Forensic psychology is the practice of psychology applied to the law. Forensic psychology is the application of scientific knowledge and methods to help answer legal questions arising in criminal, civil, contractual, or other judicial proceedings.[1][2][3] Forensic psychology includes research on various psychology-law topics, such as jury selection, reducing systemic racism in criminal law, eyewitness testimony, evaluating competency to stand trial, or assessing military veterans for service-connected disability compensation.[4] The American Psychological Association's Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists reference several psychology subdisciplines, such as social, clinical, experimental, counseling, and neuropsychology.[5]


See also: History of psychology

Front cover of an early edition of Hugo Muensterberg's "On the Witness Stand" book
Front cover of an early edition of Hugo Muensterberg's "On the Witness Stand" book

As early as the 19th century, criminal profiling began to emerge, with the Jack the Ripper case being the first instance of criminal profiling, by forensic doctor and surgeon Thomas Bond.[6] In the first decade of the 20th century, Hugo Münsterberg, the first director of Harvard's psychological laboratory and a student of Wilhelm Wundt, one of the first experimental psychologists,[2][7] authored On the Witness Stand.[2][8] In the publication, Münsterberg attempted to demonstrate how psychological research could be applied in legal proceedings.[9] Sigmund Freud also discussed how psychopathological processes play a role in criminal behavior.[2] Other significant early figures in forensic psychology include Lightner Witmer, and William Healy.[10]

In 1917, the lie detector was invented by the psychologist William Marston.[11][12] Six years after its invention, Marston brought his lie detector to court in the case of Frye v. United States at the request of James A. Frye's attorneys, who hoped Marston's device would prove their client's innocence. The results were not deemed admissible, due to lie detection not being widely accepted in the scientific community. This led to the creation of the Frye standard, which states scientific evidence is only admissible when it has prominent standing within the scientific community.[13]

The 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,[14] was the first where the Supreme Court of the United States referenced expert opinions by psychologists.[15] After this, the preponderance of psychological mechanisms within courtrooms began to be considered beneficial.[15] Several years after the Brown ruling, Justice David Bazelon of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that psychologists had the legal authority to testify as medical experts about mental illness.[3][15][16]

In 1969, the American Psychology–Law Society was founded, later being converted into Division 41 of the APA in 1980.[15] As the field continued to grow, more organizations supported the application of psychology to the law. In 1976, the American Board of Forensic Psychology was chartered, eventually becoming part of the American Board of Professional Psychology in 1985.[15] Organizations and conferences later aided in solidifying the development of forensic psychology, such as the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and the National Invitational Conference on Education and Training in Forensic Psychology.[15][17] By 2001, forensic psychology was recognized as a professional specialty by the American Psychological Association.[15]

Modern forensic psychological research applies psychological methodology to legal contexts. In the 1980s, Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, published a series of papers on false confessions. One of Kassin's articles was instrumental in overturning the convictions of five boys who had been falsely convicted of the rape of a jogger. [18] At the University of Liverpool, David V. Canter is credited with the creation of the term investigative psychology, a sub-specialization of forensic psychology that pertains to of criminal behavior and the investigative process.[11] Through the psychological profiling of the Railway Rapists, Canter assisted in the capture of the killers.[19] The 20th-century psychologist William Stern, conducted numerous experiments on eyewitness testimony, credibility, consistency, and the influence of leading questions in court.[20][21]

Recently, forensic psychology has grown in popularity in the media. For example, many recent docuseries on Netflix feature forensic psychological content, including Making a Murderer and Sins of our Mother. Other TV shows and movies such as Criminal Minds, Manhunter, Mindhunter, and Silence of The Lambs have widely popularized the practice of criminal profiling, particularly within the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU).[22] One example of a highly-publicised case that used forensic psychology was Ted Bundy's sentencing.[23] In 1980, he went to trial and was evaluated by multiple psychology professionals to determine his ability to stand before the court.[24] The results from the multiple psychologist evaluations determined that Ted Bundy was fit to stand before the court.[24]

