Psychology and Law

Psychology and law is a multifaceted field encompassing various aspects of basic and applied research, with applications in mental health, memory, and jury behavior, as well as the evaluation of legal systems and processes. Given the wide array of topics it encompasses, arriving at universally accepted definitions within the field has proven challenging. Nonetheless, Ogloff and Finkelman (1999) offer a comprehensive definition, describing it as “the scientific study of the effect the law has on people and the effect people have on the law” (p. 3) [Ogloff, J. R. P., & Finkelman, D. (1999). Psychology and Law: An Overview. In R. Roesch, S. D. Hart, & J. R. P. Ogloff (Eds.), Psychology and Law: The State of the Discipline (pp. 3-31)].

This section provides a succinct introduction to the field, including insights into human interactions with the legal system, the inherent tensions between psychology and the law, and a brief historical context. Furthermore, it outlines the fundamental roles psychologists play within the legal system, explores career opportunities in this domain, and offers insights into prominent research areas within psychology and the law. To conclude, the section delves into ongoing and prospective research avenues within the dynamic field of psychology and the law.

Human Interactions with the Law

Psychology and LawIn alignment with the broader psychological methodologies employed across various disciplines, psychologists engaged in the study of psychology and the law focus on understanding the behavior, cognition, emotions, and experiences of individuals entangled in the legal system. This scope naturally encompasses a wide spectrum of individuals, as virtually anyone within the purview of the United States legal system can be considered involved to varying degrees. This involvement is readily apparent for roles such as police officers, lawyers, judges, defendants, corrections officers, and trial consultants, among others, who actively work within or are subject to scrutiny by the legal system. However, it is important to note that some relationships within the legal system may not be immediately apparent and require deeper investigation and analysis. Read more about Human Interactions with the Law.

Tensions between Psychology and the Law

The intersection of psychology and the legal system is marked by inherent tensions, as articulated by Ogloff and Finkelman (1999) [Ogloff, J. R. P., & Finkelman, D. (1999). Psychology and Law: An Overview. In R. Roesch, S. D. Hart, & J. R. P. Ogloff (Eds.), Psychology and Law: The State of the Discipline (pp. 3-31)]. These tensions stem from fundamental disparities between the objectives and methodologies of the two disciplines.

Firstly, the essence of scientific inquiry is rooted in induction. In the realm of psychology, researchers meticulously analyze data derived from diverse sources, including field studies, correlational investigations, and controlled experiments. This process leads to the formulation of tentative and probabilistic conclusions. In stark contrast, the legal system demands conclusive answers, especially in the context of criminal law, where the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This fundamental disparity underscores the chasm between the nuanced, probabilistic nature of scientific investigation and the demand for unequivocal certainty within the legal arena.

Expanding upon this tension, it becomes evident that the scientific approach encourages an ongoing exploration of complex phenomena, often acknowledging uncertainty and embracing the continuous evolution of knowledge. In contrast, the legal system operates within a framework of established rules, precedence, and rigid standards of evidence, which require clear, definitive resolutions to legal disputes. This dichotomy underscores the ongoing challenge of harmonizing the objectives and methodologies of psychology and the law, as they navigate the complexities of human behavior and justice.

Read more about Tensions between Psychology and the Law.

Roles of Psychologists in the Legal System

The roles of psychologists within the legal system are diverse and encompass several general functions, as highlighted by Bottoms et al. (2004) [Bottoms, B. L., Golding, J. M., Stevenson, M. C., & Wiley, T. R. (2004). The Psychology of Law. In R. M. Kowalski & M. R. Stevenson (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology (pp. 301-315)]. Furthermore, the impact of psychological researchers on the legal system can be observed in various ways, with basic and applied researchers playing significant roles, despite their apparent differences.

Psychologists engaged in the legal system can assume a range of specific career positions, reflecting the multifaceted nature of psychology in the law. These roles encompass functions such as forensic psychology, expert testimony, legal consulting, and clinical assessments, among others. Such specialized careers leverage psychological expertise to address the complex issues intertwined with the legal framework.

Moreover, the influence of psychological researchers on the legal domain extends beyond specific roles, as they contribute in two distinct yet interconnected ways. Firstly, basic researchers, driven by the pursuit of fundamental knowledge, actively enhance the body of available information on diverse subjects, including memory, human cognition, and social influence. While research into seemingly unrelated topics, such as the effects of different retention intervals on word list recall, may not immediately appear to align with issues within psychology and the law, it nonetheless enriches the broader pool of knowledge relevant to memory and cognition.

Secondly, applied researchers within the field focus on addressing practical problems encountered within the legal system. By utilizing the foundational knowledge generated by basic research, they strive to address specific challenges and dilemmas within the legal context. Thus, while basic and applied research approaches may initially seem distinct, they essentially exist on a continuum, with basic research providing the foundational insights that can inform and guide applied research, thereby advancing the collective understanding of psychology within the legal domain. Read more about Roles of Psychologists in the Legal System.

