What is Forensic Psychology

What is Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is applying the methods and science of psychology to answering questions relating to a legal issue or a particular judicial process. For example, let us talk about a classic not guilty by reason of insanity case. Although these cases are rarely successful, they are probably the most well-known cases involving expert witnesses with a specialization in forensic psychology.

In most states for someone to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, it must be established that the defendant did not have an understanding of the wrongfulness of their behavior at the time they committed their crime. Consider a person who was so mentally impaired at the time they committed their crime that they did not show evidence of planning the crime ahead of time, an effort to conceal their identity during the commission of the crime or an effort to escape after committing the crime. They may have years and years of psychiatric treatment records. They may even have a history of being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the past. Obviously, these are factors that would be relevant to even a layman taking a stab at addressing the question of whether or not such a particular individual understood the wrongfulness of their behavior at the time they committed a crime.

However, imagine if a psychologist was on the job. Not only would they analyze this obvious information of relevance to the case, but they could also interview this defendant and administer psychological testing and conduct research regarding the percentage likelihood that this particular individual with a particular disorder in fact did not have an understanding of the wrongfulness of their behavior when they committed a crime.

They may also be able to use specific psychological instruments as opposed to general mental health assessments to test this defendant. These test scores could then be compared against the profiles of people who were truly not guilty by reason of insanity versus those that were not as determined by a jury. Psychologists can administer tests of symptom exaggeration to see if the defendant is faking it.

These interviewing, testing and research methods are all within the purview of psychology and psychologists in general. However, applying these methods and principles of psychology to the specific question that is related to a legal issue thereby makes this work forensic psychology practice.

Therefore, it is important to bear in mind that to be an excellent forensic psychologist, you really have to be an excellent psychologist in general. Certainly, there are other skills you need for the specialty of forensic psychology that are necessary to be effective in this area. These skills include how to handle testimony and particularly cross-examination, how to identify a specific psycholegal question, how to ethically engage in forensic psychology practice given the unique ethical requirements and how to resist strong partisan pressures placed on these professionals by attorneys, examinees, and family members they are interviewing.

So, there you have it! This is the practice of forensic psychology. Are you surprised? We’d love to hear your comments below.

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