Forensic Psychology

forensic psych

Forensic psychology is the application of psychology in the justice system.

The intersection between psychology (the study of behavior) and the legal system (the process of passing judgment and making binding decisions), makes for interesting stories. While the law wants to know what is the truth, psychology remains more interested in detecting shades of truth. Although they share a common interest in getting as close to the truth as possible, the manner in which both fields advance toward the relative truth creates both friction and wisdom.

If uncertainty is the absence of information, then collecting more information can either:

  • Decrease uncertainty
  • Increase understanding of uncertainty
  • Increase certainty

The Role of the Forensic Psychologist

Perhaps it is easiest to understand the role of the forensic psychologist by characterizing this specialist as being the opposite of a know-it-all.

A know-it-all is a person who pretends to know a great deal about every subject under the sun. The expression – "jack of all trades, master of none" – perhaps best describes this type of person. By contrast, a forensic psychologist is professionally trained in a specific area of psychology (e.g., criminal behavior, neuropsychology, post-traumatic stress disorder, and adaptive functional capacity), who serves in the role as an expert witness. Instead of casting a wide net, the forensic expert addresses a narrowly defined set of events or interactions. In this role, the forensic psychologist is asked to address specific questions pertaining to a given person's situation.

Examples of Possible Referral Questions:

  1. Is the person competent to stand trial?
  2. What diagnosis best explains the person's behavior?
  3. Has the person's cognitive functioning declined?
  4. What is the person's general level of intelligence?
  5. How well is the person psychologically coping?
  6. Is the person psychologically capable of working?
  7. What treatment options are reasonable and appropriate?

While the field of forensic psychology covers a wide variety of specialties, the different experts share common ground. All forensic psychologists embrace ethical responsibilities involving scope, voluntariness, autonomy, threats to validity, relationships and dynamics, pace and setting, and importance of client's perspective.