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Forensic Psychologist

Learn about the Forensic Psychologist career

forensic psychologist

Most psychologists state that what made them interested in the psychology field was a passion for understanding why people do the things they do. Why do some behaviors seem so crazy or out-of-character, or seemingly damaging or hurtful?

For forensic psychologists, that interest drives them in a very specific direction. They want to know why people do bad things, why they commit crimes, lie to police officers, and treat their children abusively. They are intrigued with the criminal mind and the psychopathology that influences thoughts and behaviors.

Forensic psychologists set themselves apart from other psychologists because of their interest and ability to assimilate the knowledge of several disciplines to better understand human behavior.

For instance, forensic psychologists must know and stay current with the research from many fields of psychology, including cognitive, social, clinical, developmental, neuropsychological, and behavioral. They also must have a background in understanding sociological reasons for criminal behaviors.

In addition, and most importantly, forensic psychologists must have a thorough understanding of the law and criminology - two critical fields for working in any forensic psychology position.

Some forensic psychologists are both lawyers and psychologists, but that’s not the norm. What’s more important is that forensic psychologists know the laws, statutes, and legal procedures of the courts. With this knowledge, they able to apply statistically and empirically based psychological research findings to legal issues.

They work within the context of both the criminal and civic court systems. They work on issues that cover the lifespan, and help solve problems for individuals, families, adults, elderly, and juvenile populations.

They also work for prisons and correctional facilities, and for governmental agencies such as the FBI. (see What is profiling?)

What do forensic psychologists do?

Forensic psychology professionals use tests and assessments developed by psychology experts and researchers to evaluate individuals. These tests address a number of areas within the legal profession, attempting to answer questions about the client’s culpability in committing certain crimes, or the extent of personal damage and suffering experienced by victims.

Here is a sample of questions addressed by forensic testing:

  • What was the individual's state of mind when he or she committed a crime?
  • Was the individual sane or insane at the time of the criminal act?
  • Does the individual suffer from any mental health issues or disabilities?
  • What is the individual’s current state of mind? Is he or she fit to stand trial?
  • Was the criminal act committed under duress or influence from someone else?
  • Is the individual lying, or in legal terms malingering?
  • Is the individual sexually deviant?
  • What are the chances or probabilities that the individual will continue to commit sexual assault or other crimes?
  • Is a parent fit to have full custody, partial custody, or no custody?
  • Is a woman or man a victim of battering or domestic violence?
  • Is an individual physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive?
  • Is an individual pathologically violent and angry?
  • Will an individual’s anger lead to a violent act?
  • What is the extent of injury or harm to individual as a result of the negligence of another individual, groups of individuals, or corporation?

In order to properly administer and evaluate the tests, forensic psychologists must have training in psychometrics (see Psychometrics), and in some cases, neuropsychological tests and measurements (see Neuropsychological Assessments).

Forensic Psychologists Perform the Following Tasks:

  • Provide psychological assessment, evaluation, and expert testimony concerning criminal forensic questions and issues. Questions include trial competency, and issues regarding the waiver of Miranda rights – rights given during arrest that include the right to remain silent, and the right to legal counsel. Topics addressed also include criminal responsibility, death penalty mitigation, battered woman syndrome, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse and addiction, and sexual disorders.
  • Testify regarding civil issues such as personal injury, child custody, visiting rights, guardianship, employment discrimination, mental disability, product liability, and professional malpractice.
  • Assess, evaluate, treat, and consult regarding individuals with a high risk for aggressive behavior in the community, workplace, treatment facilities, and prisons.
  • Research, testify, and consult on psychological issues affecting the legal process, such as eyewitness testimony, jury selection, children's testimony, repressed memories pretrial publicity, and the implication of rumors.
  • Provide specialized treatment to individuals involved with the legal system.
  • Consult lawmakers about the psychological implications of public policy issues.
  • Train law enforcement, criminal justice, and correctional systems personnel.
  • Train and consult mental health workers on forensic issues.
  • Analyze questions regarding human performance, product liability, and safety.
  • Court-appointed monitoring of compliance with settlements in class-action suits.
  • Mediation and conflict resolution.
  • Psychological profiling for criminal investigations.
  • Teaching, training, and guidance of graduate students, psychology, and psychiatry interns/ residents, and law students.

* Data compiled from the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) website.


Many forensic psychologists work as consultants to attorneys and the courts. In addition to addressing the questions listed above, they also help attorneys and the courts determine if witnesses or expert witnesses are credible.

Or they might help the court determine if the sentence or punishment is appropriate to the crime. They also help with jury selection, and the preparation of legal arguments.

Whatever the role of the forensic psychologist, one thing is imperative: he or she must stay current with research taking place in forensic psychology.

The Journal of Forensic Psychology is an example of a peer-reviewed publication presenting current research in the field.

For instance, in the article “Attitudes Toward the Insanity Defense in Capital Cases: (Im)partiality from Witherspoon to Witt,” bias and jury selection is explored in reference to an insanity plea.

Authors and researchers Aaron Kivisto and Scott Swan of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, reported on a 2011 study that showed religious fundamentalism, Christian orthodoxy, sociopolitical conservatism, and pro-prosecution bias correlated or were associated with strong negative attitudes against the insanity defense.

This is the type of valuable research that forensic psychologists explain to attorneys selecting a jury for a murder case, for example, and considering a defense of insanity for their clients.

Another 2011 article dealt with using hypnosis in civil cases regarding sexual abuse.

In “Understanding Perceptions of Hypnotically Recovered Memories in a Civil Sexual Abuse Case,” authors and researchers Samantha Fusco and Judith Platania from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, investigated perceptions of hypnosis.

