History of Forensic Psychology




Forensic psychology has evolved significantly in the early years of the 21st century. It gained official recognition as a specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2001 and was reaffirmed in 2008. The field’s growth was further facilitated by the adoption of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists in 1991 by the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of APA), followed by their revision and acceptance as the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology by the APA Council of Representatives in 2013. These guidelines reflect a broad perspective on forensic psychology, expanding its scope beyond its initial clinical focus to encompass a wide range of contexts where psychology provides expertise to the legal system (APA, 2013; Committee, 1991).

It’s noteworthy that forensic psychology’s scope wasn’t always so expansive. Initially, some psychologists defined it narrowly, primarily as clinical psychologists involved in clinical practice within the legal system. This perspective began to broaden over time. According to Ronald Roesch (cited in Brigham, 1999), the prevailing view among psychologists was quite narrow. However, in subsequent years, the definition of forensic psychology began to evolve, with some acknowledging that it encompassed both psychologists who bring scientific information to the courts and those who evaluate individuals and testify about them in reference to legal questions (Brigham & Grisso, 2003).

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The APA’s official recognition of forensic psychology as a specialty in 2001 initially adopted a relatively narrow focus, emphasizing “the primarily clinical aspects of forensic assessment, treatment, and consultation” (Otto & Heilbrun, 2002). However, as evidenced by the broader perspective of the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology, the field has continued to evolve and expand its boundaries. This evolution reflects the dynamic nature of forensic psychology, which encompasses a wide array of roles and contributions to the legal system, ultimately contributing to its continued growth and relevance.

History of Forensic Psychology

In this section, forensic psychology is conceived in a broad sense, encompassing two key dimensions:

  1. Research Endeavor: Forensic psychology involves the research aspect, where it delves into various aspects of human behavior directly relevant to the legal process. This research encompasses a wide range of topics, including but not limited to eyewitness memory and testimony, jury decision making, and criminal behavior. It seeks to generate psychological knowledge that has direct implications for the legal system.
  2. Professional Practice: Forensic psychology also entails the professional practice of psychology within or in consultation with the legal system. This practice spans both criminal and civil law, addressing the numerous points of intersection between them. The term “forensic psychology” broadly refers to the application of psychological expertise to contribute to the functioning of the civil and criminal justice systems. It encompasses a diverse array of activities, such as providing courtroom testimony, conducting child custody evaluations, screening law enforcement candidates, treating offenders in correctional facilities, assessing individuals with disability claims, conducting research and theory-building related to criminal behavior, and designing and implementing intervention and prevention programs for youthful offenders.

The subsequent sections of this document delve into various aspects of forensic psychology, offering an exploration of seminal contributions and developments in four major areas: legal psychology, correctional psychology, police psychology, and criminal psychology. While these categories may exhibit some overlap and interconnections, they provide a structured framework for understanding the historical trends and milestones in the field. Ultimately, forensic psychology’s multifaceted nature allows it to make substantial contributions across these diverse domains, shaping the evolving landscape of psychology’s engagement with the legal system.

Our focus in this discussion centers on forensic psychology, distinct from forensic psychiatry, which has its own rich history, often traced back to the early work of Isaac Ray, regarded by some as the father of forensic psychiatry (Brigham & Grisso, 2003). Additionally, we do not delve into the origins of the sociology of law, known as sociological jurisprudence, or the legal realism movement within the law itself. The legal realism movement, originating in the early 20th century, advocated for collaboration between the legal field and the social sciences (Ogloff, Tomkins, & Bersoff, 1996).

Furthermore, our emphasis is primarily on the contributions of forensic psychologists in the United States, with some recognition of their counterparts in Canada. However, we acknowledge the significant role played by European psychologists, who dominated the field prior to World War I. Our discussion covers the accomplishments of psychologists from the late 19th century and extends into the 1970s, a period when forensic psychology experienced significant growth and maturation (Loh, 1981).

Readers seeking more comprehensive details about the issues and individuals discussed in this field may refer to landmark summaries of psychology and law published by Whipple (1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1917), Hutchins and Slesinger (1929), Louisell (1955, 1957), Tapp (1976), Loh (1981), and Monahan and Loftus (1982). More recent historical pieces on this topic, with a focus on German influences, can be found in the works of Brigham and Grisso (2003) and Mulberger (2009). These resources provide in-depth insights into the development of forensic psychology as a field, including its historical context and influential figures.