Training and education

Forensic psychology involves both elements of basic as well as applied work. Forensic psychologists may hold a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, social psychology, organizational psychology, school psychology, or experimental psychology under accredited institutions.[25] Additionally, 2 years of supervised experience in their field is necessary.[25] There are no specific license requirements in the United States to be a forensic psychologist, although U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia require licensure for psychologists in the state they intend to practice.[2] Certification specifically in forensic psychology is also available.[2]

There are 65 forensic psychology degree programs offered in the US. Average tuition cost is $9,475 in-state and $25,856 out-of-state.[26]

There is a wide range of pay for individuals in the forensic psychology field.[27] In the United States, the median annual income of clinical-forensic psychologists is $125,000 - $149,999, and the pay can range from $50,000 (entry-level) a year to more than $350,000 a year.[28]

Practice and research in forensic psychology

Forensic psychology may be utilized in five major areas (police and public safety, law, crime and delinquency, victimology and victim services, and corrections) and two sub-areas (family and schools).[11]

Practice/direct service

Forensic psychologists complete evaluations and assessments to assess a person's psychological state for legal purposes.[29][30] Reasons for completing these evaluations can involve acquiring information for criminal court (such as insanity or incompetence), for criminal sentencing or parole hearings (often regarding a potential intellectual disability that prevents sentencing or one's risk of recidivism), for family court (including child custody or parental termination cases), or civil court (involving, for example, personal injury, competence to manage one's financial affairs, and psychological autopsies especially as related to testamentary capacity).[31][32] Additional assessments that these professionals can perform include school threats.[25] There is great debate about whether these Forensic Psychological evaluations constitute as health care treatment, with most arguments claiming they do not.[33] It is important to note that while a forensic psychologist is responsible for assessing and reporting results of an evaluation, they do not make decisions on "ultimate issues" such as competence to stand trial or service-connected disability for U.S. military veterans.[34][35] Instead, the information provided by the expert evaluator is analyzed and is ruled on by the court which ordered the evaluation to take place.[35]


Forensic psychologists may be asked to administer psychological interventions to those requiring or requesting services in both criminal and civil cases. Regarding criminal cases, forensic psychologists can work with individuals who have already been sentenced to reduce the likelihood of repeating their offense. Other treatments are frequently put together in these case, especially for substance use disorder, sex offenders, mental illness, or anger management.[31] As for civil proceedings, forensic psychology treats families going through divorce cases, custody cases, and psychological injuries due to trauma. Treatment often occurs in forensic and state psychiatric hospitals, mental health centers, and private practices.[36]


Providing consultations allows forensic psychologists to apply psychological expertise and research to help law enforcement, attorneys, and other legal professionals or proceedings better understand human behavior (e.g. criminal, witness, victim, jury), civil processes, effects of trauma or other life events, and so on. If working as a consultant, a forensic psychologist can be involved in legal proceedings through responsibilities such as reviewing court records (such as a defendant's psychosocial history or assessing mitigating or aggravating factors in a case), serving as a jury consultant (organizing focus groups, shadow juries, mock juries, or helping with the voir dire proceedings), and assessment without testimony (in which results of a defendant's evaluation are not disclosed to the prosecution team, allowing the defense team to develop a defense strategy), among others. Essentially, consultations can take many forms, including the common ones below:

  1. Law enforcement consultations may take the form of assisting with criminal profiling, developing hiring procedures and methods, determining the psychological fitness of returning officers, or simply lending expertise on certain criminal behaviors.[22][37] There are several methods and approaches related to criminal profiling, but there is a lot of skepticism and criticism about the efficiency and accuracy of criminal profiling in general.[37][38] A couple common approaches are the scientific approach, which includes the FBI's Crime Scene Analysis and Canter's Investigative Psychology, and the intuitive approach, which includes Tukey's Behavioral Evidence Analysis.[31][39][40][41]
  2. Trial consultants are psychologists who work with legal professionals, such as attorneys, to aid in case preparation. This includes jury selection, development of case strategy, and witness preparation.[42][43] Forensic psychologists working as trial consultants rely on research to best advise the individuals they are working with. Because trial consultants are often hired by one specific side in a trial, these psychologists face many ethical issues. It is the psychologist's responsibility to remain neutral when consulting. In other words, the consultant must not choose a side to support and consequentially omit or create information that would be beneficial to one side or another. Before accepting a case to work on, the forensic psychologist weighs the responsibilities of consulting on that case with the ethical guidelines put in place for the field of forensic psychology.[5]

