Forensic Psychology

When Psychology meets Criminology


The study of humans and animals through experimentation and observation of results is known as psychology. Though grouped under one main heading, psychology covers many areas relating to the brain, it’s thought processes and reactions to the exterior environments. The complete theory of psychology covering in the main six categories, namely Bio-psychological (the effects of the bodies chemical changes to the mind), Behaviourism (what motivates us and why we react in certain ways), Cognitive (intuition & reasoning), Humanistic (instinct), Psychodynamic (personality) and Social-Cultural (nature verses nurture).

Behaviourism is simply the study of human behaviour. Sometimes referred to as learning perspective and considered as the philosophy of psychology (theoretical foundations). Influences coming from Pavlov (classical conditioning), Watson (introspective methods) and Skinner (operant conditioning).

Studies carried out in 1901 by Stern on memory showed that after a delayed spell memory recall was often incorrect, thus it was likely that witnesses called to a hearing would probably unintentionally offer incorrect information. This research bringing into question the reliability of an eye witness.

By setting the foundations for research into Forensic Psychology with his 1908/25 Essays titled On the Witness Stand Munsterberg questions the reliability of Human testimony, failabilty of eye, ear and memory making many confessions and witness testimonies untrue. Writings which earnt him the accolade of often being referred to as the “first forensic psychologist.”

One role of a Forensic Psychologist can be in the role of assistant in the selection of jurors. Considered an ideal candidate for their skills in behaviour and cognitive areas, their ability to analyse the likely verdict brought by certain character mix within a jury, according to researched information on each possible jury team based on their life experiences and their potential prejudice of a case.

The legal procedure for declaring a person incompetent consists of three steps: (1) a motion for a competency hearing, (2) a psychiatric or psychological evaluation, and (3) a competency hearing. When a defendant is found to be incompetent at the time of trial our legal system will not usually punish them, instead choosing to opt for hospitalisation of a reasonable time usually no more than four months.

Another role fulfilled by the Forensic Psychologist is that of profiling criminals. Criminal profiling works on the principle that each and every criminal – regardless of the level or severity of their crime – will work to a certain set of values. In order to build a profile the psychologist will consider the crime and visit the crime scene, use the information found combined with their expert knowledge to build a picture/profile of the offender.

Like all careers Forensic Psychology can be stressful but is not without it’s bonuses. With so many branches it is unlikely that anyone working in the field would not feel association to one of the specialist fields and the opportunity of recognition can make it an excellent career. Probably, the most recognised being Malcolm Coulthard who has been commissioned to prepare reports for both Prosecution and Defence in over 180 cases including the Appeals of the Birmingham Six, Derek Bentley, Paul Blackburn, the Bridgewater Four, Robert Brown, Dudley and Maynard. His most recent court appearance being at the trial of David Hodgson for the murder of Jenny Nicholl.

The area of Clinical Psychology is concerned with the determination and management of abnormal and maladaptive (unable to facilitate) behaviour. As a Forensic psychologist it is necessary to make consideration on the mental health and understanding of those accused of criminal activity.

Criminal investigative psychology is probably the widest reaching of all Forensic Psychologists branches. Encompassing all areas of criminal behaviour, including but not exhaustively the criminal and their victims, crime itself, autopsies and police psychology.