Forensic Psychology

Crime has a long history in human society. Just as Willhelm Wundt is considered the father of psychology, Hugo Münsterberg is considered to be one of the first to bring psychology into the courtroom. Why people commit crimes whilst others forgo a life of crime has interested psychologists for a long time.

Forensic Psychology Forensic Psychology

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Table of contents

    The need to understand the reasons behind criminal behaviour, how to catch a criminal, and, more importantly, how to prevent crime became obvious. This is where forensic psychology comes in.

    • We are going to explore the world of forensic psychology.
    • First, we will provide a forensic psychology definition, clarifying what we mean by forensic psychology.
    • We will then explore the various forensic psychology methods, such as offender profiling.
    • Then, we will briefly cover forensic psychology research, namely the biological and psychological explanations for offending behaviour.
    • Finally, we will discuss the problems in forensic psychology.

    Forensic Psychology, yellow tape saying crime scene do not cross over a blurry background, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Forensic psychology explores the theories behind criminal behaviour

    Forensic Psychology: Definition

    Forensic psychology is investigative psychology that looks into the psychological theories behind criminal behaviour. Why a person may commit a crime, who they may be and how they act are all factors psychology explores.

    Whilst initially, forensic psychology was not a fully respected discipline (Münsterberg faced scepticism in the courtroom by the judge and others present), it has gained credibility and esteem over the years.

    Forensic psychology applies psychology to law and the criminal justice system.

    Many television shows focus entirely on forensic psychology procedures. Finding and catching criminals using psychological methods has proven popular amongst the public.

    Forensic psychologists typically help in the cases of eyewitness testimonies, assessing competency to see if a person is in a sound state of mind to stand trial and help decide appropriate treatment plans and sentencing.

    Forensic Psychology Research: Measuring Crime Rates

    Crime is an act that violates the law, usually resulting in punishment. What people consider a crime varies from place to place (culture, setting, and time can change the definition of a crime).

    Whilst certain acts are illegal across the board (murder, for example), other crimes, such as drug use and theft, may incur different degrees of punishment.

    It's important for governing bodies to know the true extent of crime rates, and one way to do this is through measuring crime.

    Measuring crime rates comes in three forms, mainly:

    • Official statistics: Government records of total crimes reported and recorded in official figures.
    • Victim surveys: Each year, the Crime Survey for England and Wales sends a survey to 50,000 households asking them to report any crimes they have been victims of in the previous year.
    • Offender surveys: Individuals volunteer information about the number and type of crimes they have committed.

    Forensic Psychology Methods: Offender Profiling

    Offender profiling focuses on accurately predicting the characteristics of unknown criminals through various procedures and is an investigative tool, a core aspect of investigative psychology. There are two main forms of offender profiling: the top-down and the bottom-up approaches.

    The top-down approach is used by America, whereas the British use the bottom-up approach.

    The Top-down Approach

    Developed by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), the top-down approach classifies criminals into different types, working from the top down. Using data from 36 convicted serial killers and murderers (including the infamous Ted Bundy), the FBI identified organised and disorganised groups.

    The top-down approach assumes that criminals show particular behaviours (often known as their modus-operandi or ‘MO’).

    The FBI follow four steps when creating profiles (Douglas et al., 1986):

    1. Collecting and combining data from the crime.
    2. Classifying the type of crime.
    3. Hypothesise about what happened and reconstruct the crime.
    4. Generating a profile of the offender.

    Forensic Psychology, three people dressed in suits interacting in an office in front of an American flag, StudySmarterFig. 2 - America uses the top-down approach in offender profiling.

    The Bottom-up Approach

    Developed by David Canter, the bottom-up approach uses investigative psychology and geographical profiling to identify possible offenders. There are no typologies. Investigators examine crime scenes, analyse evidence, and talk to witnesses to hypothesise about the likely characteristics of the perpetrator, such as:

    1. Personal characteristics.
    2. Criminal history.
    3. Location.
    4. Social characteristics.
    5. Career and educational history/level.

    Investigative psychology includes details from the crime scene that are matched with psychology theories and analysis of offenders to find the most likely match. Geographic profiling examines crime scenes to determine the offender’s base and possible future crimes.

