

Audio Podcast


Canter, David V., Alison, Laurence J., Alison, Emily and Wentink, Natalia (2004) The Organized/Disorganized Typology of Serial Murder: Myth or Model? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 10 (3). pp. 293-320. ISSN 1076-8971


Further Reading

Mapping Murder: The Secrets of Geographical Profiling

Criminal Shadows: Inside the Mind of the Serial Killer

OCR A2 Psychology Student Unit Guide: Unit G543: Forensic Psychology (Student Unit Guides)


Article Name
Canter et al., (2004) - 'The organised/disorganised typology of
Canter et al., (2004) - 'The organised/disorganised typology of serial murder myth or model?', Psychology, Public Policy,and Law, 10 (3). pp. 293-320. ISSN