History of Legal Psychology

Legal psychology encompasses psychological theory, research, and practice that directly pertain to the law and legal matters. It centers on psycholegal research and interactions with various law-related professionals, including judges, lawyers, and others, across a diverse array of contexts. The roots of legal psychology can be traced back to the work of experimental psychologists in 19th-century Europe, particularly concerning the psychology of testimony. Notably, this early research also extended to the reliability of children’s memory of events, which was a subject of particular interest (Mulberger, 2009; Sporer, 1982, 2008). Early psychologists, such as Lipmann (1911), were concerned with the question of whether children’s recollection of events could be considered trustworthy or not. This marked the beginning of legal psychology’s exploration of the intersection between psychology and the law, a relationship that has since grown and evolved significantly. Read more about History of Legal Psychology.

History of Courtroom Testimony

Tracing the exact origins of psychologists testifying in court in Europe can be challenging due to varying sources, depending on factors like the type of legal forum (civil or criminal court, preliminary hearings or trials) and the context of the testimony (informal conversations with judges or formal court proceedings). According to Hale (1980), one of the earliest instances of a psychologist testifying in a criminal court in Europe occurred in 1896. Albert von Schrenck-Notzing testified at the trial of a man in Munich who was accused of murdering three women. The murders had received extensive and sensational media coverage in the months leading up to the trial. Schrenck-Notzing (1897) expressed the opinion that this pretrial publicity likely resulted in many witnesses retroactively altering their memories due to suggestive influences. This case highlights an early example of psychologists becoming involved in the legal process to provide expert insights into issues related to memory and suggestion in a criminal trial setting. Read more about History of Courtroom Testimony.

Developments in the United States

In the early 20th century, American psychologists showed relatively little interest in applying their research to topics related to law. There were several reasons for this limited engagement. Firstly, American psychologists of the time were still in the process of exploring the vast landscape of psychology and had not yet developed a strong inclination to specialize in law-related matters. Secondly, the influence of Wilhelm Wundt played a role in this reticence. Wundt, a philosopher and experimental psychologist, had trained many of the early pioneers of American psychology in his laboratory in Leipzig. Wundt himself was cautious about applying psychology until a substantial body of research had been accumulated. He believed that premature application of psychology with incomplete information could have adverse consequences. Consequently, many of his students took this caution to heart, although some, like James McKeen Cattell, eventually bridged the gap between laboratory-based research and its application in the world outside (particularly in fields like psychology and the law). Read more about Developments in the United States.

History of Expert Testimony

While it is widely accepted that American psychologists began serving as expert witnesses in legal cases around the early 1920s (Comment, 1979), they had been providing consultation to lawyers and the courts, particularly in civil matters, before that period. This practice extended to the juvenile courts, which represented a combination of civil and criminal jurisdictions, handling issues related to both child protection and juvenile delinquency. Psychological consultation with juvenile courts was already established from their establishment in 1899 (Brigham & Grisso, 2003). In contrast, consulting with and testifying in criminal courts was relatively less common, a subject we will delve into shortly. This historical context illustrates the early involvement of psychologists in legal contexts, with a focus on different branches of the legal system. Read more about History of Expert Testimony.

History of Cognitive Assessment

While Hugo Munsterberg was actively promoting the utility of psychology, especially expert testimony, in the courtroom, another American psychologist was quietly making strides in a different forensic domain, specifically within the realm of juvenile courts. As previously mentioned, psychologists were frequently engaged in consultations with these courts, primarily in the area of assessment.

In 1909, clinical psychologist Grace M. Fernald collaborated with psychiatrist William Healy to establish the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute, marking a significant development in the field. This institute was created to cater to the needs of the recently established Juvenile Court of Chicago, focusing on providing diagnoses for “problem” children. Grace M. Fernald’s pioneering work in this field demonstrated early efforts to address the psychological aspects of juvenile offenders and their interaction with the legal system.  Read more about History of Cognitive Assessment.

History of Correctional Psychology

According to Lindner (1955), psychological services were first introduced in a U.S. correctional facility in 1913. Specifically, this occurred at a women’s reformatory in the state of New York. Watkins (1992) attributed this pioneering work to psychologist Eleanor Rowland, who was tasked with developing a battery of tests to identify offenders who could benefit from educational programs and be safely reintegrated into society (Rowland, 1913).

During this period, psychologists employed in various capacities within state and federal correctional systems primarily focused on detecting “feeblemindedness” among offenders, as it was believed to be a condition associated with a predisposition to a life of criminality (Giardini, 1942; Watkins, 1992). This approach was influenced by the work of Henry H. Goddard and his followers, who had a significant impact on the early development of psychology’s involvement in the correctional system. Read more about History of Correctional Psychology.

