Forensic psychology is a subset of applied psychology broadly defined as psychology pertaining to the legal system. Because the legal system and criminal motivation are both complex, forensic psychologists can be found across a wide set of activities, from analyzing crime scenes to administering treatment to incarcerated offenders.
Forensic psychology is a broad term and forensic psychologists take on a wide variety of roles. Some forensic psychologists, for instance, may engage in criminal profiling, in which they try to identify likely suspects using information collected from crime scenes. Others try to assess the possibility of a known or alleged offender committing additional crimes in the future. In addition, many forensic psychologists act as advisors and consultants to law enforcement throughout an investigation.
Perhaps the most significant role of forensic psychologists is what's known as forensic therapy. In this discipline, a psychologist may be called upon to try to ascertain whether or not an alleged offender suffers from a psychological disorder; such experts often testify in court for either the defense or the prosecution. After a conviction, forensic psychologists may also participate in the assessment and rehabilitation of offenders, determining what type of treatment can be recommended, and often supervising or performing it as well.
A career in forensic psychology can manifest in many different ways, including: researching social science topics related to law and crime; conducting examinations of criminal defendants; assisting with jury selection; consulting with police departments and other law enforcement agencies; assessing the risk of violence in a community; and more.
Forensic psychologists can play a significant role in almost any level of the legal system. They may consult with legal professionals on mental health, criminal motivation, or risk assessment; they may assess or treat accused criminals or prison inmates for mental health disorders. They may also work in jury selection, legal research, or crisis management.
Forensic psychopathology is a sub-discipline of forensic psychology that examines psychopathology’s relationship to the legal system. Forensic psychopathologists psychologically assess, diagnose, and treat those accused of committing a crime and relay pertinent information to the court. They determine whether an individual should be held criminally liable for their actions or whether they can be declared incompetent.
Forensic psychology is a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of disciplines related to the legal system, including some that are not crime-related. Criminal psychology, by contrast, focuses specifically on criminal behavior. A criminal psychologist may research why crimes happen, help police assess crime scenes, or gauge the probability that specific crimes will occur.
“Insanity” is a legal term, not a psychological one, and depends where the crime took place. Some jurisdictions, for example, require that defendants be unaware that a crime was “wrong.” Others simply require that it be a product of mental illness. Forensic psychologists, therefore, evaluate defendants based on the laws of their jurisdiction.
There are multiple paths to becoming a practicing forensic psychologist. An individual likely needs to obtain a Ph.D. or Psy.D, most often with a clinical focus. Some individuals concurrently pursue a legal degree. Coursework may focus on criminology, abnormal psychology, the legal system, and related areas. After obtaining a doctoral degree, additional postdoctoral training will likely be required to obtain a license to practice independently.
Interest in the field has grown significantly in recent years, a development sometimes credited to the popularity of TV shows spotlighting the disparate ways in which forensic psychologists work within the legal system. While these programs don’t always portray the field accurately, they underscore the important role forensic psychologists play, as well as the wide variety of career paths available to aspiring forensic experts.
The majority of forensic psychologists have doctorate degrees—either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.—and most experts continue to recommend such degrees for aspiring students. However, there are some Master’s programs that purport to train students for a career in criminal psychology, though the programs’ efficacy has been questioned by some in the field.
Forensic psychologists are, above all, scientists—thus, they should be skilled at gathering and interpreting data, designing experiments, and/or researching complexities in the law. Because forensic psychologists regularly deal with law enforcement and criminals, however, they should also be strong clinicians, excel at public speaking, and have the ability to maintain composure under stress.
Most forensic psychology doctoral programs take at least 6 years to complete. Master’s programs may take less time—one to two years, generally—but many career paths in forensic psychology continue to require a doctoral degree.
Someone considering a career in forensic psychology should determine whether its unique combination of clinical work, public speaking, and research syncs with their personality and skill set. They should also assess whether pursuing years of graduate education is feasible, as well as whether they will need to relocate to find work in the field.
Some forensic psychologists spend their careers researching various aspects of criminal behavior. Areas of interest include: why some people are motivated to commit crimes while others aren’t; whether criminals—particularly violent or chronic criminals—have diagnosable mental illnesses or personality disorders; and whether it is possible to accurately identify suspects based on behavioral patterns or clues left at crime scenes.
Many laypeople are themselves fascinated with the psychology of criminal behavior—indeed, hundreds of books, television shows, and podcasts examine horrific crimes and try to understand why they occurred. Because of this media attention, many people assume that all forensic psychologists assess criminal behavior; however, while criminal psychology is an important area of the field, it is not the only career path a forensic psychologist can take.
Rage, fear, or a sense of entitlement can all motivate criminal behavior. Some criminals are under the influence of drugs and thus behave irrationally; others have mental illnesses that distort their worldview, triggering illegal acts. Some violent, serial criminals may be driven by a lack of empathy, trauma or abandonment, and/or a thirst for revenge.
Criminal profiling relies on a combination of crime scene analysis and behavioral psychology. Using physical clues from a crime scene, interviews with victims or witnesses, and information about psychopathology, similar past crimes, and human behavioral patterns, profilers offer an educated guess on who may have committed the crime and where they may be located.
The vast majority of people with mental illnesses do not commit crimes. However, the mentally ill make up 40 percent of the prison population. Untreated mental illness can motivate some individuals to commit crimes or create life circumstances that push them toward illegal behavior. Many experts argue that treatment, rather than incarceration, could improve both public safety and quality of life for the mentally ill.
Interest in crime is similar to the inability to look away from a car crash—the brutal, often inexplicable behavior can trigger, for some, intense curiosity and a desire to understand aberrant behavior. Serial killers, in particular, may draw fascination because they kill seemingly randomly; studying them may provide a sense of psychological safety and the hope that such knowledge may help someone avoid being victimized.