Expert testimony about matters relating to psychology is also an area in which forensic psychologists play an active role.[44][31] Unlike fact witnesses, who are limited to testifying about what they know or have observed, expert witnesses can express further knowledge of a situation or topic because, as their name suggests, they are presumed to be "experts" in a certain topic and possess specialized knowledge about it.[45] The requirements that must be met for forensic psychologists to be considered expert witnesses include clinical psychology expertise and knowledge of the laws that have jurisdiction over the court they are to testify.[46] Procedural and legal rules guide expert testimony, including that the evidence must be relevant to the case, the method the expert used must be valid and reliable, and that the evidence will help the trier of fact.[44] An expert can be deposed by opposing counsel to discover what they plan to say in court. Attorneys have the opportunity to raise a challenge to the admissibility of the expert's testimony if there are questions about its relevance, or its validity and reliability (in the United States - the rules vary by country and jurisdiction).[44] Regardless of who calls in the expert, it is the judge who determines whether or not the expert witness will be accepted through a voir dire process of qualification.[37]


Forensic psychology researchers make scientific discoveries relevant to psychology and the law and sometimes provide expert witness testimony.[31][3] These professionals usually have an advanced degree in psychology (most likely a Ph.D.). These professionals may be employed in various settings, which include colleges and universities, research institutes, government or private agencies, and mental health agencies.[47] Researchers test hypotheses empirically regarding issues related to psychology and the law, such as jury research and research on mental health law and policy evaluation.[47] Their research may be published in forensic psychology journals such as Law and Human Behavior or Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, and more broadly, in basic psychology journals. Some famous psychologists in the field include Scott Lilienfeld, who was widely known for his scholarship on psychopathology and psychopathy; Saul Kassin, who is widely known for studying false confessions; Jennifer Skeem, who is widely known for studying justice-involved people with mental illness; Michael Saks, who is known for his contributions to jury research and improvements to forensic science; Barbara Spellman, who is known for her cognitive psychology-law work as well as for her open science leadership; and Elizabeth Loftus and Gary Wells, who are both known for their research on eyewitness memory.


Academic forensic psychologists teach, research, train, and supervise students, among other education-related activities. These professionals also have an advanced degree in psychology (most likely a Ph.D.) and are most often employed at colleges and universities. In addition to holding professorships, forensic psychologists may engage in education by presenting research, hosting talks about a particular subject, or engaging with and educating the community about a relevant forensic psychology topic.[31]


Through advocacy, forensic psychologists can use psychological research to influence laws and policies. These may be related to certain movements, such as Black Lives Matter or the Me Too movement, or may even be related to certain civil rights that are being overlooked.[48]

Forensic psychological evaluations

Common types of evaluations

Forensic assessments of competencies

Competence, in a legal setting, refers to the defendant's ability to appreciate and understand the charges against them and what is happening in the legal proceedings, as well as their ability to help the lawyer understand and defend their case.[37] Though it is the psychologist's responsibility to assess for competence, it is ultimately up to the judge to decide whether the defendant is competent or not. If the defendant is found incompetent to stand trial, the psychologist must then give a recommendation on whether or not the defendant can be restored to competence through treatment or if the charges should be dropped completely due to incompetence. Potential causes of incompetence include brain damage, the occurrence of a psychotic episode, a mental disorder, or a developmental disability.[49][34][50]

Multiple cases have helped define competence. In Dusky v. United States (1960), the case upheld the Youtsey v. United States ruling and set specific criteria for competence. These include having a rational and factual understanding of court proceedings and being able to consult with an attorney in a rational manner.[51]

Forensic assessment of insanity

Insanity, as opposed to competence, refers to an individual's mental state at the time of the crime rather than at the time of the trial.[31][37] According to legal principles of insanity, it is only acceptable to judge, find someone criminally responsible, and punish a defendant if that individual was sane at the time of the crime. In order to be considered sane, the defendant must have exhibited both mens rea and actus reus. Mens rea, translated to "guilty mind", indicates that the individual exhibited free will and some intent to do harm at the time of the crime. Actus reus refers to the voluntary committing of an unlawful act.

