Interactions between Psychology and Law

Questions of potential interactions between psychology and the law existed long before the founding of the United States or the establishment of a separate United State legal system. For example, Francis Bacon (1857) expressed concerns that inappropriate psychological motives held by some actors in the legal system could compromise the system. He suggested that the law should consider natural human tendencies when he said “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). Interactions between Psychology and LawCenturies passed between Bacon’s statement and the formal involvement of psychologists in the law. In 1843, Daniel M’Naughton attempted to assassinate the prime minister of England, but he erred and instead killed Edward Drummond, the secretary to the prime minister.

The court invited nine medical experts to act as forensic psychologists (the court did not use this label at the time, but this term is used today to identify these sorts of individuals; Brigham & Grisso, 2003). Their recommendations led the jury to find M’Naughton not guilty by reason of insanity, and he spent the rest of his life in an institution.

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Louis D. Brandeis introduced social science into a legal decision in 1908 (Ogloff & Finkelman, 1999). The state of Oregon charged a laundry owner with violating gender-specific employment rules; the owner required his female employees to work more than 10 hours per day. The owner appealed his conviction, and Brandeis wrote an extensive brief on behalf of the state. Only a small portion of the Brandeis brief addressed legal arguments, and the rest of the brief presented data-based social science to demonstrate the negative effects of excessive work hours on women.

Although Brandeis relied on beliefs about the general physical and psychological inferiority of women, and although the Brandeis brief employed what scholars today view as poor psychological science, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law limiting women’s working hours. The term “Brandeis brief remains in use “to describe any collection of nonlegal materials submitted in a court case” (Ogloff & Finkelman, 1999, p. 7).

In 1954, the field of psychology and the law received a boost with the famous public school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. A group of 35 social scientists, including many psychologists and psychiatrists, submitted a Brandeis brief to describe the negative impacts of school segregation on children (Brigham & Grisso, 2003). The long-term impact of Brown v. Board of Education is still being assessed, but it firmly established the legacy of psychologists influencing the law.

In the last several decades, psychology and the law has emerged as one of the fastest-growing and most topically diverse areas in psychology. Eric Dreikurs and Jay Ziskin helped to galvanize the field by gathering psychologists to form the American Psychology-Law Society in 1969 (Pickren & Fowler, 2003), and the organization has grown rapidly since its inception.

Ogloff and Finkelman (1999) argued that the accelerating status of the field can also be seen in the growing number of experts testifying in court on legal topics, the increasing involvement of psychologists as consultants in the law, and the growing citation of psychological research by the courts.

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