Forensic Psychology: Perspectives, disbelief, and intrigue…Walking a fence without wavering

To the Reader:  My writings are not intended on being an authority or dogmatic in any way.  Rather my goal with this feature is to inform, hopefully create interest and to that end promote the practice and discipline that is Forensic Psychology.  


Forensic psychology is an often misunderstood and glamorized profession.  I personally stumbled into forensic psychology after my graduate studies and only had a rough understanding of the profession from overhearing others discuss the subject.  While in graduate school I had the opportunity to work in a jail setting and many of my classmates and professors talked about this practicum as if it was a forensic setting, simply because we were providing treatment and evaluation to those in an incarcerated setting.  I later would find out this would fall under a different label of correctional psychology. 

When I’m in the community I am always hesitant to discuss what I do as when I mention I practice forensic psychology most people begin to ask me about autopsies or at best the psychiatrist famed for investigations on Law and Order.  So this begs the questions…….what is forensic psychology, how is it conducted, and why would one want to go into this field?   

So what exactly is Forensic Psychology? 

To answer this question we need to make some distinctions between 3 key words:  Law, Justice and Forensic Psychology.  

Law: a rule of conduct or procedure established by custom, agreement, or authority.  

Justice: the quality of being just or fairness.  The principle of moral rightness or equality, conformity to moral rights in action or attitude and the upholding of what is just especially fair treatment.  

Forensic Psychology:  the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.  The word “Forensic” comes from the Latin word “Forensis,” meaning “Of the forum,” where the law courts of ancient Rome were held.  Today, forensic refers to the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversarial process where specialty knowledge of all sorts plays a role.

Therefore, forensic psychology is simply the application of psychology to inform the trier of fact.  The trier of fact can be many things to include judges and juries as well as legal tribunals.  Individuals with advanced degrees are qualified (or not) to provide testimony, which will assist the trier of fact in making legal determinations.  

Over a hundred years ago (1908), a psychologist by the name of Hugo Munsterbergwrote about psychologists testifying in the courtroom (On the witness stand).  His controversial book specifically discussed the presentation of information to the courts related to eyewitness identification.  Despite his pioneering work it was several decades later that Psychologists were recognized by the courts as holding the necessary qualifications to opine as experts in mental health related cases in the courts (Jenkins v US 1962).  

Do Psychologists belong in the courts?  What do they have to offer? 

Even after the landmark decision in 1962, questions continue to arise “Should psychologists be considered experts?”  I have been challenged with the question of whether I am providing knowledge which is specialized and it has always been determined I am, but what is specialized knowledge?  Specialized knowledge is defined as: Whereas laypersons are generally limited, experts may testify to opinions provided that “Specialized knowledge” will assist the trier of fact in determining a relevant issue (rule 702, the federal rules of evidence, article 7.2).  When providing information to those in the courtroom, there are various levels of opinion, which can be rendered.  Psychologists can provide specialized knowledge in the area of psychology related to diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and specific educational areas. They may also inform on the relationship of formulation or diagnosis and how it relates to legally relevant behavior.  

While Psychologists have much to offer the trier of fact they must also know their limitations.  When psychologists are asked to discuss ultimate legal issues (e.g. Was the Defendant Insane at the time of the crime?) or even what we would call penultimate legal issues (e.g. Did the Defendant appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions?) questions are raised to whether or not psychologists hold specialized knowledge in coming to these conclusions.  Many argue making these decisions exceed the scope of what our training and expertise is; however, sometimes legal mandates insist on psychologists making these determinations.  Some suggest questions as to criminal responsibility, competency to proceed, and so forth are not based on knowledge or training in the psychological field but are legal and moral judgments intended for the trier of fact.  This becomes conflicting at times because in certain situations, the trier of fact is not satisfied with the psychologist simply outlining a pattern of behavior, rather would like us to opine.  As the reader I challenge you to form an opinion over the next several months and years if these are decisions a psychologist can or even should make or if this should be left exclusively to a judge or jury.  

