PSYC 3020 Chapter Notes - Chapter 1: Psychology Today, Jury Trial, Juvenile Delinquency
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Unit 1- Psychology of Law
The criminal justice system has never been a smooth well-oiled machine. The system and its corresponding problems involve
the government which passes laws, the police which enforce laws, the courts which dispense justice, and the prisons which are
responsible for punishment and rehabilitation.
Each of these functions of the criminal justice system has limitations because ‘justice’ is a human product. Justice in simple
terms means that the accused person has been found guilty or not guilty of breaking the law and, if guilty, a decision is made how he
or she is to be treated. People pass laws, administer and enforce laws, make attributions and decisions about legal responsibility, and
decide on the severity of punishment and type of rehabilitation. And because it is a human product, the science and profession of
psychology is center stage in its contribution to the systematic analysis of the actions, motives, thoughts, and feelings of all the actors
and situations involved in this process.
As a profession forensic psychology attempts to facilitate the various branches of the justice system through objective
analyses, recommendations, and treatment of those factors which may detract from the objectivity of the legal process.
Contrary to the beliefs of most psychology students who probably assume that clinical psychology is the oldest area of
applied psychology, eyewitness identification and testimony in fact was the first psychological field to be applied, and in this instance,
it was applied to criminal law in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
Interest in the importance of eyewitness identification can be traced back to the writings of the German criminologist, E.
Henke In 1838. Henke stated “…Above all the identification [procedure] has to be preceded by a comprehensive interrogation of the
witness wherein he is to describe the characteristic features which could facilitate recognition of the persons or objects that his
testimony or statements refer to; thereafter, in the identification procedure itself, he is whenever possible, to be confronted with
several persons or objects that resemble the one to be identified. He should be urged to point out the identified, say, object, without
hesitation, and also name the reasons why he had identified the chosen one out of the plurality as the real one but not the others…On
the one hand, the investigator has to take care to remove, to his best ability, the changes that may have occurred with the object to be
recognized and that may thus impair recognition; therefore, he must not, for example, present the accused in his prison clothes, with
the distorting beard etc., on the other hand, the investigator must beware not to draw the witness’ attention to the correct object
through facial expressions, gestures, or external signs that differentiate the object in question from others. If the identification is to
serve as a preliminary to a [surprise] confrontation it has to be carried out in such a way that the person to be identified is unaware of
it and cannot see the witness. Therefore, both are to be placed into separate adjacent rooms which are connected by a communication
door which has an opening just large enough for observation…” (p. 705, translation by Sporer,1982).
As we will see when we get to Unit 5 many of these comments easily apply to the present day practices of gathering
Forensic psychology began around the end of the 19th Century with the emergence of an area of study referred to as the ‘psychology
of testimony’. No one person can be called the founder of this movement but certain men are often noted for their early contributions.
The psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, proposed that psychology could assist the legal system by offering its methods and
understandings to the testing of the truthfulness of reported events. In a speech to Austrian judges Freud (1906) cautioned the judges
that their decisions were influenced by unconscious processes.
Harvard professor, Hugo Muensterberg (1908) in his book On the Witness Stand argued (without supporting empirical
evidence) that insights from experimental research on the psychology of perception and memory could address the accuracy and
credibility of eyewitness testimony. Among the topics he discussed were: the accuracy of witness testimony, the detection of
deception, false confessions, suggestive questioning, and effective interviewing procedures. Muensterberg’s viewpoints were heavily
criticized by both the legal and psychological communities. Muensterberg failed to appreciate that the court was more concerned
with the validity and reliability of verdicts than the reliability of witnesses.
The French psychologist, Alfred Binet (1900) ,who is best known for his contribution to intelligence testing, experimentally
demonstrated the power of suggestibility on children’s memory. William Stern (1902) in Germany provided evidence on the
psychology of verbal reports as it occurs in the law. Using pictures as stimuli Stern showed in his experiments on recollection that
“Error-free recollection is not the rule but the exception…And even the oath is no protection against deceptions of memory”
(p.327). Professor von Liszt (1902) was one of the first legal scholars to perform drama or reality experiments in which an actor
would break into a public lecture, yell at the speaker, draw a revolver and shoot his gun before running off. The shocked audience, not
knowing that they were participants in a psycholegal experiment, would be asked immediately to write down their observations in
order to facilitate the legal authorities. Some participants would be interviewed after a few days with either leading or non-leading
questions. The results of these early reality experiments showed that accuracy of recall declined over time, and that witnesses were
inferior in interrogatory recall in contrast to free narrative recall, especially if they had been given suggestive questions.
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In the 1930’s the American Bar Association journal stated “…The time has arrived when the grim hard facts of modern
psychological inquiry must be recognized by our lawmakers despite the havoc they may create in the established institutions.”
Optimism about the relevance of prediction and control of behavior was making inroads into the legal community. In the 1930’s legal
realists (a movement that believed that judges actively constructed the law through their interpretations of evidence and precedent)
invigorated the undeveloped field of social science and the law, and these interactions and methods served to promote particular social
issues and policy goals. The idea of examining the behaviors and decisions of lawyers and judges with scientific psychological
methods rather than following the standard procedure of examining the logic and reasonableness of rules and legal precedents was
revolutionary at the time. Unfortunately the realist movement did not successfully promote the use of psychological findings in legal
Although there was a smattering of interest in psychology and law issues between the 1930’s and the 1960’s it was not until
the 1970’s that a serious attempt to promote the interaction of psychology and law emerged (e.g., Clifford & Bull, 1978; Loftus, 1979;
Yarmey, 1979). This interaction has continued to grow and expand to the present day, and several landmark court cases and
psycholegal advancements in Europe, the United States, and Canada are noted in the textbook.