History of Police Psychology

There is a difference of opinion regarding whether police psychology falls within the scope of forensic psychology, particularly among those who favor a narrower definition of forensic psychology. However, we have chosen to include police psychology because law enforcement officers are sworn to uphold the law, and they often serve as the gatekeepers to the criminal and juvenile courts, if not the civil courts. As a result, psychologists who collaborate with the police in various roles, such as assisting in investigations, screening candidates, addressing hostage situations, and devising interviewing techniques, have direct ties to the legal system.

Determining the precise origins of police psychology is challenging, largely because individual psychologists have offered various services to law enforcement without formal recognition of their work. Viteles (1929) noted that police departments in Germany had been utilizing psychologists in a range of roles as early as 1919. This indicates that the integration of psychology into law enforcement practices had already begun during the early 20th century.  Read more about History of Police Psychology.

History of Cognitive and Aptitude Screening

Lewis Terman (1917) holds the distinction of being the first American psychologist to employ “mental tests” as screening tools in the selection of law enforcement personnel. This historic event took place on October 31, 1916, in response to a request from the city manager of San Jose, California. Terman administered a condensed version of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale to 30 individuals applying for positions in the police and fire departments. These applicants were between the ages of 21 and 38, with a median age of 30. Only four of them had completed high school, and none had education beyond the sophomore level. Terman’s findings revealed that most of the applicants operated within the range of dull-normal intelligence, scoring between 68 and 84 on the Stanford revision of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale. Only three applicants achieved an IQ score exceeding 100, which is considered the average intelligence level for the general population. This groundbreaking work marked an early instance of the application of psychological assessment tools in law enforcement personnel selection. Read more about History of Cognitive and Aptitude Screening.

History of Personality Assessment

Between the two World Wars, psychologists began to play a more significant role in the assessment and selection of law enforcement personnel, gradually incorporating personality assessment into the process. Wilmington, Delaware, and Toledo, Ohio, are recognized as the first two cities to mandate ongoing psychological screening for police selection, employing a combination of mental and personality tests, as early as 1938 (Gottesman, 1975; Oglesby, 1957). This marked the introduction of personality tests into the realm of police selection.

However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s and 1960s that personality assessment gained prominence and began to surpass cognitive tests in the evaluation of law enforcement candidates. While psychologists like Lewis Terman were among the pioneers in examining the cognitive abilities of police officers and applicants, there is limited evidence to suggest that they consistently participated in the screening and selection of law enforcement personnel during that period.  Read more about History of Personality Assessment.

History of Criminal Psychology

During the early 20th century, psychologists started to provide psychological insights into criminal behavior and engage in speculations about the underlying causes of crime. Similar to police psychology, criminal psychology is often excluded from narrow definitions of forensic psychology, mainly because it leans more towards theoretical rather than clinical aspects. However, in its early stages, criminal psychology was essentially clinical, with theories often focused on quantifiable mental attributes of offenders. Additionally, forensic psychology, lacking a solid theoretical foundation such as that provided by criminal psychology, becomes challenging to justify and sustain. Therefore, the historical linkage between criminal psychology and forensic psychology underscores the importance of theory in the field of forensic psychology. Read more about History of Criminal Psychology.

Forensic Psychology from 1970s and Beyond

The field of forensic psychology has witnessed a substantial expansion and maturation since the 1970s. Loh (1981) recognized that forensic psychology had “come of age” more than three decades ago, and Heilbrun and Brooks (2010) emphasized that the field has continued to evolve and strengthen its recognition and importance in recent years. In the mid-20th century, there were just over 100 English-language publications related to forensic psychology, but by the 1970s, this number had grown significantly into the thousands.

Professional journals dedicated exclusively to forensic psychological research and issues began to emerge, with Criminal Justice and Behavior leading the way in 1974. Subsequently, other journals, both in North America and the United Kingdom, followed suit. Moreover, interdisciplinary and specialized training programs in forensic psychology were introduced at various educational levels, including doctoral, master’s, internship, postdoctoral, and continuing education programs.

Certification in forensic psychology also became available, with the American Board of Forensic Psychology offering board certification starting in 1978. The APA recognized forensic psychology as a specialty in 2001, and Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists and Psychology were adopted in 1991 and 2011, respectively. The field expanded beyond North America, with growth seen in Europe and Australia.