Sounds like this could be exciting, but where is the line to sign up?

It has often been stated forensic psychology has a shelf life.   Professionals in the field elude to a developmental model, which is approximately five years in length.  Without getting into specifics, unless a professional in the field of forensic psychology can find ways to effectively and adaptively cope with the extremely vivid and traumatizing material inherent in many cases as well as the adversarial process itself, they find their way out of this profession fairly quickly.  Over the course of many writings, readers will be exposed to multiple factors that keep psychologists in the field or drive them away from the specialization of forensic psychology.  In addition, and to a greater extent, my hope is to expose the reader to relevant topic areas and hopefully provide a greater understanding of what forensic psychology is, at least from my perspective.

My initial training was primarily in clinical psychology.  I spent my early undergraduate years studying psychology and sociology and the nuances of understanding abnormality and how to apply my knowledge to evaluation and treatment.  I worked long hours treating and evaluating children, adults, families, and even developing and carrying out enhancement-based programs such as sports psychology.  What most individuals, both in the realm of mental health and laypeople alike, do not understand is forensic psychology is an application of excellent clinical standard.  One must have a solid underpinning of all of the skills needed to become a clinical psychologist to move into the field and help courts make decisions.  With that said, the differences are also very distinct.  Clinical psychology and forensic psychology, while close cousins, are vastly different. 

Forensic psychology therefore is both an art and a science.  Psychologists practicing forensic psychology walk a tightrope every day.  They do not work for a side but work for objectivity and to promote the science they study and practice.  There is a high level of stress and a high demand for integrity.  I equate forensic psychology to a cat walking a fence in an alley.  Individuals throw objects at that cat from both sides, yet the cat maintains its balance.  This is not unlike being an expert in a courtroom.  Both prosecution and defense, depending on who is conducting cross examination, may attempt to discredit you or shoot holes in your educational background and your opinion.  We will get into testimony later; however, the point being is that forensic psychologists require a level of resilience and confidence to a greater extent than in the clinical realm.  

Well……..Now you know, so swim at your own risk!

I often tell a story to my students of what is it like to be a forensic psychologist.  I recall when I was an undergraduate.  Over Christmas break, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Australia.  While in Australia, I was brought to a pristine beach.  The sand was white.  The ocean was blue.  It was always sunny.  It was gorgeous.  There were hundreds of people on the beach enjoying themselves.  Every so often, a biplane flew over.  After a while, I became interested in why the plane was flying over, yet did not have a reason to believe there was anything to be worried about.  As I walked down the beach, there was a placard, which was odd to find in the middle of a beach.  It had a piece of wood over the top of it and on top of that piece of wood it read “if you want to know”.  Well, ultimately curiosity got the best of me and I flipped that placard over.  Underneath was an aerial shot from one of these planes.  The view of the areal shot was beautiful, yet, also told an eerie tale. In the photo individuals were swimming, surfing and floating without a care in the ocean. Under the photo there was writing, which in short, pointed to the fact there were also sharks in the picture! The reader learned the reef had been eroding over the years and at times the sharks would swim inland and had attacked in the past. What it indicated was now you know that there is danger in the water and that sharks could be swimming around you and potentially attack, swim at your own risk!  

I tell this story to my students to express the experience many have after entering the field of forensic psychology.  I explain that once you enter the world of forensic psychology, you move beyond clinical abnormalities, you move beyond treating, you move into the realm of understanding at times what people can be capable of and how dark human nature can be. You also understand the judicial system is a very technical and adversarial environment.  Your mind shifts, some for the better, some for the worst and as I indicated earlier, it is not hard to understand why most psychologists last short of five years in this subspecialty.  

I find this field fascinating, intriguing, and also recognize the detriment it can bring to those who fall in love with it.  I personally love forensic psychology, have devoted my life to it and throughout my writings, hope to present to you information and stories, which are intriguing, factual, and help you have a greater understanding of exactly what this field can bring to the science of psychology and to the greater role of humanity.

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