Researching Psychological Matters

In addition to researching the legal system and its functioning, psychologists conduct research on a multitude of psychological factors or phenomena that are of particular interest to the legal system. Some of these areas of inquiry are discussed next.

Researching Psychological Phenomena

Some psychological phenomena are of particular interest to the legal system given their nature, and research psychologists have made considerable contributions in these areas. Because identification of the accused by eyewitnesses is integral to many convictions (and responsible for a significant number of wrongful convictions), understanding how (in)accurate eyewitnesses are and what factors may affect their recollections is highly important. Not surprisingly, a voluminous literature examines this issue, most of which has been produced by experimental and social psychologists (see Wells & Loftus, 2012, for a concise summary). Similarly, factors associated with increased suggestiblilty of child witnesses and strategies that can be employed to increase accuracy of their accounts are of great import to the legal system. In response, research psychologists (typically developmental psychologists) have made great contributions in this area as well (see, e.g., Bottoms, Najdowksi, & Goodman, 2009; Ceci & Bruck, 1999; Kuehnle & Connell, 2009).

Researching Psychological MattersAs a final example, psychopathy—defined as a “constellation of affective, interpersonal and behavioral characteristics, including egocentricity, impulsivity, irresponsibility, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse; pathological lying; manipulativeness; and the persistent violation of social norms and expectations”—is of particular interest to the legal system, given the high rates of persistent offending displayed by persons with this disorder (Cleckley, 1941; Hare, 1998, p. 188). A great deal of research literature has been compiled by clinical and experimental psychologists examining the causes, correlates, manifestations, assessment, and treatment of psychopathy. (For summaries of work in this area, see Millon, Simonsen, Birket-Smith, & Davis, 1998; Patrick, 2007.)

Researching Psycholegal Constructs and Their Assessment

Many legal issues involve matters of psychology (e.g., whether a defendant’s intellectual limitations affect his ability to understand and participate in the legal process; if and how a person’s cognitive functioning affects her ability to execute a will; whether the psychiatric symptoms experienced by a person limit his ability to make a decision about consenting to or refusing treatment; whether psychiatric symptoms a defendant was experiencing at the time of the offense impaired her in such a way that she should not be held criminally responsible). These are typically referred to as psycholegal capacities (Grisso, 1986, 2003). Understanding the nature of these psycholegal capacities is important to both the legal system and the mental health professionals who may be called on to assess persons when such capacities are at issue. In addition, psychologists researching these matters (most of whom are clinical psychologists) have devoted considerable efforts to defining the nature of these capacities (see, e.g., the work of Grisso & Appelbaum, 1998, examining the psycholegal construct of capacity to consent to treatment consent or the work of Poythress, Monahan, Bonnie, Otto, & Hoge, 2002, examining the psycholegal construct of trial competence).

When evaluating psycholegal capacities, psychologists employ a variety of tools and techniques, some of which are used in more traditional settings that psychologists work in and some of which have been developed for use in forensic settings. These assessment tasks are either descriptive (insofar as they require the psychologist to describe the examinee’s emotional, behavioral, or cognitive functioning at some point in time as it relates to some issue before the court, such as how psychiatric symptoms experienced by the defendant affect his or her understanding of and ability to participate in the legal process) or predictive (insofar as they require that the psychologist assess the likelihood that the examinee will engage in some behavior in the future, such as the risk that the inmate will reoffend violently if paroled to the community).

Integral to understanding the potential value and accuracy of such evaluations is research that operationalizes these psycholegal capacities and examines the utility of various techniques and instruments that are designed to assess them (Douglas, Otto, Desmarais, & Borum, 2012). Only if research findings indicating that psychologists have some special abilities in understanding these issues are (1) psychologists justified as entering the courts as “experts” and (2) the courts justified in hearing psychologists’ testimony. Thus, psychologists conduct research examining the utility of various assessment tools and approaches that have been developed to describe psycholegal constructs or inform predictions of behaviors of interest. (For summaries of research examining assessment of defendants’ competence to proceed with the legal process, see, e.g., Stafford & Sellbom, 2012; Zapf & Roesch, 2010)

Another common forensic evaluation task involves prediction. Predictive evaluations require the psychologist to comment on the likelihood of some future event (e.g., the risk that the examinee will engage in violent or criminal behavior in the near future). In an attempt to identify the causes of violent behavior (with an eye toward preventing such behavior), a psychologist might investigate its emotional, behavioral, and cognitive correlates and the efficacy of various treatments and interventions. Alternatively, psychologists might conduct research examining the accuracy of a test or tool that has been designed to inform mental health professionals’ judgments about such risk. (For summaries of research examining violence risk assessment, Monahan, 2012; and Otto & Douglas, 2010.) In both cases, the psychologist is conducting research relevant to an important issue of concern to courts: competence to stand trial or violence risk assessment and intervention.

Return to overview of What is Forensic Psychology.