    Forensic Psychology, man wearing a suit looking at a data board connecting clues of a crime, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The UK uses the bottom-up approach to offender profiling.

    Criminology and Forensic Psychology: Biological explanations

    Several biological explanations and theories for criminality exist in psychology (and criminology), such as the atavistic form, and genetic and neural explanations.

    Atavistic Form

    Positivist criminology suggests no free will exists in criminal behaviours; our features decide it. Cesare Lombroso described the atavistic form in 1876, which states that criminals are less evolved people or primitive subspecies unfit for modern society.

    Lombroso noted that this criminal subspecies could be identified by specific characteristics such as:

    • A prominent jaw.
    • High cheekbones.
    • Drooping eyes.
    • Dark skin.
    • Asymmetry of the face.

    Physical features can indicate criminal tendencies, according to Lombroso.

    Genetic and Neural Explanations

    Psychologists have also tried to find genetic and neural explanations for criminality. Twin studies and candidate genes are essential parts of this process.

    • Studies by researchers such as Tiihonrn et al. (2014) have shown that abnormalities in the MAOA and CDH13 genes can predict violent criminal behaviours.

    Other psychologists claim that there may be neural differences between criminals and non-criminals.

    Raine et al. (1997) found that murderers had neural differences in their prefrontal cortex, amongst other notable brain areas. They had dysfunctional brain processes, supporting the neural explanation.

    Forensic Psychology Research: Psychological Explanations

    Are murderers born or made? Psychological explanations explore the psychological aspect of offending behaviours, namely identifying issues in the mind of offenders and identifying possible environmental conditions that may explain the behaviours.

    Eysenck’s Theory of the Criminal Personality

    Eysenck (1964), a critical exponent of personality and intelligence research, stated that behaviour could be divided into three categories: introversion/extroversion (E), neuroticism/stability (N), and psychoticism (P). According to Eysenck, we inherit the extent and type of character traits through our nervous system, which means that criminality could have a biological basis.

    • Eysenck explained that the criminal personality type is neurotic-extroverted with a high degree of psychoticism.
    • However, Eysenck also stated that criminals are formed by a combination of criminal personality and socialisations, meaning that his approach is a hybrid one, both biological and social.

    Thinking Patterns, Levels of Moral Reasoning, and Cognitive Distortions

    Several explanations for criminal behaviour suggest that offenders think differently than their peers. They show different thinking patterns, levels of moral reasoning, and cognitive distortions that affect their perceptions of reality.

    • The levels of moral reasoning, developed by Kohlberg (1958), refer to the stages of moral reasoning people advance through as they age, affecting their behaviours. According to the theory on moral reasoning, criminals may have a lower level of moral reasoning, meaning they feel less about the morality of their actions.
    • Cognitive distortions are information processing/thinking errors that alter a person's ability to perceive reality. Offenders may have cognitive distortions linked to their criminal behaviours (i.e., being self-centred or minimising their behaviours).

    Differential Association Theory

    Differential association theory, developed by Sutherland (1939), suggests criminal behaviour is a learned interaction where offenders learn the techniques, methods, and motives of criminal behaviours from other criminals.

    Cognitive Biases

    According to cognitive theory, criminals also have cognitive biases (information processing errors or biases) that influence their behaviour. Two examples are:

    • Hostile attribution: Viewing the behaviour as aggressive or threatening when not.
    • Minimalisations: Downplaying an event or emotion, e.g., guilt.

    Forensic Psychology, man sat on the crime in handcuffs, StudySmarterFig. 4 - There are a variety of psychological explanations for criminal behaviours.

    Forensic Psychology: Psychodynamic Explanations

    Psychodynamic explanations for criminal behaviour explore offending behaviours through the lens of Freud's theories. Blackburn (1993) suggests that the differential development of the superego can lead to criminal behaviour:

    • The weak superego: When a child does not identify with a parent, they do not internalise a superego, which leads to immoral or criminal behaviour.
    • The deviant superego: If a child internalises an immoral or deviant superego, this can lead to criminal behaviour.
    • The overly harsh superego leads to debilitating guilt and anxiety in a child, resulting in criminal behaviour to satisfy the superego’s need for punishment.

