Criminal psychology

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Criminal psychology, also referred to as criminological psychology, is the study of the views, thoughts, intentions, actions and reactions of criminals and all who participate in criminal behavior. [1] [2]


Criminal psychology is related to the field of criminal anthropology. The study goes deeply into what makes someone commit a crime, but also the reactions after the crime. Criminal psychologists have many roles within the court systems, these include being called up as witnesses in court cases to help the jury understand the mind of the criminal. Some types of psychiatry also deal with aspects of criminal behavior. Criminal behavior can be stated as “Any kind of antisocial behavior, which is punishable usually by law but can be punished by norms, stated by community,”. Therefore, it is difficult to define criminal behavior as there is a fine line between what could be considered okay and what's considered not to be, being considered as violation at one point of time may now be accepted by community. [3] This article will look at the different roles of a criminal psychologist, key aspects of criminals, and major studies that contributed to criminal psychology.

Psychologists are licensed professionals that can assess both mental and physical states. Profilers look for patterns in behavior to link the individual(s) behind a crime. A group effort attempts to answer the most common psychological questions: If there is a risk of a sexual predator re-offending if put back in society; if an offender is competent to stand trial; whether or not an offender was sane/insane at the time of the offense.

Criminal psychologists can be used to do investigative work, like examine photographs of a crime, or conduct an interview with a suspect. They sometimes have to formulate a hypothesis, in order to assess what an offender is going to do next, after they have broken the law. [4]

The question of competency to stand trial is a question of an offender's current state of mind. This assesses the offender's ability to understand the charges against them, the possible outcomes of being convicted/acquitted of these charges and their ability to assist their attorney with their defense. The question of sanity/insanity or criminal responsibility is an assessment of the offender's state of mind at the time of the crime. This refers to their ability to understand right from wrong and what is against the law. The insanity defense is rarely used, as it is very difficult to prove. If declared insane, an offender is committed to a secure hospital facility for much longer than they would have served in prison. [5]

Criminal psychology is also related to legal psychology and forensic psychology. and crime investigations


A major part of criminal psychology, known as criminal profiling, began in the 1940s. The United States Office of Strategic Services asked William L. Langer's brother Walter C. Langer, a well renowned psychiatrist, to draw up a profile of Adolf Hitler. After the Second World War, British psychologist Lionel Haward, while working for the Royal Air Force police, drew up a list of characteristics which high-ranking war criminals might display. These characteristics helped to spot high-ranking war criminals amongst ordinary captured soldiers and airmen.

A renowned Italian psychologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was thought to be one of the first criminologists to attempt to formally classify criminals based on age, gender, physical characteristics, education, and geographic region. When comparing these similar characteristics, he better understood the origin of motivation of criminal behavior, and in 1876, he published his book called The Criminal Man. Lombroso studied 383 Italian inmates. Based on his studies, he suggested that there were three types of criminals. There were born criminals, who were degenerates and insane criminals, who suffered from a mental illness. Also, he studied and found specific physical characteristics. A few examples included asymmetry of the face, eye defects and peculiarities, and ears of unusual size, etc. [1]

In the 1950s, US psychiatrist James A. Brussel drew up what turned to be an uncannily accurate profile of a bomber who had been terrorizing New York City. [6]

It was first introduced, to the FBI in the 1960s when several classes were taught to the American Society of crime lab directors. Most of the public at that time knew little if not anything about how profilers would profile people until TV came into play. Later films based on the fictional works of author Thomas Harris that caught the public eye as a profession in particular Manhunter (1986) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The fastest development occurred when the FBI opened its training academy, the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), in Quantico, Virginia. It led to the establishment of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime [7] and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.

