What Is Forensic Psychology?

by: David A Webb

When my students arrived for their first lecture, I would always start by giving them 10 minutes to write down an answer to this question.

Before reading on, why not quickly write down what you think forensic psychology is.

The reason I did this was because despite the fact that every single undergraduate psychology student (about 180 of them) chose to do the forensic psychology course form a list of optional courses; not one of them came to see me in advance to ask what the course was about.

Now bear in mind students chose their optional courses well in advance of the start date, and in order to make an informed choice they were all strongly advised to speak to the lecturer running the courses they were interested in before making a final decision.

So why the no show?

I suspect, actually I know because I discussed it with the students afterwards, that they didn't feel they had to find out what forensic psychology is, because they already had a preconceived idea.

I mentioned that at the start of the first lecture I would give students 10 minutes to write down an answer to the question what is forensic psychology.

What I didn't mention, however, is that after about 2 minutes I would ask for their attention and apologise for forgetting to tell them that they weren't allowed to use the words serial killers or silence of the lambs in their answer. It was usually as this point that most of the writing in the lecture theatre stopped.

If you're thinking I would have stopped writing as well, please contain your disappointment and don't rush off just yet. The answer to the question, what is forensic psychology may not quite be what you thought, but that doesn't mean that the subject has to be any less engaging.

The first thing to appreciate when addressing the question is that even psychologists in the field are divided as to what the answer is.

The division of criminological and legal psychology within the British Psychological Society argued for twenty years as to whether their members should be entitled to call themselves Chartered Forensic Psychologists. It was finally agreed that they should, however, there still remains a great deal of debate and controversy surrounding the issue.

The central problem is that its members are drawn from a wide range of disciplines, so it is always difficult to state what the boundaries are when you talk of Forensic Psychology.

A fragmented discipline?

Psychologists in the prison/correctional services.

Clinical psychologists in special hospitals & the psychiatric services.

Educational psychologists

Occupational psychologists


Now while it is important to acknowledge that this fragmentation of role exists, it is just as important to realise that these different groups are linked to forensic psychology because their work, expert knowledge or research activity is somehow connected with the law.

This legal connection makes perfect sense when you consider that the word forensic comes from the Latin forensis, which literally means appertaining to the forum, specifically the imperial court of Rome. So in essence:

The debate as to what is and what isnít forensic psychology rests primarily on the nature of psychologyís relationship with the legal system.

Let me give you an example, imagine 2 clinical psychologists meet at a conference and they begin talking about the work they do.

The first psychologist tells the second that she recently gave expert testimony in court arguing that the defendant in a murder case was criminally insane; the judge and jury agreed and having been found guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility the defendant was going to be sent to a secure psychiatric unit.

Now thereís a coincidence the second psychologist says I work in the unit where they're sending him, so Iíll be dealing and treating this guy when he arrives.

So here you have a situation where 2 psychologists are linked to the legal system by way of a legal decision and you could argue, therefore, that both deserve to be seen as engaging in Forensic Psychology. However, thereís a crucial difference.

The first psychologist actually helped inform the legal decision based on her psychological knowledge and expertise. The second psychologists' involvement on the other hand arose as a consequence of a legal decision that she had no direct influence over.

My preferred forensic psychology definition acknowledges this key distinction, namely:

That branch of applied psychology which is concerned with the collection, examination and presentation of evidence for judicial purposesí (Haward 1981).

If you adopt this definition you are stating categorically that Forensic Psychology relates to:

The provision of psychological information for the purpose of facilitating a legal decision (Blackburn 1996).

So in the case of our two psychologists, strictly speaking only the first can be said to be engaged in Forensic Psychology.

Not everybody would agree with this, because there is a school of thought that would claim that any activity that links psychology to the law deserves to be described as Forensic. Iím not going to try and convince you which is right, although I do have a strong opinion on the mater; the main thing is that you
know that this debate exists.


In answering the question, what is forensic psychology we have discovered that:

In essence, forensic psychology refers to the application of psychology within a legal context.

The debate as to what is & what is not forensic psychology relates to the nature of this legal application & the level at which it is applied.

And this debate raises a number of questions that you need to think about. In particular:

The boundaries of forensic psychology?

The role of the forensic psychologist?

The credibility of forensic psychology

If you'd like to find out more about forensic psychology, you can do so by visiting my website http://www.all-about-forensic-psychology.com/

Having worked as a lecturer in psychology in the UK, I recently moved to sunny Spain with my family, where I now work as a distance learning tutor and research dissertation supervisor.

Since 2000, I've been involved in collaborative research with teams of forensic scientists in the UK, US and Canada.

Keep up-to-date with the world of forensic psychology by reading the forensic psychology blog. This regularly updated blog addresses the most common issues and questions raised by those thinking of or currently studying and working in the field. Among the topics covered are career and study options, forensic job opportunites, conference listings, internships, forensic research and psychological research methods.