History of Interactions between Psychology and the Law

The inquiries into possible intersections between psychology and the law have persisted for centuries, predating the formation of the United States and its distinct legal system. A historical perspective reveals that these questions have deep roots, transcending national boundaries and legal frameworks.

As far back as the 17th century, figures like Francis Bacon (1857) were already contemplating the potential implications of psychological factors within the legal system. Bacon expressed concerns about the influence of improper psychological motives held by various actors within the legal sphere, recognizing the potential for these motives to undermine the integrity of the legal process. He astutely argued that the law should take into account inherent human tendencies, as he eloquently stated, “revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more Man’s nature runs to, the more ought the law to weed it out” (p. 46) [Bacon, F. (1857). Essays, Civil and Moral, Advancement of Learning, Novum Organum, Etc.]. This profound observation underscores the enduring relevance of psychological insights within the realm of jurisprudence.

Despite the centuries that separated Bacon’s insightful musings from the formal integration of psychologists into the legal domain, the enduring wisdom of his words demonstrates the enduring need for psychological perspectives to guide and inform the practice of law. It is a testament to the enduring nature of questions surrounding psychology and the law, and the evolving role of psychology in shaping the principles and practices of the legal system over time. Read more about History of Interactions between Psychology and the Law.

Prominent Research Areas in Psychology and the Law

However, it’s important to note that practicality doesn’t overshadow the theoretical dimensions of research in psychology and the law. Scholars in this field also engage in theory testing to advance our understanding of legal phenomena. For instance, Pennington and Hastie (1988) [Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1988). Explanation-based decision making: Effects of memory structure on judgment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 14(3), 521-533] hypothesized that jurors have a preference for trial accounts that form a coherent narrative. To test this theory, they presented jurors with trial materials organized in chronological order, akin to a coherent story, and compared the outcomes with materials organized according to the order in which witnesses were called. Their findings revealed that jurors were more inclined to decide verdicts in favor of the side that presented materials in chronological order, thereby confirming their hypothesis.

Additionally, researchers in psychology and the law frequently draw upon theories from other domains of psychology to shed light on legal phenomena. For instance, studies examining eyewitness memory often borrow insights from general memory research. For instance, Wells et al. (2006) [Wells, G. L., Smalarz, L., & Smith, A. M. (2006). ROC analysis of lineups suggests that attention-incompetent witnesses can discriminate innocent from guilty suspects. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(2), 313-325] leveraged principles from memory research to explain how viewing mug shot books can retroactively interfere with an individual’s original memory of a perpetrator’s face. These examples illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of psychology and the law, highlighting its capacity to integrate theoretical frameworks from various psychological subdisciplines to comprehensively address legal issues.

Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitness testimony continues to be a vibrant and extensively studied research domain within the field of psychology and the law. Demonstrating its enduring significance, the American Psychology-Law Society catalogues a substantial repository of over 1,400 references dedicated to this subject, spanning from 1883 to 2006. This wealth of literature underscores the enduring interest and commitment of researchers to explore the intricacies of eyewitness testimony and its impact on the legal process.

The origins of eyewitness testimony research can be traced back over a century ago to Germany, where it initially took root as a prominent research area within psychology. This historical context illuminates the longstanding tradition of scientific inquiry into the reliability and validity of eyewitness accounts. Over the decades, this research has contributed invaluable insights into the complexities of human memory, perception, and cognition as they relate to eyewitness testimony, thereby enriching our understanding of this critical component of the legal system. Read more about Eyewitness Testimony.

Repressed Memory

Repression, a psychological concept rooted in Freudian theories of ego defense mechanisms, has a historical presence in the field of psychology. It has been included in various iterations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), including the current DSM-IV-TR, particularly within the diagnostic criteria for dissociative amnesia.

The emergence of repression into the spotlight within the intersection of psychology and the law occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. This period was marked by intense scrutiny and debate surrounding the phenomenon of repressed memories. Questions and controversies surrounding the authenticity and validity of repressed memories, often related to trauma and abuse, prompted significant attention from both psychological and legal perspectives. The intersection of repressed memories and the legal system raised complex issues pertaining to the reliability of memory retrieval and its implications for legal proceedings, highlighting the intricate interplay between psychology and the law in addressing this phenomenon. Read more about Repressed Memory.

Pretrial Publicity

The issue of pretrial publicity in the United States revolves around the delicate balance between two fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. On one hand, the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, ensuring that media outlets have the right to report and disseminate information. On the other hand, the Sixth Amendment safeguards the right of each defendant to a speedy trial conducted by an impartial jury.

