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The History of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is a useful tool in our criminal justice system. Recent television programming like NCIS, Law and Order and CSI have increased the popularity of forensic psychology and presented a sometimes less-than-accurate depiction of the profession. What is a forensic psychologist and how did the occupation come about? Read on for the history of forensic psychology and what you can really expect in this career.

What is forensic psychology?

Forensic psychology exists at the intersection of psychology and the legal system. The discipline is quite broad; forensic psychologists work in many environments, including police departments, prisons, courts and detention centers. Forensic psychologists perform a range of work, from determining whether or not a defendant is fit to stand trial to counseling police officers and their families to advising attorneys on jury selection to developing rehabilitation and treatment programs for offenders.

Early years

The birth of forensic psychology began with the study of courtroom testimony. As early as 1893, researchers were investigating the accuracy of eye witness testimony. Turn of the century researchers concurrently found that confidence did not correlate to correctness and that heightened emotions caused inaccuracy when recalling events. These pioneers found that psychology was of the upmost importance in the court room and devised theories relating to false memories and the unreliability of eye witness testimony.

History of Forensic Psychology

In 1922, William Marston was appointed as the first professor of legal psychology at American University. He is responsible for discovering the link between blood pressure and lying that enabled the invention of the polygraph test. Marston also set the precedent for expert testimony in 1923 when he worked alongside other psychological consultants in criminal justice.

Around this same time, Lewis Terman initiated the practice of screening law enforcement officers for mental health and personality profiles. This expanded the reach of forensic psychology outside of the courtroom and into other areas of criminology.

World War years

During the 1940s and 1950s, interest in forensic psychology stagnated. Attorneys, judges and juries alike felt that medical witnesses held more authority and expertise as witnesses. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the courts gave support to psychologists serving as mental illness experts in the case of Jenkins v. United States (1962).

Since then, however, forensic psychology has grown exponentially. Graduate numbers in the field have experienced a steady increase, while more and more forensic psychology degree programs are offering dual graduate programs in psychology and law. Forensic psychology was officially recognized by the American Psychology Association as a specialization in 2001.

The media’s role in growth

The media has been a powerful force in the growth and public awareness of forensic psychology. Movies, books, television and even the news have pushed forensic psychology into the popular public discourse. In books, the discipline is usually presented in a more accurate fashion with the intent to education the reader. Other forms of media portray forensic psychology as a thrilling, fast-paced and suspenseful career. This is typically seen in movies and television where the goal is to entertain the audience.

Despite the conflicted and often erroneous portrayal of forensic psychology in the media, the sheer fact that it is present has done much to raise awareness and interest in the field. If you’re interested in finding out more about what forensic psychologists actually do, they are many articles on the web that shine light on the truth about the field.

Key players in forensic psychology

While many psychologists have had a hand in transforming forensic psychology into the diverse and important field it is today, the discipline might not have gotten where it is without these key players. These psychologists and researchers laid the ground work for applying psychology in the legal system.

James McKeen Cattell pioneered the research of the psychology of testimony in the late 1800s. His work laid the foundation for forensic psychology.

Huge Munsterberg is often hailed as the “father of applied psychology”. A German psychologist, his 1908 work On the Witness Stand was seminal in exploring the phenomenon of false memories and why eyewitness testimony was often unreliable.

Alfred Binet’s work in psychology testing served as the basis for many modern assessments used in all areas of the legal system.

William Stern, in collaboration with a contemporary criminologist, studied the level of inaccuracy in eyewitness testimony and expert testimony.

William Marston testified at a trial that sent the precedent and established the standard for expert witnesses.

Lewis Terman revised Binet’s work and developed the Standford-Binet test in 1916 to assess job candidates for law enforcement positions.


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