The insanity defense acknowledges that, while an unlawful act did occur, the individual displayed a lack of mens rea.[51] The burden of proof in determining if a defendant is insane lies with the defense team. A notable case relating to this type of assessment is that of Ford v. Wainwright, in which it was decided that forensic psychologists must be appointed to assess the competency of an inmate to be executed in death penalty cases.[52][53]

There are various definitions of insanity acknowledged within the legal system.[31] The M'Naghten/McNaugton rule (1843) defines insanity as the individual not understanding the nature and quality of his or her acts or that these acts were wrong due to a mental disease or defect. This is also referred to as the cognitive capacity test. Meanwhile, the Durham Test (established in Durham v. United States, 1954) states that one can be declared insane if the actions were caused by a mental disorder. The vague nature of this description causes this definition to only be used in one state (New Hampshire). The final definition acknowledged within the courts is the Brawner Rule (U.S. v. Brawner, 1972), also referred to as the American Law Institute Standard. This definition posits that, due to a mental disease or defect, an individual is considered insane if unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of an act and are unable to conform their behavior to the dictates of the law.[51]

Evaluating insanity involves using crime scene analysis to determine the mental state at the time of the crime, establishing a diagnosis, interviewing the defendant and any other relevant witnesses, and verifying impressions of the defendant.[48]

Violence risk assessment

Violence risk assessment evaluates how dangerous an individual is and the risk of them re-offending, also referred to as recidivism.[54] Risk assessments are used in sentencing and affect the possibility of an inmate receiving parole or being released from prison.[54] Imposition of the death penalty often requires a consideration of "future dangerousness," for which risk assessment can play a vital role.[54]

Although there are many advocates for the use of risk assessment in sentencing, there are others who question whether risk assessments are accurate enough to be relied upon when making these consequential legal decisions.[54] Risk assessment, as with any attempt to understand future behavior, is very difficult, especially because "risk" isn't always defined the same way in different legal settings. There is a wide research literature on risk assessment, but the information is varied and sometimes contradictory, and bias can play a role in risk assessment.[54]

Other types of evaluations

While insanity and competency assessments are among the most common criminal assessments administered within the legal system, there are several other types implemented. Some of these include death penalty case assessments, assessments of child sexual abuse, assessments for child custody or divorce cases, civil court assessments, and immigration/asylum cases.[49][61]

Distinction between forensic and therapeutic evaluation

A forensic psychologist's interactions with and ethical responsibilities to the client differ widely from those of a psychologist dealing with a client in a clinical setting.[51]

Ethics in forensic psychology

The ethical recommendations and expectations outlined for forensic psychology specifically are listed in the APA's Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology.[5] These guidelines involve reminders that forensic psychologists should value integrity, impartiality, and fairness, as well as avoid conflicts of interest when possible. These conflicts of interest may arise in situations in which the psychologist is working as a consultant to one side or another in a court case, when the psychologist is required to testify or evaluate something that collides with their own beliefs or values, or when a psychologist is faced with the decision of choosing between playing the role of an individual's evaluator or treatment provider in a case.[31] This final conflict of interest also relates to the ethical guidelines relating to having multiple relationships with clients.[5] As a standard of ethics, forensic psychologists are expected to offer a certain amount of reduced fee or pro bono services for individuals who may not be able to afford hiring a psychologist for a court case otherwise. Other ethical guidelines involve receiving informed consent from clients before communicating information regarding their treatment or evaluations, respecting and acknowledging privacy, confidentiality, and privilege among clients, remaining impartial and objective when involved in a trial, and weighing the moral and ethical costs of complying with any court orders that may conflict with professional standards.[48][49][66]

Notable research in forensic psychology

See also



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Further reading