Forensic Psychology: Myths and Realities

by Fabiola Fleuranvil, for GradSchools.com, April 2014


The popularity of crime scene investigation television shows like CSI, Bones, and Law and Order has brought more awareness into the profession of a forensic psychologist. It has also created misrepresentations of the professions and myths about what these professionals actually do and how their roles in criminal and court cases assist both the defendant and plaintiff. In the movies, the role of the forensic psychologist seems exciting and fascinating and is often depicted as probing and investigating criminals to reveal incriminating evidence that would solve the case.

In reality, the role of these professionals is sometimes less exciting than as seen on TV and actually often requires tedious work and analysis sifting through mounds of research and data and extensive psychoanalysis of the individuals on trial. While the role of forensic psychologists may often mirror the images portrayed on TV, the myths of what they actually do and can often be misleading.

Myth:

Forensic psychologists only work on murder cases.

Reality:

The truth is that while forensic psychologists are often called on criminal cases, their work is more about providing psychological evaluation on the mental health of an individual involved in a court case whether for the defense or plaintiff team. In fact, they can be called to provide analysis and testimony on criminal, civil, and domestic cases. In criminal cases, these experts may be asked to evaluate a defendant to determine if he is fit to stand trial or if the defense claim of insanity can be upheld or not. In civil cases, the forensic psychologist may be called to evaluate anxiety and depression while in domestic cases they may have to evaluate whether or not a parent is fit in a child custody case. While providing key information on murder cases can help shape the outcome, their work goes far beyond providing expertise on murders.

Myth:

Forensic psychologists are crime solvers.

Reality:

Although forensic psychologists are usually depicted evaluating evidence and being questioned on the witness stand, the reality is that they are not crime solvers. That role is left to the law enforcement professionals while the attorneys reveal evidence in the case to support their defense. Forensic psychologists are actually clinical psychologists called on to evaluate the psychological state of an individual though they have a legal understanding that allows them to evaluate and analyze within a legal framework.

Myth:

Forensic psychologists interrogate suspects.

Reality:

The job of a forensic psychologist often requires psychoanalyzing not only suspects in a criminal case but also witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants in civil and domestic cases. Often times, the psychologist isn’t interrogating a suspect but instead is attempting to understand the mental state of the individual, which does require a series of questioning that may often appear to be investigative.

Myth:

Forensic psychologists work on the plaintiff’s side.

Reality:

The truth is that the forensic psychologists does not take sides and is brought on to provide unbiased expert testimony and analysis regardless of which side of the case the testimony benefits. This myth is brought on by the image on TV about the psychologist bringing evidence that ends up putting away the bad guy.

Myth:

Forensic psychologists only work on court cases.

Reality:

Television shows usually only depict one aspect on the profession and that is usually working on court cases, but the reality is that these professionals work in a number of environments. Typical work environments can include a mental health facility or correctional facilities providing rehabilitation services. They can also work for family courts as guardian ad litems representing the best interests of children.

A career in forensic psychology presents many career opportunities and work environments and may be a rewarding job. Having a good understanding of the profession and the important role that forensic psychologists play in court cases as well as in civil and domestic cases helps to navigate the types of career paths one might pursue within the profession. The key thing to remember is that forensic psychologists are clinical psychologists with specialized legal training that allows them to transfer their expertise on court cases.

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