- Bartol and Bartol (2006) define the discipline of forensic psychology as “(a) the research
endeavour that examines aspects of human behaviour directly related to the legal process… and
(b) the professional practice of psychology within, or in consultation with, a legal system that
embraces both civil and criminal law”.
The Roles of Forensic Psychologist
- Individuals who call themselves forensic psychologists are always interested in issues that arise
at the intersection between psychology and the law.
- They can take on the role of clinician or researcher.
- One individual can take on more than one role.
- Some of the forensic psychologists are both clinicians and researchers, while some are just
clinicians or researchers; there are also some who are legal scholars.
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 legal system.
- On the research side, a frequent task for the clinical forensic psychologist might involve the
validation of an assessment tool that has been developed to predict the risk of an offender
- On the practical side, 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.
- Forensic psychiatry: A field of medicine that deals with all aspects of human behaviour as it
relates to the law or legal system
- Both clinical forensic psychologists and forensic psychiatrists are trained to assess and treat
individuals experiencing mental health problems who come into contact with the law, and you
will see psychologists and psychiatrists involved in nearly every component of the criminal
- The most obvious difference is that psychiatrists, including forensic psychiatrists, are medical
doctors who can prescribe medication.
The Forensic psychologist as a researcher
- A second role for the forensic psychologist is that of experimenter, or researcher.
- Experimental forensic psychology: Psychologists who are broadly concerned with the study of
human behaviour as it relates to the law or legal system
- Researchers in the forensic area are usually concerned with much more than just mental health
issues. They can be interested in any research issue that relates to the law or legal system.
- The forensic psychologist who is interest primarily in research will have undergone Ph.D.-level
graduate training in one of many different types of experimental graduate programs.
The Forensic psychologist as a Legal Scholar
- A third role for the forensic psychologist, which is far less common than the previous two but no
less important, is that of legal scholar
- According to Brigham (1999), 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 their applied work “would most likely center around policy analysis and
The Relationship between psychology and law
- Psychology and the law: The use of psychology to examine the operation of the legal system
o Frequently, research that falls under the category of psychology and the law examines
assumptions made by the law or our legal systems, asking questions such as “Are
eyewitness accurate?” “Do certain interrogation techniques cause people to falsely
confess?” “Are judges fair in the way they hand down sentences?”
- Psychology in the law: The use of psychology in the legal system as that system operates
o It might consist of a psychologist in court providing expert testimony concerning some
issue of relevance to a particular case
o Psychology in the law might consist of a police officer using his or her knowledge of
psychology in an investigation.
- Psychology of the law: The use of Psychology to examine the law itself
o “What role should the police play in domestic disputes?” “Does the law reduce the
amount of crime in our society?” “Why is it important to allow for discretionary decision
making in the Canadian criminal justice system?”
The History of Forensic Psychology
- Compared with other areas of psychology, forensic psychology, when it is broadly defined, has a
relatively short history, dating back roughly to the late nineteenth century.
Early Research: eyewitness testimony and suggestibility
o James McKeen Cattell conducted some of the first North American experiments looking
at what would later be called the psychology of eyewitness testimony. Cattell would ask
people to recall things they had witnessed in their everyday lives, and he found that
their answers were often inaccurate.
o French psychologist Alfred Binet conducted numerous studies in which he showed that
the testimony provided by children was highly susceptible to suggestive questioning
o Binet demonstrated that asking children to report everything they saw resulted in most
accurate answers and that highly misleading questions resulted in the least accurate