In the United Kingdom, Professor David Canter was a pioneer helping to guide police detectives from the mid-1980s to an offender who had carried out a series of serious attacks, but Canter saw the limitations of "offender profiling" - in particular, the subjective, personal opinion of a psychologist. He and a colleague coined the term investigative psychology and began trying to approach the subject from what they saw as a more scientific point of view. [8]

Criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling, is the process of linking an offender's actions at the crime scene to their most likely characteristics. This is used to help police investigators narrow down and prioritize a pool of most likely suspects. Profiling is a relatively new area of forensic psychology that during the past 20 years has developed from what used to be described as an art to a rigorous science. Part of a sub-field of forensic psychology called investigative psychology, criminal profiling is based on increasingly rigorous methodological advances and empirical research. [9]

Criminal profiling is a process now known in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as criminal investigative analysis. Profilers, or criminal investigative analysts, are trained and experienced law enforcement officers who study every behavioral aspect and detail of an unsolved violent crime scene in which a certain amount of psychopathology has been left at the scene. The characteristics of a good profiler are discussed. Five behavioral characteristics that can be gleaned from the crime scene are described:

  1. amount of planning that went into the crime,
  2. degree of control used by the offender,
  3. escalation of emotion at the scene,
  4. risk level of both the offender and victim, and
  5. appearance of the crime scene (disorganized versus organized).

The process of interpreting the behavior observed at a crime scene is briefly discussed. [10]

Criminal psychologists also have to consider profiling through the lens of racial inequality. Race continues to be a major factor in the American criminal justice system. Over the years, federal and state prisons in the United States held 475,900 inmates who were black and 436,500 who were white, giving a difference of 39,400. [11] Negative stereotypes, which often portray Blacks as born criminals, contributes heavily to the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks. A persistent stereotype in American society, it has served as a justification for the unofficial policies and practices of racial profiling by criminal justice practitioners. [12] Many modern psychologists disregard these outdated stereotypes, as race itself doesn't make an individual violent or a threat to society. The cultural, environmental and traditional concepts of communities play a major role in individual psychology, providing profilers with a potential basis for behavioral patterns learned by offenders during their upbringing. [13] They also evaluate if prison is a stable place for particular criminals, as some commit crimes due to mental health issues that have never been adequately addressed. There are many individual factors criminal psychologist will have to evaluate during their investigations, in order to piece together a thorough profile that serves both the legal requirements and provides a more humane perspective.

The four roles of criminal psychologists

In 1981, one of the fathers of UK's criminal psychology – Professor Lionel Haward – described four ways that psychologist may perform upon being professionally involved in criminal proceedings. These four ways include: [14]

Clinical: In this situation, the psychologist is involved in assessment of an individual in order to provide a clinical judgment. The psychologist can use assessment tools, interview or psychometric tools in order to aid in their assessment. These assessments can help police and other comparable organizations to determine how to process the individual in question. For example, the psychologist helps to find out whether the individual is capable to stand trial, or whether the individual has a mental illness that relates to whether they are able to understand the proceedings.

Experimental: In this case, the task of the psychologist is to perform research in order to inform a case. This can involve executing experimental tests for the purposes of illustrating a point or providing further information to courts. This may involve false memory, [15] eyewitness credibility experiments, and more. For example, this way involves questions similar to “how likely would a witness see an object in 100 meters?” that could be answered.

Actuarial: This role involves usage of statistics in order to inform a case. A psychologist may be asked to provide the probability of an event occurring. For example, the courts may ask how likely it is that a person will reoffend if a sentence is declined.

Advisory: Here, a psychologist may advise police about how to proceed with the investigation. For example, psychologists help to determine the best way to interview the individual, the best way to cross-examine a vulnerable or another expert witness, and how an offender will act after committing the offense. [16]

Education and Career in Criminal Psychology

When pursuing a career in criminal psychology you first need a bachelor's degree in psychology and then a master's degree in a related field. While a master's degree is typically where people stop in their education, it may not get you the ideal job or pay that you desire. Typically you will also need a doctorate degree as well, either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. In addition to your degrees, you will need to take your licensing exam required by your state or jurisdiction. [17]  When pursuing any kind of doctorate degree, it can take about five to seven years to achieve and includes various means of educational training such as classroom work, practical training, research, and a dissertation or thesis.

