The profiling psychologist performs psychological autopsies

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
November 1, 2002 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

A Boston area woman whose millionaire boyfriend died unexpectedly a few years ago became suspicious when strange people showed up at the wake and funeral.

Sensing that she had not really known the man she had been dating for a long time, the woman called on Richard Pomerance, Ph.D., to perform a “psychological autopsy” on the deceased.

“The toxicology report showed that the man had drugs and alcohol in his blood when he died,” Pomerance said. “But beyond that we found that he also had some personality problems, probably suffered from manic depressive illness and was also leading at least three entirely separate lives.”

Once the woman learned of the boyfriend’s personality, and began to understand why she was attracted to this kind of man, she was able to sustain more stable and satisfying relationships, Pomerance said.

The Boston-area resident describes his focus on helping people understand other people instead of themselves as a “profiling psychologist.” It is a discipline that uses psychological understanding as well as the collection of facts to predict likely behavior or personality issues as they relate to the client’s agenda.

Profiling is a practice that governments use to learn more about political associates, both friends and enemies, and one that business increasingly relies on to figure out what their competitors are up to.

“Kings, generals and business tycoons have been profiling each other since time immemorial,” Pomerance said. “You can bet that right now there is a shelf full of personality studies of Saddam Hussein at CIA headquarters. Why can’t the rest of us benefit from this approach?”

Pomerance’s approach is based on decades of experience with the various types of disorders of personality, and furthered by many different kinds of information. He believes it makes sense to help clients understand how the important people in their lives function and problems with them can best be handled. Many then enter psychotherapy.

He is constantly reminded of his failures to go “beyond the basics” to check personal backgrounds.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes in this area. I’m aware of them all and realize they didn’t need to happen,” Pomerance explained. “I constantly ask, ‘what did I miss and why?’ In financial matters, we insist on performing due diligence, but on the human factors side we remain babes in the woods. Then we’re surprised when those same human factors wreck our plans.”

Clients must often deal with hostile or inaccessible family members, for example, explosive or inattentive husbands and manipulative moms. These people, he said, “will have nothing to do with feelings or even reason, much less introspection, or God forbid, family therapy. Think of Tony Soprano’s mother.”

Another challenging problem is the frankly devious subject. One of his recent clients, Pomerance said, was a woman concerned about her niece telling her family that she (the niece) had cancer and needed money. A combination of investigation and interpretation revealed that the niece probably did not have cancer and that the attempt to milk her relatives harkened back to her shoplifting activities at age 16.

“Plus, we found out that she was into cocaine. The aunt, bless her heart, was the last to know.”

As more women have gone into the workplace, their focus has shifted from requests mostly concerning family, men and friendships to job affiliations and the people blocking their way, Pomerance said. A recent case involved a woman whose company had been built largely on a loan by a male acquaintance whose intentions, in both sexual and investment terms, became unclear, causing most anxiety.

While the investor had no obvious pattern of predatory behavior, Pomerance determined that a trap was indeed being set. The client took defensive measures in both personal and business terms and was not caught.

Pomerance finds that critical personality interpretation can even be done using remote and public sources. He cites one example of a woman who asked on short notice for insight into committee members interviewing her for chief executive officer of a large Silicon Valley firm.

He gathered significant information from the Internet and elsewhere, made inferences from this data about the personalities of the board members and sent the client a report which helped her understand how best to approach each person. She got the job.

Pomerance has worked with people from 15 to 75 in seven countries on three continents. He said that once people learn that there are psychological professionals willing to have a problem-solving agenda rather than a psychotherapeutic one, they lose their defensiveness and are willing to refer fiends as if the psychologist’s services are as straightforward as any other.

He also advises companies on what their competition is doing, a discipline known as “competitive intelligence.” He says he is amazed at how little business people know about a competing company’s executives and their ways of making deals, partnering and doing business.

“Have you noticed?” he asked, “that this kind of information usually appears years after the fact in business histories when fortunes have been won or lost? If executives saw early on how predatory their competition was, or if investors saw what the executives were really after, they could adjust their strategy accordingly.

“There would be fewer corporate bodies buried on Boot Hill. Debacles like Enron, Imclone and Tyco might not have happened.”

When he’s not playing detective, Pomerance diagnoses and treats personality and affective disorder in both the clinical and forensic areas.

He also lectures for the Society for Competitive Intelligence Professionals and conducts the workshop, “Who Are You Dealing With” Assessing People in Everyday Life,” in which he both teaches the essentials of profiling and helps people solve the particular mystery concerning “that certain someone” in their lives.


Richard Pomerance, Ph.D., a Boston-area psychologist for 25 years, can be reached at (617)-969-7393 and

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