What is Forensic Psychology?

Forensic Psychology Definition

There is no consensual definition of forensic psychology. Perhaps it is surprising, given the relatively long history and growth of forensic psychology over the past 40 years, that there is no uniform or consensual definition for this specialty area, and most differences involve how narrowly or broadly the field is defined. Definitions range from expansive ones—that include any application of psychology to any legal matters—to those that are narrower and typically are limited to clinical and counseling psychologists’ involvement in legal matters as examiners, treatment providers, or consultants. Read more about Forensic Psychology Definition.

Tensions Between Psychology and Law

Regardless of the differences that exist concerning the definition of forensic psychology, it is uniformly agreed that forensic psychology involves the application of psychological knowledge and expertise to the legal system. To this end, forensic psychologists work at the interface of psychology and the law. As forensic psychologists work with legal actors, including attorneys, judges, and others in the justice system, a number of tensions exist. Although commentators have characterized these tensions differently (e.g., Brockman & Rose, 2011; Haney, 1980; Melton et al., 2007), a number of common themes emerge. Drawing on the framework provided by Haney (1980), we present eight differences between psychology and law that may contribute to tensions between the disciplines.

  1. The emphasis in law is stare decisis (i.e., legal precedent), whereas in psychology the emphasis is on creativity. In the law, past cases and matters such as constitutional interpretation rather than innovation or creativity are painstakingly relied on for the development of legal arguments. The model adopted in law is one of legal precedent. In contrast, in psychology, the model is one of innovation, and psychologists, in both research and applied work, are encouraged continually to explore new ideas and methods.
  2. Law is hierarchical whereas psychology is empirical. Decisions within the legal system are hierarchically based and authoritative, with lower courts bound by the decisions of higher courts. In psychology, however, it is the accumulation of a body of consistent and supporting data that confirms the validity of a particular position or claim, not its authoritative declaration.
  3. Law relies on the adversarial method, whereas psychology relies on the experimental method. The law seeks “justice,” which equates to procedural fairness. It is hoped that just procedures will assist in arriving at the truth; however, knowing that the truth is elusive, it is seen as more important to ensure that the principles of due process are followed. To arrive at the “truth” in law, conflicting points of view are presented within the strict parameters of a trial or appellate hearing, with each side putting its best case forward. Bias, self-interest, and advocacy are not only permitted but heralded as one of the strengths of the process. Indeed, what is of immediate concern and the driving force for the opposing lawyers is victory. Psychology, in contrast to law, attempts to arrive at “truth” (i.e., an understanding of some phenomenon) using a variety of diverse data-gathering methods. Common to all of these methods is the systematic collection of data, using procedures that attempt to “reduce bias, error and distortion in observation and inferences” (Haney, 1980, p. 162). Although this is not to say that bias does not enter into the research process, the goal of the psychologist is to attain an “objective” understanding of the phenomena rather than victory over a particular viewpoint.
  4. Law is prescriptive, whereas psychology is descriptive. The law is primarily prescriptive, telling “people how they should behave,” whereas psychology is “essentially a descriptive discipline, seeking to describe behavior as it actually occurs” (Haney, 1980, p. 163). This dimension captures a difference in the values espoused in the disciplines, with law outlining how one ought to behave and psychology adopting a more nonjudgmental orientation of how people do behave.
  5. Law is idiographic, whereas psychology is nomothetic. Law operates on a case-by-case basis, with each case decided on the basis of its specific facts. In contrast, psychology is interested in uncovering the general principles, relationships, and patterns that govern human behavior. The focus in psychology is not on a particular instance but rather on what transcends the particular instance.
  6. Decision making in law is based on the appearance of certainty, whereas decision making in psychology is based on probabilistic evidence. The decisions made in the law typically take on a dichotomous, all-or-nothing quality—the accused in a criminal trial is deemed either guilty or not guilty, the defendant in a civil case is found liable or not liable. Psychologists, in contrast, operate in terms of probabilities; for example, claims are asserted on the basis of evidence associated with a probability level (i.e., level of statistical significance). As a result, conclusions drawn by psychologists typically are qualified and not categorical by nature.
  7. Law is reactive, whereas psychology is proactive. The issues that arise in the law originate from outside the system, namely, cases are brought to the attention of lawyers. In contrast, psychologists, notwithstanding the presence of various external pressures (e.g., funding availability and the pressure to publish), have considerable control over the issues they study.
  8. Law is operational, whereas psychology is academic. Law is an applied discipline, and it is designed to deal with real-world problems. The players within the system (e.g., lawyers, parole officers, etc.) have clearly defined roles that prescribe the issues on which they will concentrate. In contrast, similar to the distinction noted previously, psychologists have considerable say over the issues they pursue. The driving force tends to be more of a quest for knowledge for its own sake (i.e., for academic reasons rather than for purely pragmatic reasons).

With these eight tensions in mind, included in what follows is an expansive survey of what can be characterized as forensic psychology. At a macro level, forensic psychologists can assist the legal system in four ways:

  1. Assisting the legal system.
  2. Assisting legal actors.
  3. Assisting litigants.
  4. Researching psychological matters.

Summary

There is no uniform or consensual definition of forensic psychology, and it is clear that psychologists make contributions to the legal system in a multitude of ways. Hugo Munsterberg, the first and perhaps most ardent proponent of what psychology had to offer the legal system, recognized this more than a century ago. In his 1908 treatise, On the Witness Stand, Munsterberg discussed a variety of ways in which psychologists could contribute to legal proceedings, with chapters devoted to phenomena as varied as lie detection, eyewitness memory, false confessions, and crime prevention. Munsterberg’s early work was widely castigated, and he could not have fathomed the success and growth the field has seen over the past century (Ogloff, 2011).

In the century that has passed since Munsterberg’s book, psychologists have become involved with the legal process and provided assistance to the legal system a multitude of ways, providing assistance to the courts in decision making, researching matters of interest to the legal system, and offering services to persons involved with the legal system. As the information in this research paper shows, the roles that forensic psychologists play are broad and varied, with some areas being far more developed than others (e.g., the treatment of criminal offenders versus the treatment of victims of crime). The reason that forensic psychology, as a field, is broad and diverse is that it reflects the breadth and diversity of the law. As such, we can expect an expanding array of topics in law with which psychology can contribute on both the micro (i.e., individual) and macro (i.e., systemic) levels.

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