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Summary: Psychology and Law

Psychologists are involved with the legal system in numerous ways. Forensic psychology is the branch of psychology which deals with criminal investigations.

Forensic psychology became popular with students in the late 1990s during a flurry of media attention to profilers. Books and TV programs presented a glamorized version of people who assembled psychological profiles of criminals still at large.

Real profilers do exist. James Brussel used intuition and common sense to draw up a profile of a "Mad Bomber" in the early 1950s. John Douglas of the FBI used computer analysis of large databases to do the same thing.

Modern profiling is not based on intuition or personality analysis. Correlational methods tell investigators characteristics of criminals have been associated with particular types of crimes in the past.

Psychology can be used during interro­gation of subjects after they have been caught. Psychologists may appear in court as expert witnesses. If so, they can expect to have their credentials, credibility, and testimony challenged.

In past court cases, psychologists have changed outcomes by analyzing transcript of confessions to see if they are in the defendant's own language. They may set up simulations of situations described by witnesses, to see if testimony is credible and consistent with human perceptual abilities.

Psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus are frequently asked to testify about the possible inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony. Loftus appeared in dozens of court cases testifying about false memories and how they occur.

A prison psychologist faces clients who do not generally want psychotherapy. Systematic behavior modification worked well in a Maryland facility called Patuxent, where prisoners received more privileges if they demonstrated good behavior, but this program was ended.

Another technique for low-risk offenders, bonding with animals, worked well to produce positive change. Originally inspired by prisoners' spontaneous care of an injured bird, animal training programs (mostly involving dogs and horses) proved transformative for inmates. Follow-up research showed they greatly reduced the likelihood of re-offending.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


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