They were interested in court outcomes when expert witness testimony and victim testimony reported on hypnotically recovered memories of sexual abuse.

These researchers found that juries were skeptical of hypnotically induced memories compared to testimonies when hypnosis was not employed.

Expert witnesses

Probably one of the most highly visible career paths for forensic psychologists is to become an expert witness. These professionals have developed a specialty in a certain psychological area, such as Diana Barnes, an internationally recognized forensic psychology expert in postpartum mood disorders. (see Forensic Psychology Career Profile).

Like many others in this area, Barnes started her career as a psychotherapist, and developed this specialty because of her interest in women’s reproductive health.

But many areas of specialty are available – and sorely needed – for those with a background that thoroughly understands mental illnesses and disabilities.

One U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2002 highlighted this need.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision created an increased need for experts to testify regarding a diagnosis of mental retardation,” wrote J. Gregory Olley of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the journal Applied Neuropsychology.

A synopsis of the case, now well known in both psychological and legal fields, goes accordingly:

On August 16, 1996, Daryl Atkins, 18, and his accomplice, William Jones, abducted Eric Nesbitt from a convenience store, robbed him, and then shot him eight times in an isolated area, killing him.

Based on solid evidence, they were quickly tracked down and arrested. Each claimed that the other pulled the trigger, but a cellmate of Atkins claimed he confessed to pulling the trigger. In addition, Jones received a deal of life imprisonment in return for testifying against Atkins. The jury convicted Atkins of capital murder, and sentenced him to death, despite having a confirmed IQ of 59, and diagnosed as mildly mentally retarded.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Atkins' death sentence. The Court ruled 6-3 that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

In Olley’s article, “Knowledge and Experience Required for Experts in Atkins Cases” in which he refers to Atkins cases as those involving the mildy mentally retarded, he argues that the courts desperately need more expert witnesses to prevent future death penalty verdicts.

For instance, those who are mildly mentally retarded do not show the same physical characteristics as those with more severe retardation, causing juries, judges, and the public to view them the same as someone without mental retardation. Forensic psychologists are needed to keep up with the research on disabilities, professionals able to articulately explain the research and complexities of these disorders.

Treatment facilities

Forensic psychologists also apply their skills and knowledge working directly with those in prisons and correctional facilities. In many cases, these psychologists have both a clinical psychology background and also a background in forensic psychology.

Forensic psychologists design and develop intervention techniques and treatment programs for prisoners. They also work individually with prisoners, and conduct group programs for specific psychological disorders, such as managing anxiety, depression, anger, or substance abuse.

These psychologists also assess and evaluate offenders, and provide support, training, and counseling for other staff members. They also advise parole boards, and conduct research.

If you are intrigued with human behavior and how it can lead to criminal activity, and you enjoy learning about the intersection of law and psychology, you should consider a career in forensic psychology. Usually a master's degree or PhD is required to work in this field.

Some institutions offer a forensic psychology degree. However, students majoring in clinical, social, cognitive, criminal investigative, and developmental psychology also can pursue a forensic psychology specialty. Find out how you can become involved, request information from schools offering Psychology degree programs. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.

What is Criminal Profiling?

P. D. James is the author of 20 books, most of which are classified as mysteries or crime novels. Yet many place her books a part from the more typical detective novels or who-dunnits.

James emphasizes something different from other crime writers - the psychology of her characters. She examines the behaviors and motivations of both the murderers and her main character, New Scotland Yard Detective Adam Dalgliesh.

She told Nigel Farndale in a Sept. 2011 interview with The Telegraph, that she has to know her characters’ minds to write about them.

“I think when you create a character you become that character for as long as you are writing about them. So when I am writing about a killer, I am that killer. ”

In the same fashion as this iconic mystery writer, forensic psychologists working as profilers attempt to enter the minds of criminals in order to help solve crimes.

In the Monitor journal article, “Criminal profiling: the reality behind the myth,” criminal profiling is defined as helping “investigators examine evidence from crime scenes and victim and witness reports to develop an offender description.”

This description includes psychological factors, such as personality traits, psychopathologies, and behavior patterns.

Similar to an artist studying and reproducing famous artworks, profilers work backwards as well. The apprentice attempts to replicate the mind of the artist to understand the reasoning, methods, and message of the visual representation. They decipher the motives for placing certain elements in the picture, or leaving certain elements out – usually based on artistic principles.

Profilers do the same, but within a more scientific framework. They use empirically based, scientific studies that explain patterns of behaviors, thoughts, and personality traits to analyze crime scene evidence. Then they aid investigators in painting a picture of the characteristics of perpetrators or suspects.

The Monitor article states that a field of psychological study called investigative psychology aids professionals such as profilers by providing statistically generated categories of offenders. Using statistical techniques, those in investigative psychology are able to classify offenders by characteristics.

For example, the article states that a study examining 112 rape cases analyzed the relationship among crime scenes. They categorized the crimes based on questions such as: Did the rapists perform certain sexual assaults? Did they bind or gag their victims? Physically assault victims? Rob the victims?

The researchers from the Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool determined that neither the types of sexual acts nor physical assaults of the victims separated rapists from each other. Rather, the categorizing of rapists depended on nonphysical interactions, such as whether the rapist apologized to the victim, or stole from the victim.

Probably the largest employer that has contributed to developing profiling into a solid forensic psychology career has been the FBI. In 1974, the FBI established its Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), a unit of employees who go out and train others on profiling. In other words, they train and consult on understanding criminals and terrorists—who they are, how they think, why they do what they do—as a means to help solve crimes and prevent attacks, according to the FBI website.

Those considering a career as a forensic psychologist with a specialty in profiling might consider working for the FBI, or domestic or international law enforcement agencies.

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