    Freud also explored defence mechanisms, namely displacement, repression and denial.

    Maternal Deprivation Theory

    Bowlby (1944) asserts that a child who cannot form a solid attachment to their mother figure is less likely to form meaningful relationships in adulthood and is more likely to develop a personality type of ‘loveless psychopathy’. A lack of guilt, empathy, and feelings for others, all traits associated with criminal behaviour, characterise this personality type.

    Dealing with Offending Behaviour

    So, the offender committed a crime. What next? Punishment for criminal behaviour can take different forms, from more traditional versions to modern therapeutic approaches.

    Custodial sentencing

    Custodial sentencing is when the court orders the offender to serve time in a prison or other closed therapeutic/educational facility such as a psychiatric hospital.

    The custodial sentence has many purposes :

    It also has many psychological effects:

    In this section, we also address recidivism.

    Behaviour Modification in Custody

    Behaviour modification in custody applies the behaviourist approach that attempts to replace criminal behaviour with desirable, productive behaviour by using positive/negative reinforcement.

    A clear example of this is the idea of ‘getting out on good behaviour’, where punishment is reduced for inmates as a reward for good behaviour while incarcerated.

    Anger management

    Anger management involves a therapeutic program to identify and manage the anger that may have led to criminal behaviour. This process consists of three phases:

    • Cognitive preparation.
    • Skill acquisition.
    • Application practice.

    Restorative justice

    Restorative justice focuses on reconciliation between offender and victim. The aim is to enable the offender to understand their crime’s impact and empower victims by giving them a ‘voice’.

    Problems in Forensic Psychology

    Whilst forensic psychology provides multiple techniques to investigate criminal behaviour and identify possible explanations for criminal behaviour, it has problems in itself.

    • Some techniques are not as robust. The top-down approach has been criticised for validity issues and generalisability concerns. Research into offender profiling is also surprisingly limited into how effective it actually is.
    • Explanations of criminal behaviour have issues with reductionism (particularly biological explanations) and determinism. Psychological explanations also suffer from problems, for example, the psychodynamic approach is not scientifically tested, and Sutherland's (1939) theory on differential association fails to account for individual differences.
    • Ethical concerns remain in forensic psychology, as misuse of work, problems with competence, and issues with avoiding harm crop up within forensic psychology.

    Forensic Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Forensic psychology is investigative psychology that looks into the psychological theories behind criminal behaviour. Forensic psychology applies psychology to law and the criminal justice system.

    • We can define crimes using official characteristics, victim surveys and offender surveys. Offender profiling focuses on accurately predicting the characteristics of unknown criminals through various procedures and is an investigative tool.

    • Biological explanations for crime include atavistic forms and genetic and neural explanations.

    • Psychological explanations of crime include Eysenck’s theory, cognitive explanations, and differential association theory. Psychodynamic explanations for crime include a malformed superego and maternal deprivation theory.

    • We can treat delinquent behaviour through incarceration, behaviour modification, anger management, and restorative justice.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Forensic Psychology

    Why is forensic psychology important?

    Forensic psychology can help prevent and explain crime.

    What is forensic psychology?

    Forensic psychology applies psychology to law and the criminal justice system.

    What is criminal psychology and forensic psychology?

    Criminal psychologists develop psychological profiles of criminals to understand them or prevent crime. Forensic psychology is investigative psychology that looks into the psychological theories behind criminal behaviour.

    What is the difference between criminal psychology and forensic psychology?

    Criminal psychologists develop psychological profiles of criminals to understand them or prevent crime. Forensic psychologists look at crime more widely and apply this study to the criminal justice system. 

    How does forensic psychology help solve crimes?

    Forensic psychology can help us understand criminal motivations and influences by producing different investigative techniques, such as offender profiling, how to measure crime rates accurately, and exploring different explanations of crime (psychological and biological).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following are NOT atavistic facial features? (select all that apply)

    What was Lombroso’s theory of crime called?

    True or False: Grove (1990) found significant negative correlations between genetic influences and symptoms of antisocial behaviour in twins reared apart.


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