What Is Forensic Psychology

What Is Forensic Psychology

In recent years forensic psychology and related topics such as​ criminal profiling have been the subject of​ a​ whole host of​ books, films and television series. While this has undoubtedly raised the profile of​ forensic psychology, the subject has often been presented in​ a​ distorted, sensationalised and inaccurate way.

With this very much in​ mind, this article outlines what you need to​ be aware of​ in​ order to​ provide a​ satisfactory answer to​ the question, what is​ forensic psychology?

When my students arrived for their first lecture, I would always start by giving them 10 minutes to​ write down an​ answer to​ the question what is​ forensic psychology? Before reading on, why not quickly write down what you think forensic psychology is.

The reason I did this was because despite the fact that every single undergraduate psychology student (about 180 of​ them) chose to​ do the forensic psychology course, not one of​ them came to​ see me in​ advance to​ ask what the course was about. Now bear in​ mind students chose their optional courses well in​ advance of​ the start date, and in​ order to​ make an​ informed choice they were all strongly advised to​ speak to​ the lecturer running the courses they were interested in​ before making a​ final decision.

So why the no show?

I suspect, actually I know because I discussed it​ with the students afterwards, that they didn't feel they had to​ find out what forensic psychology is, because they already had a​ preconceived idea.

I mentioned that at​ the start of​ the first lecture I would give students 10 minutes to​ write down an​ answer to​ the question what is​ forensic psychology. What I didn't mention, however, is​ that after about 2 minutes I would ask for their attention and apologise for forgetting to​ tell them that they weren't allowed to​ use the words serial killers or​ silence of​ the lambs in​ their answer. it​ was usually as​ this point that most of​ the writing in​ the lecture theatre stopped.

If you're thinking I would have stopped writing as​ well, please contain your disappointment and don't rush off just yet. The answer to​ the question, what is​ forensic psychology may not quite be what you thought, but that doesn't mean that the subject has to​ be any less engaging.

The first thing to​ appreciate when addressing the question is​ that even psychologists in​ the field are divided as​ to​ what the answer is. The division of​ criminological and legal psychology within the British Psychological Society argued for twenty years as​ to​ whether their members should be entitled to​ call themselves Chartered Forensic Psychologists. it​ was finally agreed that they should, however, there still remains a​ great deal of​ debate and controversy surrounding the issue.

The central problem is​ that its members are drawn from a​ wide range of​ disciplines, so it​ is​ always difficult to​ state what the boundaries are when you talk of​ Forensic Psychology.

A fragmented discipline?

Psychologists in​ the prison/correctional services. Clinical psychologists in​ special hospitals & the psychiatric services. Educational psychologists. Occupational psychologists. Academics

Now while it​ is​ important to​ acknowledge that this fragmentation of​ role exists, it​ is​ just as​ important to​ realise that these different groups are linked to​ forensic psychology because their work, expert knowledge or​ research activity is​ somehow connected with the law.

This legal connection makes perfect sense when you consider that the word forensic comes from the Latin forensis, which literally means appertaining to​ the forum, specifically the imperial court of​ Rome. So in​ essence:

The debate as​ to​ what is​ and what isn’t forensic psychology rests primarily on the nature of​ psychology’s relationship with the legal system.

Let me give you an​ example, imagine 2 clinical psychologists meet at​ a​ conference and they begin talking about the work they do. The first psychologist tells the second that she recently gave expert testimony in​ court arguing that the defendant in​ a​ murder case was criminally insane; the judge and jury agreed and having been found guilty on the grounds of​ diminished responsibility the defendant was going to​ be sent to​ a​ secure psychiatric unit. Now there’s a​ coincidence the second psychologist says I work in​ the unit where they're sending him, so I’ll be dealing and treating this guy when he arrives.

So here you have a​ situation where two psychologists are linked to​ the legal system by way of​ a​ legal decision and you could argue, therefore, that both deserve to​ be seen as​ engaging in​ Forensic Psychology. However, there’s a​ crucial difference.

The first psychologist actually helped inform the legal decision based on her psychological knowledge and expertise. The second psychologists' involvement on the other hand arose as​ a​ consequence of​ a​ legal decision that she had no direct influence over.

My preferred forensic psychology definition acknowledges this key distinction, namely:

That branch of​ applied psychology which is​ concerned with the collection, examination and presentation of​ evidence for judicial purposes’ (Haward 1981).

If you adopt this definition you are stating categorically that Forensic Psychology relates to:

The provision of​ psychological information for the purpose of​ facilitating a​ legal decision (Blackburn 1996).

So in​ the case of​ our two psychologists, strictly speaking only the first can be said to​ be engaged in​ Forensic Psychology.

Not everybody would agree with this, because there is​ a​ school of​ thought that would claim that any activity that links psychology to​ the law deserves to​ be described as​ Forensic. I’m not going to​ try and convince you which is​ right, although I do have a​ strong opinion on the mater; the main thing is​ that you know that this debate exists.


In answering the question, what is​ forensic psychology we have discovered that:

In essence, forensic psychology refers to​ the application of​ psychology within a​ legal context.

The debate as​ to​ what is​ & what is​ not forensic psychology relates to​ the nature of​ this legal application & the level at​ which it​ is​ applied.

And this debate raises a​ number of​ questions that you need to​ think about. in​ particular:

The boundaries of​ forensic psychology?

The role of​ the forensic psychologist?

The credibility of​ forensic psychology.

To find out more about the fascinating world of​ forensic psychology visit www.all-about-forensic-psychology.com

What Is Forensic Psychology

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