Forensic psychology, while facing ongoing debates about its definition and scope, remains clinical in nature and relies heavily on theory and research. Overall, it appears to have a promising future as it continues to evolve into the 21st century.

Forensic psychology has experienced notable growth in various dimensions:
  1. Publication and Research: The field has seen a significant increase in research output, with more publications, studies, and academic journals dedicated to forensic psychology topics. Researchers continue to explore a wide range of subjects, contributing to the field’s growth and development.
  2. Training Programs: Forensic psychology programs and courses have become more widely available at educational institutions, providing students and professionals with specialized training in this field. These programs help prepare individuals for careers in forensic psychology.
  3. Board Certifications: The introduction of board certifications, such as those offered by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, has established standards for expertise in forensic psychology practice. These certifications enhance the credibility and qualifications of practitioners.
  4. International Expansion: Forensic psychology has gained recognition and expanded globally, with professionals in Europe, Australia, and other regions contributing to its growth. Cross-cultural research and collaboration have become more prevalent.
  5. Specialized Subfields: The field has diversified into various specialized subfields, including legal psychology, correctional psychology, police psychology, and criminal psychology. Each of these areas addresses specific aspects of the legal and criminal justice systems.
  6. Technology and Methodology: Advances in technology and research methodologies have allowed forensic psychologists to conduct more sophisticated studies and investigations. This has improved the field’s ability to provide evidence-based insights to the legal system.
  7. Policy and Legal Reforms: Forensic psychology research has contributed to policy changes and legal reforms in areas such as eyewitness testimony, interrogation practices, and juvenile justice. Psychologists’ expertise informs discussions on improving the legal system’s fairness and accuracy.
  8. Public Awareness: Forensic psychology has gained greater public attention through media coverage, leading to increased awareness of the field’s contributions to the legal and criminal justice systems.
  9. Ethical and Professional Guidelines: The development and revision of ethical and professional guidelines for forensic psychologists have helped ensure the integrity and accountability of practitioners in their interactions with the legal system.
  10. Interdisciplinary Collaborations: Forensic psychology increasingly collaborates with other disciplines, including law, sociology, criminology, and neuroscience, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of legal and criminal issues.

As forensic psychology continues to evolve, its contributions to the legal system, research, and education are likely to remain vital, addressing emerging challenges and fostering advancements in understanding human behavior within the legal context.

Forensic psychology has experienced notable growth in various dimensions:

  1. Publication and Research: The field has seen a significant increase in research output, with more publications, studies, and academic journals dedicated to forensic psychology topics. Researchers continue to explore a wide range of subjects, contributing to the field’s growth and development.
  2. Training Programs: Forensic psychology programs and courses have become more widely available at educational institutions, providing students and professionals with specialized training in this field. These programs help prepare individuals for careers in forensic psychology.
  3. Board Certifications: The introduction of board certifications, such as those offered by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, has established standards for expertise in forensic psychology practice. These certifications enhance the credibility and qualifications of practitioners.
  4. International Expansion: Forensic psychology has gained recognition and expanded globally, with professionals in Europe, Australia, and other regions contributing to its growth. Cross-cultural research and collaboration have become more prevalent.
  5. Specialized Subfields: The field has diversified into various specialized subfields, including legal psychology, correctional psychology, police psychology, and criminal psychology. Each of these areas addresses specific aspects of the legal and criminal justice systems.
  6. Technology and Methodology: Advances in technology and research methodologies have allowed forensic psychologists to conduct more sophisticated studies and investigations. This has improved the field’s ability to provide evidence-based insights to the legal system.
  7. Policy and Legal Reforms: Forensic psychology research has contributed to policy changes and legal reforms in areas such as eyewitness testimony, interrogation practices, and juvenile justice. Psychologists’ expertise informs discussions on improving the legal system’s fairness and accuracy.
  8. Public Awareness: Forensic psychology has gained greater public attention through media coverage, leading to increased awareness of the field’s contributions to the legal and criminal justice systems.
  9. Ethical and Professional Guidelines: The development and revision of ethical and professional guidelines for forensic psychologists have helped ensure the integrity and accountability of practitioners in their interactions with the legal system.
  10. Interdisciplinary Collaborations: Forensic psychology increasingly collaborates with other disciplines, including law, sociology, criminology, and neuroscience, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of legal and criminal issues.

As forensic psychology continues to evolve, its contributions to the legal system, research, and education are likely to remain vital, addressing emerging challenges and fostering advancements in understanding human behavior within the legal context.

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