Forensic psychology is the interaction of the practice or study of psychology and the law. Psychologists interested in this line of applied work may be found working in prisons, jails, rehabilitation centers, police departments, law firms, schools, government agencies, or in private practice, to name a few. They may work directly with attorneys, defendants, offenders, victims, pupils, families, or with patients within the state’s corrections or rehabilitation centers. Other psychologists interested in forensic psychology focus on the study of psychology and the law.
They may work in colleges, universities, government agencies, or in other settings interested in researching and examining the interaction of human behavior, criminology, and the legal system. The first research in forensic psychology explored the psychology of testimony. James McKeen Cattell conducted one of these early studies in 1893 at Columbia University. In his informal study, he asked 56 college students a series of questions. Among the four questions were: Do chestnut or oak trees lose their leaves earlier in autumn? What was the weather like one week ago today? He also asked students to rate their confidence.
Findings revealed that confidence didn’t equal correctness. Some students were confident regardless of whether their answers were correct, while others were always insecure, even when they provided the right answer. The level of accuracy also was surprising. For instance, for the weather question, students gave a wide range of responses, which were equally distributed by the types of weather possible that month. Cattell’s research ignited the interests of other psychologists. For example, Joseph Jastrow at the University of Wisconsin replicated Cattell’s study and found similar results.
In 1901, William Stern collaborated with a criminologist on an interesting experiment that further showed the level of inaccuracy in eyewitness accounts. The researchers staged a phony argument in a law class, which culminated in one of the students drawing a revolver. At that point, the professor intervened and stopped the fight. Then students were asked to provide written and oral reports of what happened. Findings revealed that each student made anywhere from four to 12 errors. The inaccuracies peaked with the second half of the squabble, when tension was highest. So they cautiously concluded that emotions reduced the accuracy of recall.
Stern became very active in the psychology of testimony and even established the first journal to explore the subject, called Contributions to the Psychology of Testimony. (It was later replaced by the Journal of Applied Psychology. ) Based on his research, Stern made a variety of conclusions, including: suggestive questions could compromise the accuracy of eyewitness reports; there are major differences between adult and child witnesses; the events that occur between the original event and its recall can dramatically affect memory; and lineups aren’t helpful unless they’re matched for age and appearance.
Psychologists also began testifying in court as expert witnesses. The earliest example of this was in Germany. In 1896, Albert von Schrenck-Notzing provided an opinion testimony in the trial of a man accused of murdering three women. The case received a lot of press coverage. According to Schrenck-Notzing, the sensationalist pretrial coverage clouded witnesses’ memories because they were unable to separate their own original accounts with the press reports. He substantiated his opinion with psychological research.
In 1906, a defense attorney asked German psychologist Hugo Munsterberg to review his convicted client’s investigation and trial records. The client had confessed to murder but then recanted. Munsterberg believed that the man, who was mentally disabled, was probably innocent, and he was skeptical about how the confession was obtained. Unfortunately, the judge refused to review the case and the man was hanged. The judge also was furious with Munsterberg for thinking that he had expertise in this case. This was one of the events that prompted Munsterberg to publish On the Witness Stand in 1908.
In it, he explained that psychology was vital in the courtroom, how suggestion could create false memories and why eyewitness testimony was often unreliable. In 1922, William Marston, a student of Munsterberg’s, was appointed the first professor of legal psychology at American University. (By the way, you might remember Marston as the creator of Wonder Woman. ) He discovered a link between lying and a person’s blood pressure, which would become the basis for the polygraph. Marston’s testimony in Frye v. U. S. in 1923 also set the standard of accepting expert testimony.
He, along with other psychologists, worked as one of the first psychological consultants to the criminal justice department. Plus, he conducted a variety of studies on the jury system and testimony accuracy. During the World Wars, forensic psychology was largely stagnant. But in the 1940s and 1950s, psychologists began regularly testifying in courts as experts on a range of psychological topics. For instance, in 1954, various psychologists testified in Brown v. Board of Education, and played an integral role in the court’s decision.
Other interesting events contributed to forensic psychology’s development. For instance, in 1917, Lewis Terman was the first psychologist to use mental tests to screen police offers. Later, psychologists would use personality assessments for screening. In the early 20th century, psychologists tested prisoners for “feeblemindedness,” which was believed to lead to a lifetime of criminal behavior. Forensic Psychologists can play a number of key roles in a criminal investigation. Immediately following a crime a forensic psychologist may be asked to act as a criminal profiler.
