A question that has significant implications, particularly for those wanting to work as a forensic psychologist.
This article offers a solution to the thorny issue of how to define forensic psychology.
Defining forensic psychology
One of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘What is forensic psychology?’. This is an interesting question that has significant implications, particularly for those wanting to work as a forensic psychologist.
Let's begin at the end. In their entry “Defining forensic psychology” in The Handbook of Forensic Psychology, Otto and Ogloff (2013; p.35) begin with fairly large spoiler: “There is no consensual definition of forensic psychology”. That’s a very accurate summary of the situation.
What is forensic psychology?
Forensic psychology has many definitions. Some attempt to be all encompassing, in which any application of psychology to law is included (known as broad definitions). Others attempt to restrict the field, such as to roles performed by clinical psychologists (known as narrow definitions).
Blackburn (1996; p.4) suggests that forensic psychology is “the application of psychological knowledge for the purposes of the courts”. The psychological knowledge referred to here is essentially clinical and it then follows that ‘forensic psychologists’ have some form of clinical psychological training. It has been suggested that the term ‘clinical forensic psychologist’ could be used to further emphasise that clinical aspect. Core topics here might include the assessment of criminal competency, or risk assessment, activities that can only be undertaken by those with extensive clinical training.
This is an example of a narrow definition. Proponents of this view typically begin their argument by pointing out that the word 'forensic' comes from the Latin word forensis, meaning “in open court” or “public”. So, the logic goes, forensic psychology has to be about evidence in court.... and nothing else. See, wasn't that simple?
However, this solution leaves us with a lot of forensic content that doesn’t really seem to fit, so alternatives are required.
What is legal psychology?
According to Ogloff (2000; p.467) the field of ‘legal psychology’ refers to
"the scientific study of the effects of law on people; and the effect people have on the law. Legal psychology also includes the application of the study and practice of psychology to legal institutions and people who come into contact with the law”.
The psychological knowledge referred to here is mainly from cognitive, social, and developmental psychology. It follows from this that legal psychologists do not need to have any clinical training, instead they will have training in other areas of psychology (e.g., cognitive psychology, which might include studying how memory works). Core topics here include eyewitness testimony, police interrogation/interviewing, and jury decision-making.
Forensic psychology and legal psychology refer to distinct areas of study and practice. Forensic psychology is essentially an offshoot of clinical psychology. Legal psychology refers to pretty much everything else. The term ‘psychology and law’ is sometimes used when referring to both areas. While this may not be the ‘correct’ answer, for now it will suffice.
Dr Stephen Moston
Blackburn, R. (1996). What is Forensic Psychology? Legal and Criminological Psychology, 1(1), 3-16. Ogloff, J. R. P. (2000). Two steps forward and one step backward: the law and psychology movement(s) in the 20th century. Law and Human Behavior, 24(4), 457-483. Otto, R. K., & Ogloff, J. R. P. (2013). Defining forensic psychology. In I. B. Weiner & R. K. Otto (Eds.), The handbook of forensic psychology (pp. 35-55). Somerset, USA: John Wiley & Sons.
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