Criminal Psychology: History
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Subjects: Psychology

Criminal psychology, also referred to as criminological psychology, is the study of the views, thoughts, intentions, actions and reactions of criminals and all who participate in criminal behavior. Criminal psychology is related to the field of criminal anthropology. The study goes deeply into what makes someone commit a crime, but also the reactions after the crime. Criminal psychologists have many roles within the court systems, these include being called up as witnesses in court cases to help the jury understand the mind of the criminal. Some types of psychiatry also deal with aspects of criminal behavior. Criminal behavior can be stated as “Any kind of antisocial behavior, which is punishable usually by law but can be punished by norms, stated by community,”. Therefore, it is difficult to define criminal behavior as there is a fine line between what could be considered okay and what's considered not to be, being considered as violation at one point of time may now be accepted by community. This article will look at the different roles of a criminal psychologist, key aspects of criminals, and major studies that contributed to criminal psychology.

  • criminal behavior
  • psychiatry
  • psychology

1. Psychology's Role in the Legal System

Psychologists are licensed professionals that can assess both mental and physical states. Profilers look for patterns in behavior to link the individual(s) behind a crime. A group effort attempts to answer the most common psychological questions: If there is a risk of a sexual predator re-offending if put back in society; if an offender is competent to stand trial; whether or not an offender was sane/insane at the time of the offense.

Criminal psychologists can be used to do investigative work, like examine photographs of a crime, or conduct an interview with a suspect. They sometimes have to formulate a hypothesis, in order to assess what an offender is going to do next, after they have broken the law.[1]

The question of competency to stand trial is a question of an offender's current state of mind. This assesses the offender's ability to understand the charges against them, the possible outcomes of being convicted/acquitted of these charges and their ability to assist their attorney with their defense. The question of sanity/insanity or criminal responsibility is an assessment of the offender's state of mind at the time of the crime. This refers to their ability to understand right from wrong and what is against the law. The insanity defense is rarely used, as it is very difficult to prove. If declared insane, an offender is committed to a secure hospital facility for much longer than they would have served in prison.[2]

Criminal psychology is also related to legal psychology and forensic psychology. and crime investigations

2. Profiling

A major part of criminal psychology, known as criminal profiling, began in the 1940s. The United States Office of Strategic Services asked William L. Langer's brother Walter C. Langer, a well renowned psychiatrist, to draw up a profile of Adolf Hitler. After the Second World War, United Kingdom psychologist Lionel Haward, while working for the Royal Air Force police, drew up a list of characteristics which high-ranking war criminals might display. These characteristics helped to spot high-ranking war criminals amongst ordinary captured soldiers and airmen.

A renowned Italian psychologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was thought to be one of the first criminologists to attempt to formally classify criminals based on age, gender, physical characteristics, education, and geographic region. When comparing these similar characteristics, he better understood the origin of motivation of criminal behavior, and in 1876, he published his book called The Criminal Man. Lombroso studied 383 Italian inmates. Based on his studies, he suggested that there were three types of criminals. There were born criminals, who were degenerates and insane criminals, who suffered from a mental illness. Also, he studied and found specific physical characteristics. A few examples included asymmetry of the face, eye defects and peculiarities, and ears of unusual size, etc.[3]

In the 1950s, US psychiatrist James A. Brussel drew up what turned to be an uncannily accurate profile of a bomber who had been terrorizing New York City .[4]

It was first introduced, to the FBI in the 1960s when several classes were taught to the American Society of crime lab directors. Most of the public at that time knew little if not anything about how profilers would profile people until TV came into play. Later films based on the fictional works of author Thomas Harris that caught the public eye as a profession in particular Manhunter (1986) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The fastest development occurred when the FBI opened its training academy, the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), in Quantico, Virginia. It led to the establishment of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime[5]and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.