Most of us have an idea of what profiling is. It has over the years become the love child of numerous television programs, movies, and crime novels. Criminal profiling involves the psychologist (though all profilers are not psychologists) using his understanding of human behavior, motivation, and pathology so that he/she can create a psychological profile of the offender. The profiles can be surprisingly accurate. From observations of the crime scene one can infer the behavioral characteristics of the individual who created it.
To a profiler everyone is a slave to their psychological makeup. In turn, profilers use their knowledge of whom the typical offender is that bears these characteristics and then predicts not only how the investigators can expect the offender to behave in the future, but also what their physical appearance will likely be. While profiling may seem very exciting, few psychologists are ever involved in this field. There fortunately are not a lot of serial offenders out there. Unfortunately, there are even less places where one can obtain profiler training.
Once the suspect has been apprehended there are more opportunities for psychological intervention. Psychological knowledge has been applied to many more areas of investigative police work, from the police interrogation to the police line-up. Both of these areas have prospered greatly from psychological research. While those studying in these areas do not typically work within the police station (they will often do their research from an academic institution) they will often act in a consulting capacity and will perform teaching projects with the department.
One may also find a Police Psychologist working with the officers. While this individual may perform a number of the above jobs, they will also be on hand to provide counseling for officers, aid in the evaluation of prospective applicants, and provide crisis counseling for crime victims. Now we must leave the police station and enter the courtroom! In the court system, Forensic Psychologists are frequently used for both criminal and civil cases. In the criminal realm, the forensic psychologist is often asked to assess competency.
Competency assessments can serve a number of purposes. First, a defendant can be assessed for the ability to stand trial and/or make legal decisions on their own behalf. These types of decision have been frequent in the news. Most recently in the Ted “Unabomber” Kazynski case, in which Kazynski wished to defend himself but was deemed mentally unable to do so. These evaluations are carried out when the defendant appears to suffer from a mental defect, such as an acute psychiatric disorder (i. e. , schizophrenia) or a mental disability (i. e. , mental retardation).
Secondly, Psychologists may also be asked to make an evaluation regarding the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense. The entire “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense relies on the psychological evaluation of a defendant’s inability to form criminal intent. Frequently, people forget about the applications of forensic psychology to civil law. Often a forensic psychologist is asked to make evaluations of defendants or plaintiffs disability or level of trauma. From these evaluations the court can decide whether compensatory damages should be provided.
Civil-Forensic Psychologists also work on child custody, sexual harassment, and immigration cases. Virtually any civil matter that requires psychological evaluation may include the work of a Forensic Psychologist. It is important to remember that not all Forensic Psychologists work with violent criminals. The Forensic Psychologist that investigates the social-legal components of the common law court system can provide influential knowledge to both criminal and common law cases. Forensic Psychologists often are asked to evaluate potential jury members.
To this date numerous ‘mock’-jury investigations have been published. From this research, one can determine who is a potentially prejudiced juror. Many believe that a good evaluator can determine, before the case, which jurors are on their side. These Psychologists identify jurors who are potentially prejudicial to their case, and whom can thereby be eliminated from the jury panel during jury selection (or ‘voir dire’ as it is called in the legal realm). Since both sides can challenge potential jurors this will not usually stack the jury in the favor of either the defense or prosecution.
The result is hopefully a fairly balanced jury. These jury experts can also inform the attorney in regards to potential ways to influence the jury. This can include a number of things from the defendant’s clothing to the lawyers’ mannerisms. Many social-legal psychologists are also experts at how to psychologically motivate witnesses. They will inform the lawyer of potential questions that could stump a witness or set him/her off on a tantrum. Such theatrics can be very influential in a trial.
In general, individuals pursuing forensic psychology careers should make sure that their education is focused on psychology, criminology, and forensics. There are a couple different ways to pursue this type of education. First, a student can earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a doctorate degrees in forensic psychology focus on criminology or criminal justice. A student can also earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or criminology with a focus on psychology. Some courses that an aspiring forensic psychologist might take may include courses on forensics, abnormal psychology, and the psychology of deviance.
A bachelor’s degree, however, is often not enough to pursue a forensic psychology career. Master’s degrees and are usually necessary. The salary for a traditional psychologist in 2010 was $86,510, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS does not record salary data on forensic psychologists in particular, though. According to PayScale. com, however, forensic psychologists made between $35,333 and $103,576. All the special requirements of a forensic psychologist make him almost indispensable in the criminal proceedings at courts.
A judge would also wait for the final word from an experienced forensic psychologist before pronouncing the final judgment. The rising demand for experienced forensic psychologists has made the subject of forensic psychology extremely popular among the students in the recent times. More students are showing great interest in the field of forensic psychology and hence many universities and community colleges have opened separate departments where this wonderful branch of applied psychology is taught by experienced and highly qualified professors.