Tara L Mitchell
Lock Haven University
Psychology and the Law
What is Psychology and the Law?
Psychology is the study of behavior, thought, feelings, and emotions. Therefore, psychology principles can apply to all aspects of life, including the legal system. The study of psychological issues in the legal system is alternately known as forensic psychology, legal psychology, or psychology and the law. For a review of research on psychology and the law, please click here.
There is currently debate within the field over the best way to designate those people working with psycho-legal issues. Some argue that any psychologist who works on issues related to the legal system should have the designation of forensic psychologist. This means that someone testifying in court regarding eyewitness memory can be considered a forensic psychologist. Others argue that the designation of forensic psychologist should be reserved for those psychologists who perform assessments and evaluations of individuals in the legal system - that is a forensic psychologist is first and foremost a clinical psychologist who has received additional training on dealing with forensic populations. These people argue that those aspects of social, cognitive, or industrial-organizational psychology that influence the legal system (like studies of eyewitness memory) may be better termed legal psychology. They often point to the fact that only those psychologists who are eligible for licensure after obtaining a degree in clinical or counseling psychology are able to conduct court-ordered assessments and evaluations as a reason to differentiate between clinically and experimentally trained psychologists within the legal system. For more information on the differences between clinical and experimental Forensic Psychology, please visit the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Frequently Asked Questions page. For the sake of clarity, I will use the term Forensic Psychology to discuss purely clinical applications of psychology to the law, the term Legal Psychology to discuss purely experimental (non-clinical) applications of psychology to the law, and psychology and the law to refer to the field as a whole.
What organizations are dedicated to applying psychology to the law?
There are several organizations dedicated to the development and understanding of psychology and the law. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) is responsible for the certification of members of several specializations in psychology, including Forensic Psychology. The American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) is the specific branch of the ABPP that deals with Forensic Psychology.
The American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) is dedicated to the understanding of psychology and the law. AP-LS holds annual conferences for the dissemination of research on all aspects of psychology and the law. AP-LS has also been involved in the development of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology, ethical guidelines governing the practice of forensic psychology.
AP-LS is also known as Division 41 of the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA has several other divisions which may be involved in psychology and the law, particularly forensic psychology. Division 13 (Consulting Psychology), Division 18 (Psychology in Public Service), Division 40 (Clinical Neuropsychology), and Division 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice) all involve aspects of psychology and the law.
One growing area of psychology and the law, particularly among legal psychologists, is trial consulting. Trial Consulting involves the use of psychological principles in the development and resolution of legal disputes/trials. The American Society of Trial Consultants is a national organization dedicated to the advancement and understanding of trial consulting. Trial consultants come from a variety of fields, including psychology, marketing, and communications, so the Society is dedicated to serving a diverse set of interests.
Many of these organizations offer student memberships for those undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in becoming involved in psychology and the law. Student memberships come at a reduced price, offer access to several area related journals, and give the student an opportunity to truly understand (and in some cases contribute to) the direction of the field.
Where can I receive training in psychology and the law?
The field of psychology and the law is still in the growing stages. As such, there are relatively few programs dedicated strictly to training in psychology and the law. Those programs fall under two types - Forensic and Legal (sometimes called Experimental Forensic). The AP-LS website provides a list of programs in Forensic Psychology, Legal/Experimental Psychology, and Master's Degree programs. The AP-LS Teaching, Training, and Career Committee has developed a guide to various graduate programs, which can be downloaded in pdf form here.
Many people working in psychology and the law are not officially trained in psychology and law programs. They are trained in traditional clinical, social, or cognitive programs under the advisement of someone conducting psycho-legal research. For example, Dr. Gary Wells works in the Psychology Department at Iowa State University and is a member of the Social Psychology Graduate Program faculty. He conducts research on eyewitness issues. Someone working with him would receive a Ph.D. in Social Psychology, but have experience working on psychology and the law issues. Dr. Kimberly MacLin works in the Psychology Department at University of Northern Iowa and conduct research on various areas of psychology and the law. Someone working with her would receive an M.A. in Psychology (with an emphasis in I/O, applied clinical, or experimental social), but have experience working on psychology and the law issues. There are several individuals working throughout the world as part of clinical and experimental graduate programs, as well as criminal justice programs, who would provide an excellent training in psychology and the law, as part of larger programs. The best way to find out about these people is to read existing research on psychology and the law.
What types of research are conducted by psycho-legal researchers?
There is no limit to the types of research that can be conducted by psycho-legal researchers. Some focus on psychology and employment law, such as research dealing with the Americans with Disabilities Act or sexual harassment laws. Some focus on cognitive psychology and the law, such as eyewitness testimony/memory. Others focus on social psychology and the law, such as group dynamics and jury decision-making. Finally, there is a wide variety of research on clinical psychology and the law, such as competency to stand trial, risk assessment, and custody evaluations. Below are a variety of links to research labs conducting psychology and the law research. The list is by no means exhaustive!
What can I do with a degree in psychology and the law?
There are several career options for people with degrees in psychology and the law, depending on the type of degree obtained.
Lorraine Diviny and Kelly Hemple provide an excellent description of the various options on the Careers in Forensic Psychology page. Matthew Huss has written an article for Psi Chi that describes Forensic Psychology and possible careers.
AP-LS has created a pamphlet on Careers in Psychology and Law (it is a large file, so it may take a few minutes to download). Katherine Killoran has created a references list of Career Resources in the forensic sciences, including forensic psychology. The Northeastern University Psychology Department has also posted a general description on forensic psychology.
One distinction that should be made clear is the difference between forensic psychology and forensic sciences. Forensic psychology deals with the application of psychological principles to the legal system. Forensic sciences deals more with the application of natural science principles (biology, chemistry, physics, etc) to the legal system. A brief description of these differences can be found here.
What other resources are available to me if I am interested in psychology and the law?
Below is a variety of links that may be of interest to people looking into psychology and the law.
Swenson's Forensic Psychology Page (many of the links are broken, but gives information on forensic psychology practice)