The Use of Forensic Psychology in Solving Heinous Crimes

Television fads may come and go, but there’s one constant: the popularity of shows that focus on solving crimes. That’s been true as far back as “Dragnet” in the 1950s. It’s especially the case now that people can stream current and past shows on demand.  

Many shows operate as police procedurals, following detectives as they put the legwork in to catch criminals. Others place viewers in the midst of courtroom drama as legal teams prosecute and defend criminals (or, in the case of the long-running “Law & Order” and its many spinoffs, it’s both). People can’t get enough of watching detectives and legal teams piece together a puzzle – or seeing justice served to criminals. 

A more recent approach in crime-solving shows involves showcasing the efforts of forensic psychologists, such as Tara Lewis (portrayed by Aisha Tyler) in “Criminal Minds.” It’s a relatively new addition to both television shows and the psychology profession itself. 

While not as dramatic as what happens in the “Criminal Minds” episode, forensic psychology offers psychologists a fascinating career to pursue. It’s an increasingly popular choice for those who enroll in a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program.  

What Is Forensic Psychology? 

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines forensic psychology as “the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena.” Forensic psychologists work with law professionals, including attorneys and judges, to bring a better understanding of multi-faceted and often complex psychological issues into legal cases. 

Forensic psychologists apply ideas, research, and tools from their field to the criminal justice system. They may participate in investigations, helping detectives better understand the person they are pursuing. They may also assess criminals, testify in court, conduct psychological research related to the legal system, and design intervention programs. 

Work done by psychologists can also impact how legal professionals view testimony. For example, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted many studies on the misinformation effect, a situation where a person’s memory is altered because of post-event information. And Stephen Ceci has done important research on the accuracy of children’s testimony. 

Forensic Psychology Jobs 

Forensic psychologists use their skills to aid the judicial system in both civil and criminal cases. They often advise legal teams and may provide expert testimony in the courtroom. They may also use crime scene evidence to create a suspect profile. They work at prisons, mental health facilities, universities, private research companies, and nonprofit think tanks. 

Job titles in the field include correctional counselors who work with prison inmates, jury consultants who help legal teams select jurors, and professors who teach at the university level. They may also specialize as criminal profilers in agencies such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (made famous by the character Clarice Starling, a trainee in the unit played by Jodie Foster in the film “Silence of the Lambs”). 

While salaries can vary by employer, location, and job duties, PayScale reports the average pay for forensic psychologists as $72,727. 

Forensic Psychologists and Real World Cases 

Unlike television shows, most forensic psychologists work on research, not in the field. However, forensic psychologists have played key roles in many high-profile cases.  

Two of the best-known examples involve a pair of notorious serial killers. Psychologists helped build the profile of serial killer Ted Bundy, helping law enforcement eventually capture him in the 1970s. 

Psychologists also helped to debunk the defense team’s claim in the John Wayne Gacy case that the serial killer (who famously worked as a clown) had multiple personality disorders. The defense wanted the court to find Gacy too insane to stand trial, but the psychologists helped show his crimes were premeditated. Gacy eventually stood trial, and a jury found him guilty on 33 charges of murder. 

Touro University Worldwide’s Psychology Programs 

In addition to an online BA in Psychology with a concentration on forensic psychology, Touro University Worldwide also offers an online Master of Science in Forensic Psychology. Both 100% online programs offer students the flexibility they need to earn a degree in this exciting field of psychology on a schedule that suits their needs. 

The online BA in Psychology aligns with guidelines and goals from the APA for undergraduate learning outcomes. Topics covered include learning psychology, developmental psychology, experimental psychology, social psychology, and abnormal psychology. The program gives students a strong foundation to take with them into a graduate program. 

The 36-credit MS in Forensic Psychology provides aspiring forensic psychologists with the knowledge and skills they need to work in a variety of settings in the criminal justice system. No residency or GRE is required for the program, which full-time students can finish in about a year. 

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