If you wish to pursue a career as a criminal profiler, you will also need a master's degree or a doctorate and many years of experience. [18] After passing your examinations for your state you can become a licensed psychologist.

Criminal profilers can work in various settings including offices and courtrooms and can be employed at a number of institutions. Some include local, state, or federal government, and others can be self-employed as independent consultants.

Depending on your desired field in psychology, average salary can be around $80,370 a year but criminal psychologist are paid on a different scale than other types of psychologist. [19] Some of the top paying states for forensic psychologists are New Hampshire, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, and California. [20]

Forensic psychology careers are continuing to close the gap between psychology and the criminal justice system. Job opportunities include... [20]

  1. Correctional counselor
  2. Jury consultant
  3. Forensic social worker
  4. Expert witness
  5. Forensic psychology professor
  6. Forensic psychology researcher
  7. Forensic case manager
  8. Criminal profiler
  9. Forensic psychologist
  10. Correctional psychologist

Applied criminal psychology

The effect of psychological and social factors on the functioning of our brain is the central question that forensic or criminal psychologists deal with, due to the fact it is the seed of all our actions. For forensic psychiatry, the main question is 'Which patient becomes an offender?', or 'Which offender becomes a patient?'. Another main question asked by these psychiatrists is, 'What came first, the crime or the mental disorder?'. Psychologists look at environmental factors along with genetics to determine the likeliness (Profiling) of a particular person to commit a crime.

Criminal and forensic psychologists may also consider the following questions:

  1. Is a mental disorder present now? Was it present during the time of the crime?
  2. What is the level of responsibility of the offender for the crime?
  3. What is the risk of reoffending and which risk factors are involved?
  4. Is treatment possible to reduce the risk of reoffending?

Accordingly, individual psychiatric evaluations are resorted to measuring personality traits by psychological testing that have good validity for the purpose of the court. [5]

Key studies

A number of key studies of psychology especially relevant to understanding criminal psychology have been undertaken, these include: [21] [22]

See also

Related Research Articles

Applied psychology Application of psychological theories or findings

Applied psychology is the use of psychological methods and findings of scientific psychology to solve practical problems of human and animal behavior and experience. Mental health, organizational psychology, business management, education, health, product design, ergonomics, and law are just a few of the areas that have been influenced by the application of psychological principles and findings. Some of the areas of applied psychology include clinical psychology, counseling psychology, evolutionary psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, legal psychology, neuropsychology, occupational health psychology, human factors, forensic psychology, engineering psychology, school psychology, sports psychology, traffic psychology, community psychology, and medical psychology. In addition, a number of specialized areas in the general field of psychology have applied branches. However, the lines between sub-branch specializations and major applied psychology categories are often blurred. For example, a human factors psychologist might use a cognitive psychology theory. This could be described as human factor psychology or as applied cognitive psychology.

Forensic psychology using psychological science to help answer legal questions

Forensic psychology, a subfield of psychology, involves the application of psychological knowledge and methods to both civil and criminal legal questions. Traditionally, it has a broad definition as well as a narrow definition. The broader classification states that forensic psychology involves the application of all psychological areas of research to the legal field, while the narrower definition characterizes forensic psychology as “The application of clinical specialties to legal institutions and people who come into contact with the law.” While the American Psychological Association (APA) officially recognized forensic psychology as a specialty under the narrower definition in 2001, the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists were revised in 2013 and now include all subfields of psychology that apply "the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law."

Geographic profiling is a criminal investigative methodology that analyzes the locations of a connected series of crimes to determine the most probable area of offender residence. By incorporating both qualitative and quantitative methods, it assists in understanding spatial behaviour of an offender and focusing the investigation to a smaller area of the community. Typically used in cases of serial murder or rape, the technique helps police detectives prioritize information in large-scale major crime investigations that often involve hundreds or thousands of suspects and tips.

