My Journey of Discovery into the Field of Forensic Psychology
Most people who watch crime-solving TV shows like CSI, Bones, Criminal Minds and Profiler are familiar with the general concept of a forensic psychologist. However, as with most legal and criminal scenarios shown on television, the skills, talents and job responsibilities of forensic psychologists on the big screen are exaggerated.
This, in turn, has led to a somewhat misguided understanding of what forensic psychologists are and what exactly it is that they do.
I have always been fascinated by the field of psychology and actually minored in it while I was in college. I ultimately opted to complete my business degree. That was some years ago and I have often revisited that decision and wondered about how my life would have been different had I’d chosen forensic psychology instead.
This website is about my exploration into a possible career change.
Common Misconceptions About Forensic Psychology
Thanks to prime-time television, forensic psychology has made it into the mainstream and regular people now know that there is such a thing. However, the job of a forensic psychologist is not usually as glamorous or exciting as it appears on TV. On screen, they always give definitive psychological profiles on a suspect that always leads to a flawless and accurate description of the actual killer. They can tell on a whim, if a witness is lying or is reliable and can be trusted. They often work hand-in-hand with law enforcement and are mostly deployed in the field to work on cases.
This is simply not how forensic psychology works. They don’t possess amazing skill at identifying lies on the spot, nor do they even see any action during a case. While most forensic psychologists do give great insight into the behavior and thinking of perpetrators, most of the time it is vague and not specific enough to narrow it down to a few likely suspects. The only thing that’s accurately depicted on screen is perhaps the reception of law enforcement and the legal department towards forensic psychology.
Forensic psychologists are frequently hired by attorneys, lawyers and law firms to testify as expert witnesses that become part of the litigation process; they are also relied upon heavily in personal injury lawsuits and criminal proceedings, criminal profiling, inmate mental health screening and murder trials.
What is Forensic Psychology?
Simply put, forensic psychology is the clinical application of psychology in law. This definition may be broad, but it suits the field’s equally broad spectrum of applications. With forensic psychology, you use psychology concepts in every step of the legal process, from the investigation of a crime to the legal proceedings, and even after the sentence is handed down.
Forensic Psychology began with James McKeen Cattell when he conducted a study at Columbia University in 1893 on the psychology of testimony. He asked 56 students abstract questions and told them to rate how confident they were with their answers. His study revealed that confidence had nothing to do with correctness. Some students were very confident with their incorrect answers, while others were unsure of their answers even though they were correct.
This sparked the interest of other psychologists like William Stern, who conducted a similar experiment that revealed how inaccurate eyewitness accounts can be. Working with a criminologist, Stern created a phony scenario in one of his classes. The actors would pretend to have an argument, which would lead to one of the “actors” pulling out a gun. Stern then stopped the fight and asked the rest of the class to recall what happened.
In his study, Stern discovered that answers varied and contained many errors. He also noted that there were fewer errors in the first half of the argument, and the number of errors increased around the second half. He concluded that emotions and tension had a negative effect on people’s abilities to recall events accurately.
Stern devoted most of his studies towards the application of psychology in testimonies. Most of his studies included the different between adult and child witnesses, events and situations that can alter a person’s memory of an event, and the inefficiency of police lineups.
In 1908, psychologist Hugo Munsterberg wrote a journal entitled “On the Witness Stand” which explained why psychology was very important during investigations and trials. He wrote about the unreliability of eyewitness testimonies and how some questions can be phrased differently to be more suggestive and manipulate people’s way of thinking.
To this day, Forensic Psychology continues to make huge strides in law enforcement. Although its scope is still broad, and reception regarding its usefulness is mixed, it has undoubtedly helped law enforcement make headway in several cases and ensured the accuracy of the verdict delivered.