Psychology of Law – Unit 1
Intro to Forensic Psychology
What is Forensic Psychology?
- Forensic Psychology: a field of psychology that deals with all aspects of human
behavior as it relates to the law or legal system.
- Debate on whether the definition of forensic psychology should be narrow or
o Narrow definition would focus on certain aspects of the field while
ignoring other, potentially important aspects.
o I.e. might focus on the clinical aspects of the field while ignoring the
experimental research that many psychologists conduct.
Therefore the only individuals who should call themselves forensic
psychologists are those individuals engaged in clinical practice
within the legal system.
o Broad definitions are less restrictive.
o I.e. common cited definition: the research endeavor that examines aspects
of human behavior directly related to the legal process… and the
professional practice of psychology within, or in consultation with, a legal
system that embraces both civil and criminal law.
Does not restrict it to applied issues, but also focuses on the
The Roles of a Forensic Psychologist
- What is consistent across the various definitions of forensic psychology that currently
exist is that individuals who call themselves forensic psychologists are always interested
in issues that arise at the intersection b/w psychology and the law.
The Forensic Psychologist as Clinician
- Clinical Forensic Psychologists: Psychologists who are broadly concerned with
the assessment and treatment of mental health issues as they pertain to the law or
- This can include both research and practice in a wide variety of settings, such as
schools, prisons, and hospitals.
o I.e. CFPs are often concerned with the assessment and treatment of
persons with mental disorders within the context of law. On the research
side, CFPs might involve the validation of an assessment tool that has
been developed to predict the risk of an offender being violent. On the
practical side, the CFPs a frequent task might involve the assessment of an
offender to assist the parole board in making an accurate determination of
whether that offender is likely to pose a risk to the community if released. - Clinical Forensic Psychologists are also interested in issues such as:
o Divorce and child custody mediation
o Determinations of criminal responsibility and fitness to stand trial
o Providing expert testimony on questions of a psychological nature
o Personnel selection (for law enforcement agencies)
o Conducting critical incident stress debriefings with police officers.
o Designing and conducting treatment programs for offenders.
- In Canada a CFP must be a licensed clinical psychologist who has specialized in
the forensic area.
o Some provinces require a masters degree and some require a PHD in
o Forensic specialization involves usually an intense period of supervised
o Last step is a comprehensive exam w/ an oral component.
- Common question from undergraduates: What is the difference b/w forensic
psychology and forensic psychiatry?
o Forensic Psychiatry: A field of medicine that deals with all aspects of
human behavior as it relates to the law or legal system.
o Both fields are trained to assess and treat individuals experiencing mental
health problems who come into contact with the law.
o Both engage in similar types of research.
o Difference is that psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe
medication; therefore they undergo a different type of training.
o Psychologists tend to view mental illness as more a result of an
individual’s physiology, personality, and environment.
Forensic Psychologist as Researcher
- Experimental Forensic Psychologists: are psychologists who are broadly
concerned with the study of human behaviour as it relates to the law or legal
- A list of research issues that issue these individuals are as follows:
o Examining the effectiveness of risk-assessment strategies.
o Determining what factors influence jury decision-making.
o Developing and testing better ways to conduct eye witness lineups.
o Evaluating offender and victim treatment programs.
o Studying the impact of questioning style on eyewitness memory recall.
o Examining the effect of stress management interventions on police
- They undergo PHD level graduate training in one of many different types of
experimental graduate programs. These programs also have many other fields of
psychology of study.
Forensic Psychologist as Legal Scholar
- Two initiatives that are important to mention from this field: o SFU’s psychology and Law program partnered with U of BC to allow
students to obtain both their PHD in psych as will as their L.L.B. in law.
This program produces forensic psychologists that are much more aware
about the legal processes and systems.
o Second initiative was the formation of the Mental Health, Law, and Policy
Institute at SFU. The purpose of this program is to promote
interdisciplinary collaboration in research and training in areas related to
mental health law and policy.
o Forensic psychologists in their role as legal scholars “would most likely
engage in scholarly analyses of mental health law and psychologically
oriented legal movements. Whereas they’re applied work would most
likely center around policy analysis and legislative consultation.”
The Relationship Between Psychology and Law
- Forensic psychology is challenging b/c it can be approached by many different
- There are three primary ways in which psychology and law can relate to each
1. Psychology and the Law:
- In this relationship psychology is viewed as a separate discipline (to the law),
examining and analyzing various components of the law (and the legal system)
from a psychological point of view perspective.