Philosophy of Science
How do people develop knowledge about the world? Four general principles have been offered by Charles Peirce and, not
surprisingly, they also influence the thinking of all individuals who come into contact with or work in the criminal justice system
(Bartol & Bartol, 1994).
The method of tenacity: people hold steadfast to their beliefs about others and how the world operates because they “know”
them to be true and correct based on their experience. They believe in these truths even when they face contradictory
evidence because they have always believed and known them to be true.
The method of authority: people believe and have knowledge about things because individuals in authority or institutions
declare it to be so. Thus, if the police and the courts over the years have said it is so, then it is. Education in part is based on
what authorities proclaim with authority originating from teachers, scholars, and experts. College students often assert, “It
says so in the book.” Lawyers cite precedence; the interpretation and decision of previous courts to support their arguments.
Judges typically cite decisions of provincial and federal Courts of Appeal to buttress their conclusions.
The a priori method: An idea is believed to be correct and true because “it only stands to reason” or because it can be
logically deduced as the way to knowledge. Logical thought and reasoned deduction are said to ultimately reveal universal
truths of “natural laws” regarding what is fair and just. Universal truths supposedly exist inherently in nature and in the
human mind, and are discovered through rational, logical thought. Experience has little to do with obtaining knowledge. The
a priori method based on positive law (the law on the books) is the dominant approach to knowledge in the legal
The method of science: which is the testing of statements (hypotheses, theory) through observations and systematic research.
Statements about natural events or processes are revised, reconstructed, or discarded on the basis of systematic study. Science
teaches us to recognize probabilities of events in the natural world, to expect few certainties, and to base decisions on the
“best of our knowledge” at any particular time. The scientific method is the dominant approach to obtaining knowledge in
Psychology refers to the systematic study of behavior whether it be public, observable behavior or private, internal mental activity.
Forensic psychology is a field of interest, which draws its theoretical base from several fields of research, including developmental
psychology, abnormal and clinical psychology, social psychology, cognitive and neuro- psychology.
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Applications of psychology to law are based on empirical studies of behavior, that is, systematic methods of observation
are used to test hypotheses about phenomena. Scientific theories are distinguished from other approaches to knowledge because they
must be testable, logically consistent, precise, comprehensive, and parsimonious. These aims and procedures, however, are not value
free. Researchers select problems for study that are consistent with their own values. Any application of science to solve one problem
of society as opposed to another involves a value judgment. Value judgments also affect the design of research projects and
interpretations of their results. Even the choice of words to describe and explain results reflects values. The use of technical
language acts to minimize potential bias and error, but even technical language may fail to convey the meaning originally intended.
Psychology of law depends mainly on experimental research conducted in laboratories and field settings, and by non-
experimental methods involving naturalistic observation in real-life settings, surveys, and archival analyses of police records.
Laboratory experiments involving simulated crimes and traffic accidents presented by film, videotape, and audiotape as well as staged
incidents have been favored by researchers because they allow for the greatest precision and systematic manipulation of experimental
conditions. These principles allow hypotheses to be tested about theoretical models and practical problems. Experimental control and
random assignment of participants to experimental and control conditions permits the researcher to draw conclusions about cause and
effect. Experimental research methods, however, are not restricted to laboratory settings. The same concern for hypothesis testing,
objectivity, research design, measurement, explanation and prediction are found in naturalistic field experiments.
Can the results from scientific research be extrapolated to victims and witness in the real world? It depends. Research is
conducted in order to shed light on general principles of behavior and experience, not on specific victims or witnesses. Research
findings from studies that have met the proper standards of internal and external validity, are realistic, and have been replicated under
a variety of conditions and populations can be generalized. Furthermore, knowledge from highly controlled laboratory experiments
and less controlled field experiments can be compared and contrasted with research using non-experimental research methods. When
similar results are found, greater confidence can be given to generalizations because of convergent validity.
Common sense versus scientific knowledge
How different is common sense from scientific knowledge? Common sense could be simply a matter of relying on
stereotyped knowledge, cultural norms, and/or authority figures. A common sense approach to solving problems is one in which an
individual organizes the issues, rules out the unlikely factors, and selects the most acceptable answer because it fits the circumstances,
or most completely accounts for the issue. This approach is also used in scientific thinking, except that this is only the first step in the
analysis, not the final outcome. Common sense explanations are ‘after-the-fact’ explanations, which can appear logical but may
be illusory, contradictory, and inconsistent among individuals and cultures. Common sense also may be closer to states of
ignorance than to a state of knowledge based on systematic methods of observation and replication.
Psychology, being based on empirical evidence, theory, and the scientific method, is concerned with the understanding,
explanation, prediction, and control of the causes of human behaviour and experience. Law may be defined as the sum of all the
rules governing behaviour that is enforceable in courts. The law, being based on statutes and case rulings, is concerned with
control of human behavior and social justice. Laws reflect values, and values are basic psychological concepts.
Values may be defined as standards for decision-making, and laws are created, amended, or discarded because society
has established standards for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior (Wrightsman & Porter, 2006). The law is more than a
set of rules and application of rational, logical decisions. The law is also about people. The law cannot be understood in a social
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