In the United Kingdom, Professor David Canter was a pioneer helping to guide police detectives from the mid-1980s to an offender who had carried out a series of serious attacks, but Canter saw the limitations of "offender profiling" - in particular, the subjective, personal opinion of a psychologist. He and a colleague coined the term investigative psychology and began trying to approach the subject from what they saw as a more scientific point of view.[6]

Criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling, is the process of linking an offender's actions at the crime scene to their most likely characteristics. This is used to help police investigators narrow down and prioritize a pool of most likely suspects. Profiling is a relatively new area of forensic psychology that during the past 20 years has developed from what used to be described as an art to a rigorous science. Part of a sub-field of forensic psychology called investigative psychology, criminal profiling is based on increasingly rigorous methodological advances and empirical research.[7]

Criminal profiling is a process now known in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as criminal investigative analysis. Profilers, or criminal investigative analysts, are trained and experienced law enforcement officers who study every behavioral aspect and detail of an unsolved violent crime scene in which a certain amount of psychopathology has been left at the scene. The characteristics of a good profiler are discussed. Five behavioral characteristics that can be gleaned from the crime scene are described:

  1. amount of planning that went into the crime,
  2. degree of control used by the offender,
  3. escalation of emotion at the scene,
  4. risk level of both the offender and victim, and
  5. appearance of the crime scene (disorganized versus organized).

The process of interpreting the behavior observed at a crime scene is briefly discussed.[8]

Criminal psychologists also have to consider profiling through the lens of racial inequality. Race continues to be a major factor in the American criminal justice system. Over the years, federal and state prisons in the United States held 475,900 inmates who were black and 436,500 who were white, giving a difference of 39,400.[9] Negative stereotypes, which often portray Blacks as born criminals, contributes heavily to the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks. A persistent stereotype in American society, it has served as a justification for the unofficial policies and practices of racial profiling by criminal justice practitioners.[10] Many modern psychologists disregard these outdated stereotypes, as race itself doesn't make an individual violent or a threat to society. The cultural, environmental and traditional concepts of communities play a major role in individual psychology, providing profilers with a potential basis for behavioral patterns learned by offenders during their upbringing.[11] They also evaluate if prison is a stable place for particular criminals, as some commit crimes due to mental health issues that have never been adequately addressed. There are many individual factors criminal psychologist will have to evaluate during their investigations, in order to piece together a thorough profile that serves both the legal requirements and provides a more humane perspective.

3. The Four Roles of Criminal Psychologists

In 1981, one of the fathers of UK's criminal psychology – Professor Lionel Haward – described four ways that psychologist may perform upon being professionally involved in criminal proceedings. These four ways include: [12]

Clinical: In this situation, the psychologist is involved in assessment of an individual in order to provide a clinical judgment. The psychologist can use assessment tools, interview or psychometric tools in order to aid in their assessment. These assessments can help police and other comparable organizations to determine how to process the individual in question. For example, the psychologist helps to find out whether the individual is capable to stand trial, or whether the individual has a mental illness that relates to whether they are able to understand the proceedings.

Experimental: In this case, the task of the psychologist is to perform research in order to inform a case. This can involve executing experimental tests for the purposes of illustrating a point or providing further information to courts. This may involve false memory, eyewitness credibility experiments, and more. For example, this way involves questions similar to “how likely would a witness see an object in 100 meters?” that could be answered.

Actuarial: This role involves usage of statistics in order to inform a case. A psychologist may be asked to provide the probability of an event occurring. For example, the courts may ask how likely it is that a person will reoffend if a sentence is declined.

Advisory: Here, a psychologist may advise police about how to proceed with the investigation. For example, psychologists help to determine the best way to interview the individual, the best way to cross-examine a vulnerable or another expert witness, and how an offender will act after committing the offense.[13]

4. Education and Career in Criminal Psychology

When pursuing a career in criminal psychology you first need a bachelor's degree in psychology and then a master's degree in a related field. While a master's degree is typically where people stop in their education, it may not get you the ideal job or pay that you desire. Typically you will also need a doctorate degree as well, either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. In addition to your degrees, you will need to take your licensing exam required by your state or jurisdiction. [14] When pursuing any kind of doctorate degree, it can take about five to seven years to achieve and includes various means of educational training such as classroom work, practical training, research, and a dissertation or thesis.