- Frequent research that falls under this category examines assumptions made by
the law or our legal system. (i.e. are eye witnesses accurate?) These kinds of
questions are answered so they can be communicated to the legal community.
2. Psychology in the Law
- Involves the use of psychological knowledge in the legal system.
- Can take many different forms.
- I.e. a psychologist in court providing expert testimony concerning some issue of
relevance to a particular case.
- I.e. a police officer using their psych knowledge to extract information in an
3. Psychology of the Law
- Involves the use of psychology to study the law itself.
- It addresses questions such as “what role should the police play in domestic
disputes?” “Does the law reduce the amount of crime in our society?” The History of Forensic Psychology
- Short history, roughly dating back to the late 19 century.
- Not referred to directly as forensic psychology.
Early Research: Eyewitness Testimony and Suggestibility
- Some of the first experiments were done by James McKeen Cattell in New York
(major powerhouse of psychology in North America).
- Asked people to recall things that happened in their everyday life, and found their
answers were very inaccurate.
- At the same time many began studying eyewitness testimonies and suggestibility.
o I.e. Alfred Binet (French) conducted studies in which he showed that the
testimony provided by children was highly susceptible to suggestive
- A German psychologist William Stern also began conducting studies examining
the suggestibility of witnesses (known as the “reality experiments” today).
o Participants are exposed to staged events and are them asked to recall
information about the event.
o Also one of the first researchers to demonstrate that a person’s level of
emotional arousal can have an impact on the accuracy of that person’s
Early Court Cases in Europe
- Around the same time, psychologists in Europe also started to appear as expert
witnesses in court.
o Most of the testimonies they were providing dealt with the accuracy of
o 1896, Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing was the first expert witness to
provide testimony in court on the effect of pretrial publicity on memory.
Showed how the press coverage caused Retro Active Memory
Falsification, which is process where witnesses confuse actual
memories of events with the events described by the media.
Read more on this case pg.11
Advocates of Forensic Psychology in North America
- One of the most important landmarks was the publication in 1908 of Hugo
Munsterberg’s “On the Witness Stand”.
o Munsterberg is referred to as the as the father of forensic psychology.
o The way he presented his findings and issues led to heavy criticism from
the legal profession.
o John Henry Wigmore was his biggest criticizer suing him and claiming
him that he couldn’t back up all his offerings. o Despite his criticizing Munsterberg was instrumental in pushing North
American Psychologists into the legal arena.
Forensic Psychology in Other Areas of the Criminal Justice System
- After the publication of Munsterberg’s book, theories of crime were being
proposed at a rapid rate, and these theories were informing research conducted by
North American psychologists.
- Also, forensic psychologists were instrumental in establishing the first clinic for
juvenile delinquents in 1909, began using psychological testing for law
enforcement selection purposes in 1917, and the first forensic assessment
laboratory set up in a U.S police agency.
- After these events, psychologists in the United States began to become more
heavily involved in the judicial system, starting w/ the State v driver in 1921.
Biological Theories of Crime
- Constitutional Theory: proposed that crime is largely a product of an individual’s
body build or soma type, which is linked to a person’s temperament.
- Endomorphs (obese) = jolly
- Ectomorphs (thin) = introverted
- Mesomorphs (muscular) = bold more likely to be involved in crime.
- Chromosomal Theory: proposed that chromosomal irregularity is linked to
- Men with two Y-chromosomes are more masculine and therefore more
aggressive. More likely to be involved in criminal activity.
- Dyscontrol Theory: proposed that lesions of the temporal lobe and limbic system
result in electrical disorganization within the brain, which can lead to a dyscontrol
- Symptoms include sudden outbursts of physical violence etc.
Sociological Theories of Crime
- Strain Theory: proposed that crime is largely a product of the strain felt by certain
individuals in society (typically from the lower class) who have restricted access
to legitimate means, such as education.
- Some of these individuals will not be happy with these lesser goals and will turn
- Differential Association Theory: proposed that criminal behavior is learned
through social interactions in which people are exposed to values that can be
either favorable or unfavorable to violations of the law.
- Labelling Theory: proposed that deviance is not inherent to an act but a label
attached to an act by society. Thus a criminal results primarily from a process of
society labeling a person as a criminal.
- This labeling process helps promote the individual’s deviant behavior through a
Psychological Theories o