Legal psychology

Together, legal psychology and forensic psychology form the field more generally recognized as "psychology and law". Following earlier efforts by psychologists to address legal issues, psychology and law became a field of study in the 1960s as part of an effort to enhance justice, though that originating concern has lessened over time. The multidisciplinary American Psychological Association's Division 41, the American Psychology-Law Society, is active with the goal of promoting the contributions of psychology to the understanding of law and legal systems through research, as well as providing education to psychologists in legal issues and providing education to legal personnel on psychological issues. Further, its mandate is to inform the psychological and legal communities and the public at large of current research, educational, and service in the area of psychology and law. There are similar societies in Britain and Europe.

The Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) is a department of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) that uses behavioral analysts to assist in criminal investigations. The mission of the NCAVC and the BAU is to provide behavioral based investigative and/or operational support by applying case experience, research, and training to complex and time-sensitive crimes, typically involving acts or threats of violence.

Offender profiling Law enforcement investigative technique

Offender profiling, also known as criminal profiling, is an investigative strategy used by law enforcement agencies to identify likely suspects and has been used by investigators to link cases that may have been committed by the same perpetrator. Multiple crimes may be linked to a specific offender and the profile may be used to predict the identified offender's future actions. In the 1980s, most researchers believed offender profiling was relevant only to sex crimes, like serial rape or sexual homicide, but since the late 1990s research has been published to support its application to arson (1998), and then later terrorism (2000) and burglary (2017).

Investigative psychology

In applied psychology, investigative psychology attempts to describe the actions of offenders and develop an understanding of crime. This understanding can then help solve crimes and contribute to prosecution and defense procedures. It brings together issues in the retrieval of investigative information, the drawing of inferences about that information and the ways in which police decision making can be supported through various systems derived from scientific research. It should not be confused with profiling which grew out of the experience of police officers offering opinions to their colleagues about the possible characteristics of unknown offenders.

The FBI method of profiling is a system created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used to detect and classify the major personality and behavioral characteristics of an individual based upon analysis of the crime or crimes the person committed. One of the first American profilers was FBI agent John E. Douglas, who was also instrumental in developing the behavioral science method of law enforcement.

Patrick Joseph Mullany was an American Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent and instructor at the FBI Academy. He is best known for pioneering the FBI's offender profiling in the 1970s and 1980s with fellow FBI instructor Howard Teten. Mullany received a master's degree in psychology and counseling from Manhattan College. He began working for the FBI in the mid-1960s. His primary position in the FBI was in the Behavioral Analysis Unit, where he embarked on his work in offender profiling. Mullany applied methods to analyze possible patterns of behavior and traits common in certain types of criminals. In doing this, the FBI can attempt to narrow down suspects and predict future likelihood of offending.

David Victor Canter is a psychologist. He began his career as an architectural psychologist studying the interactions between people and buildings, publishing and providing consultancy on the designs of offices, schools, prisons, housing and other building forms as well as exploring how people made sense of the large scale environment, notably cities. He set up the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 1980. His work in architecture led to studies of human reactions in fires and other emergencies. He wrote about investigative psychology in Britain. He helped police in 1985 on the Railway Rapist case. He was the professor of psychology at the University of Surrey for ten years, where he developed investigative psychology described in detail in Investigative Psychology: Offender Profiling and the Analysis of Criminal Action and a course curriculum. He set up and was director of the Centre For Investigative Psychology, which is based at the University of Liverpool. From 2009 he was at the University of Huddersfield, where he directed the International Research Centre in Investigative Psychology. He retired from there in 2018. He is emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool and continues to publish in environmental and crime/forensic psychology.

Howard Duane Teten was a Federal Bureau of Investigations instructor at the FBI Academy. While in the FBI worked in criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling with the help of Patrick Mullany. Teten and Mullany used this tool to attempt to solve cases where the perpetrator was not known. Teten joined the FBI in 1962 where he eventually became a teacher. From the classes that Teten and Mullany taught at the FBI academy, they helped form the Behavioral Health Science Unit and offender profiling, which is still used today.

Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits. Different conceptions of psychopathy have been used throughout history that are only partly overlapping and may sometimes be contradictory.

Psychopathy Checklist Psychopathy scale

The Psychopathy Checklist or Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, now the Psychopathy Checklist—revised (PCL-R), is a psychological assessment tool most commonly used to assess the presence of psychopathy in individuals—most often those institutionalized in the criminal justice system—and to differentiate them from those suffering from antisocial personality disorder, a similar but distinct illness. It is a 20-item inventory of perceived personality traits and recorded behaviors, intended to be completed on the basis of a semi-structured interview along with a review of 'collateral information' such as official records.

Police psychology, also referred to as "police and public safety psychology," was formally recognized in 2013 by the American Psychological Association as a specialty in professional psychology. The goal of police psychology is to ensure law enforcement is able to perform their jobs safely, effectively, ethically, and lawfully.

Forensic psychotherapy Application of physiological knowledge to treat patients who committed violent acts against themselves or others. This form of treatment gives an opportunity for the therapist to understand the thoughts of his patient

Forensic psychotherapy is the application of psychological knowledge to the treatment of offender-patients who commit violent acts against themselves or others. This form of treatment allows for a therapist to potentially understand the offender and their mental state. It gives the individual providing treatment the opportunity to examine further whether the offender’s criminal behavior was a conscious act or not, what exactly their association with violent behavior is, and what possible motives could have driven them. The discipline of forensic psychotherapy is one that requires the involvement of individuals other than simply the therapist and patient. A therapist may collaborate with other professionals, such as physicians, social workers, and other psychologists in order to best serve the offenders’ needs. Whether the treatment is successful or not relies on a multitude of things, but typically ensuring that a systemic approach is taken and that all involved in the treatment process are well informed and supportive has proven to be the most effective. In addition to group work, forensic psychotherapy may also involve therapeutic communities, individual interaction with victims as well as offenders, and family work. In order for this specialized therapy to be as effective as possible, it demands the compliance of not only the patient and therapist, but of the rest of society as well. The main focus of forensic psychotherapy is to obtain a psychodynamic understanding of the offender in order to attempt to provide them with an effective form of treatment. Guidelines have been set to ensure proficiency in the field of Forensic Psychology.

Behavioral Science Unit

The Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) is the original name of a unit within the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Training Division at Quantico, Virginia, formed in response to the rise of sexual assault and homicide in the 1970s. The unit was usurped by the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) and renamed the Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit (BRIU) and currently is called the Behavioral Analysis Unit (5) (BAU-5) within the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC). The BAU-5 currently works on developing research and then using the evidence-based results to provide training and improve consultation in the behavioral sciences—understanding who criminals are, how they think, why they do what they do—for the FBI and law enforcement communities.

Forensic profiling

Forensic profiling is the study of trace evidence in order to develop information which can be used by police authorities. This information can be used to identify suspects and convict them in a court of law.

Subfields of psychology

Psychology encompasses a vast domain, and includes many different approaches to the study of mental processes and behavior. Below are the major areas of inquiry that taken together constitute psychology. A comprehensive list of the sub-fields and areas within psychology can be found at the list of psychology topics and list of psychology disciplines.

Michael C. Seto

Michael Chikong Seto is a Canadian forensic psychologist, sexologist, and author. He is director of Forensic Rehabilitation Research at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, where he says his research focuses on pedophilia, sexual offenses committed against children, child pornography, risk assessment, offenders with mental disorders, psychopathy, and program evaluation.

Karen Franklin American forensic psychologist

Karen Franklin is an American forensic psychologist. For her doctoral dissertation, she conducted research on anti-gay violence. She has also published commentaries about sex crimes, primarily expressing her opposition to the use of the hebephilia and other diagnoses in sexually violent predator regulations. She received the 2012 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award in Psychology and the Monette-Horwitz Trust Award in 2001.


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