If you wish to pursue a career as a criminal profiler, you will also need a master's degree or a doctorate and many years of experience.[15] After passing your examinations for your state you can become a licensed psychologist.

Criminal profilers can work in various settings including offices and courtrooms and can be employed at a number of institutions. Some include local, state, or federal government, and others can be self-employed as independent consultants.

Depending on your desired field in psychology, average salary can be around $80,370 a year but criminal psychologist are paid on a different scale than other types of psychologist.[16] Some of the top paying states for forensic psychologists are New Hampshire, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, and California. [17]

Forensic psychology careers are continuing to close the gap between psychology and the criminal justice system. Job opportunities include...[17]

  1. Correctional counselor
  2. Jury consultant
  3. Forensic social worker
  4. Expert witness
  5. Forensic psychology professor
  6. Forensic psychology researcher
  7. Forensic case manager
  8. Criminal profiler
  9. Forensic psychologist
  10. Correctional psychologist

5. Applied Criminal Psychology

The effect of psychological and social factors on the functioning of our brain is the central question that forensic or criminal psychologists deal with, due to the fact it is the seed of all our actions. For forensic psychiatry, the main question is 'Which patient becomes an offender?', or 'Which offender becomes a patient?'. Another main question asked by these psychiatrists is, 'What came first, the crime or the mental disorder?'. Psychologists look at environmental factors along with genetics to determine the likeliness (Profiling) of a particular person to commit a crime.

Criminal and forensic psychologists may also consider the following questions:

  1. Is a mental disorder present now? Was it present during the time of the crime?
  2. What is the level of responsibility of the offender for the crime?
  3. What is the risk of reoffending and which risk factors are involved?
  4. Is treatment possible to reduce the risk of reoffending?

Accordingly, individual psychiatric evaluations are resorted to measuring personality traits by psychological testing that have good validity for the purpose of the court.[2]

6. Key Studies

A number of key studies of psychology especially relevant to understanding criminal psychology have been undertaken, these include:[18][19]

  • Bobo doll experiment, Bandura, Ross & Ross (1961)
  • The Stanford prison experiment, (Philip Zimbardo 1973)
  • Loftus and Palmer (1974), eyewitness study

The content is sourced from:


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  3. Richard N. Kocsis, Applied criminal psychology: a guide to forensic behavioral sciences, Charles C Thomas Publisher, 2009, pp.7
  4. Lambert, Laura (October 29, 2019). "George Metesky | American terrorist" (in en). 
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  8. O'Toole, Mary Ellen (2004). Pro-filers: Leading investigators take you inside the criminal mind. New York: Amherst, NY US: Prometheus Books. pp. 223–228. ISBN 978-1-59102-266-4. 
  9. Western, Bruce; Wildeman, Christopher (January 2009). "The Black Family and Mass Incarceration". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (1): 221–242. doi:10.1177/0002716208324850. ISSN 0002-7162.
  10. Welch, Kelly (August 2007). "Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling". Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23 (3): 276–288. doi:10.1177/1043986207306870. ISSN 1043-9862.
  11. Helms, Janet E.; Piper, Ralph E. (April 1994). "Implications of Racial Identity Theory for Vocational Psychology". Journal of Vocational Behavior 44 (2): 124–138. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1994.1009. ISSN 0001-8791.
  12. didacticsequenceswordpress (2017-01-26). "The Four Rules of Criminal Psychologist." (in en). 
  13. "Everything about criminal psychology". 
  14. "Criminal Psychology Careers |" (in en-US). 2017-09-15. 
  15. "How to Become a Criminal Profiler" (in en-US). 
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  19. Gross, Richard (14 August 2015). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. Hachette UK. ISBN 978-1471829758. Retrieved 25 May 2019. 
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