When the press covers and disseminates information related to an ongoing investigation, such as the defendant’s prior convictions, specific evidence, or a confession, it has the potential to expose prospective jurors to these details. This exposure can have profound implications for the fairness and impartiality of the jury pool, as it may influence juror attitudes, preconceptions, or biases. Balancing these two constitutional rights presents a complex challenge, as the desire to maintain a free and open press must be weighed against the imperative of ensuring a fair and unbiased judicial process for the accused. Read more about Pretrial Publicity.

Interrogation and Confession

Interrogation rooms continue to be some of the most secretive and guarded spaces within the United States legal system. These rooms serve as the backdrop for police efforts to extract information and uncover the truth about criminal offenses. The overarching goal, shared by both law enforcement and society at large, is to elicit confessions from those who are truly guilty while ensuring that innocent individuals remain steadfast in their denials. The stakes in these high-pressure situations are particularly elevated because a confession carries substantial weight in the criminal justice process, often exerting even greater influence than eyewitness testimony, as noted by Kassin and Gudjonsson in 2004 [Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (2004). The psychology of confessions: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(2), 33-67].

Remarkably, the power of a confession can endure even when it is obtained through coercive means, such as threats or promises, and even when judges explicitly instruct jurors to disregard it. This phenomenon underscores the profound impact that confessions wield in shaping the outcomes of criminal trials, often transcending the mitigating influence of judicial admonitions. The intricate dynamics at play in interrogation rooms underscore the critical intersection between psychology and the legal system, as scholars and practitioners grapple with the complexities of eliciting accurate information while safeguarding the rights and well-being of individuals involved in the criminal justice process. Read more about Interrogation and Confession.

Jury Decision Making

The jury has been one of the most mysterious forces in United States law. Critics have leveled extensive allegations that juries are unpredictable, unrepresentative of the population of the United States, biased, and irresponsible. Research into jury decision making has shed light on many phenomena in criminal and civil legal systems, but many questions remain. Read more about Jury Decision Making.

Future Directions in Psychology and Law

The field of psychology and the law continues to expand both in depth and breadth, reflecting the ever-evolving intersection between psychological insights and the legal system. Psychologists remain dedicated to exploring novel avenues of inquiry within this domain. For instance, as our comprehension of jury dynamics deepens, researchers are delving into more intricate aspects of jury decision-making, including the structural complexities of trials, the various extralegal factors that influence juror comprehension, and the potential effects of proposed legal reforms on jury behavior. This ongoing exploration promises to unveil a more comprehensive understanding of the intricate dynamics that shape legal verdicts.

Additionally, new areas of inquiry are continually emerging within psychology and the law. For example, psychologists are increasingly engaged in probing questions related to end-of-life legal decisions. They are examining how individuals select representatives to make crucial legal choices in cases of medical incapacitation. Moreover, there is a growing focus on assessing the competency and decision-making integrity of older adults or individuals facing cognitive impairments due to medical conditions. These inquiries reflect the evolving landscape of legal and ethical considerations at the intersection of psychology and end-of-life care.

Furthermore, the social context plays a significant role in driving research agendas within the field. The media’s portrayal of criminal profiling, for instance, has generated substantial interest and heightened attention in research, practice, and education related to this area. The evolving social and cultural landscape continually shapes the priorities and directions of research in psychology and the law.

It is essential to recognize that the areas discussed in this section represent only a fraction of the comprehensive story of psychology and the law. The field’s rapid growth and adaptation to emerging challenges and societal changes demonstrate its resilience and commitment to advancing our understanding of the intricate interplay between psychology and the legal system. The ongoing expansion and diversification of research in this field show no signs of abating.


This section has provided a concise overview of the interdisciplinary field of psychology and the law. The impact of the legal system extends to both citizens and noncitizens, and given the law’s inherent authority to prescribe and regulate human behavior, it is poised to remain a central research focus for psychology indefinitely.

While the methods and objectives of psychological science differ significantly from those of the legal system, researchers and lawmakers share common aspirations. Broadly speaking, they both seek to create a legal system that is more precise and efficient, aligning with the wealth of insights that psychologists have garnered about human behavior. This shared goal reflects the synergy between these two fields in their pursuit of a more equitable and informed legal framework.

Students entering this field are presented with a diverse array of career options, reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of psychology and the law. The dynamic history of the field underscores its capacity for rapid evolution and change, often shaped by the substantial contributions of influential individuals such as Loftus, Kassin, Greene, Bornstein, and many others.

The topic areas briefly outlined in this discussion hint at some potential avenues of exploration, but it’s crucial to recognize that the field is expanding rapidly. The innovative research and fresh ideas brought forth by today’s students will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of this dynamic discipline. As psychology continues to engage with the legal system, its evolving insights and contributions will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the practice of law and the pursuit of justice.


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