What Is Criminal Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Hollywood often glamorizes the role of a forensic psychologist. With popular crime shows hitting prime-time television, false information may be spread about this area of psychological expertise. 

While television may portray forensic psychologists as professional crimefighters who identify criminals and bring them to justice by examining their personalities and behaviors, real forensic psychologists are professionals that apply clinical psychology practices in the legal world. If you are interested in pursuing a career in forensic psychology (aka criminal psychology) or want to understand what it means, learning more about the job description can be helpful.  

Interested in a career in forensic psychology?

What is criminal psychology?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), criminal psychology focuses on the application of clinical psychology practices in the legal field. These practices may be assessing, treating, and evaluating people or situations and applying psychological knowledge. In some cases, criminal psychology involves research and experimentation. 

Popular television shows often portray a forensic psychologist as a complex, brooding genius- someone whose mind is so advanced that they alone understand an unidentified serial killer's thought processes and motivations. Like the famous Sherlock Holmes, forensic psychologists might be portrayed as "psychological detectives" who can pick up on the slightest details to crack a complex case.

While this image can make for exciting storytelling, the field of criminal psychology is much broader and more administrative. Many criminal psychology professionals are not chasing criminals with secret-agent flair. They may be sitting in treatment offices, conducting research, working at desks, or helping others in their community.

These professionals spend significant time treating patients, assessing a person's ability to stand trial, working with crime survivors, and writing reports. They collaborate with the judicial system to reduce crime rates, help criminal offenders re-enter society, and advocate for children in the case of family matters. They also work with companies to identify or prevent fraud and devise school safety plans. They might work with children, adults, criminals, innocent people, individuals, and groups. 

On occasion, an expert forensic psychologist may consult on a high-profile crime. For example, during the trial for the murder of Arizona resident Travis Alexander, his accused killer, ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias, underwent an extensive evaluation to determine whether she was mentally fit to stand trial. You can find criminal psychology professionals like Dr. Reid Meloy who step in during serious tragedies to offer insight into the minds of those who commit heinous acts.

While forensic psychologists may publish books, interviews, and articles, their knowledge stretches far beyond crimes. A forensic psychologist is often most active in everyday legal situations, though there can be exceptions. 

Are criminal psychology professionals "profilers?"

Sometimes, the term "criminal psychologist" or "profiler" is used interchangeably with "forensic psychologist." While the two roles are related, criminal psychologists or "profilers" are criminal psychology professionals who have dedicated their careers to understanding the minds of criminals.

These workers often work closely with offenders, study their behaviors, evaluate crime scenes, and give insight into motives. The duties of forensic and criminal psychologists overlap in some ways. However, someone who identifies strictly as a "criminal psychologist" may be employed with the police or FBI more than with legal agencies. 

What makes a criminal psychology professional different?

Forensic psychologists have the proper credentials to treat and work with patients. Clinical criminal psychology, the practice of treating patients directly, occurs in many facilities. Still, the motivation for working with one may differ from using a general practice psychologist.

Criminal psychology professionals use their unique combination of skills and education to assess individuals involved with the legal system. They might serve as an expert witness in a court case, conduct research, and evaluate people who are involved with the legal system, such as police officers, crime survivors, and people who have been arrested for a crime.

A criminal psychology professional is often called upon to assess an individual's mental competency and possible diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses or to design rehabilitation programs for juvenile offenders.

When a forensic psychologist is called in, it may be because the person they are working with requires legal assistance, representation, or adherence with specific legal parameters. There may be a direct relationship with a court or a specific law in many cases. While they may help their patients work through mental illness or behavioral concerns like anger, anxiety, or depression, the reason might be purely legal.

What is the history of criminal psychology? 

Although criminal psychology is a thriving career choice in modern society, history shows a slow beginning. While crime has existed presumably throughout human history, an appreciation for the relationship between the law and the mind wasn't heavily explored until the 1900s. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hugo Munsterberg was the director of Harvard's Psychological Laboratory. In 1908 he wrote "On the Witness Stand," a book that explored topics like eyewitness testimony and crime prevention. While his ideas were controversial, his opponents could not ignore the potential value of introducing psychology into the courtroom. However, it took several practical cases to support that need.

One of those cases took place that same year. Louis Brandeis, a lawyer from Boston, worked on the case of Mueller vs. Oregon. He presented empirical research showing that long working hours impacted women's health. This research was the first time in US history that social science was used as part of a brief. The case opened the door for legal acceptance of social and psychological research, but it would still take some time to become standard practice.

From the early 1900s to the late 1960s, a formal path for criminal psychology was still evolving. While some cases, like Jenkins vs. the United States, promoted the use of psychology in the courtroom, many experts hesitated to replace medical doctors with those with degrees in psychology. 

In 1968, psychologists Jay Ziskin and Eric Dreikurs formed the first criminal psychology professional association. Their efforts led to the formation of the American-Psychology Law Society (APLS), which has over 3,000 members today. Thus, the relationship between the mind and the law gained credibility and acceptance.

Today, criminal psychology plays a part throughout the legal system. Current research explores hot topics like false allegations, threat management, and the rights of terrorists. Some professionals expand their knowledge to other fields, like forensic neuropsychology, to offer their clients a medical and psychological perspective. They work to defend survivors as needed, including in class action lawsuits and military court-marshal cases. Some forensic psychologists also work as university professors. 

How do you become a criminal psychology professional?

Criminal psychology requires an advanced degree. To start on the path to this degree, you can first achieve a Bachelor of Science degree (instead of a Bachelor of Arts) to meet the prerequisites for further education. Many students pursue their degree in psychology with a minor or dual major in criminology or law. However, it may be advised to tailor one's academic path to what best fits their future career goals.

Upon earning a bachelor's degree, alums may pursue a graduate degree, such as a master's degree. Those looking to become psychologists must then receive a Ph.D. or PsyD. Instead of learning the basics about psychology, law, health, and science, graduate students often study theoretical and research-based practices. Their classes may include personality assessment, crisis counseling, ethics, and psychology practice. 

While many academic qualifications can prepare someone for a career in criminal psychology, it may be beneficial for a candidate to ensure their personality and skills are also a fit. The skills that might be beneficial for this role are strong communication, attention to detail, and critical thinking. In addition, a forensic psychologist may benefit from remaining objective in high-stakes situations. Moral or ethical views cannot sway their opinion about a patient or legal process.

The role also calls for resilience. A criminal psychology professional may regularly deal with complex topics like child abuse, domestic violence, substance use, and death. 

Interested in a career in forensic psychology?

Online criminal psychology resources

There may be more to criminal psychology than meets the eye, and these professionals are found in various environments. While you might see a forensic psychologist working within the criminal justice system, you can also find many in hospitals, schools, businesses, or outpatient settings. Becoming a forensic psychologist can be an extended process. Still, many psychologists enjoy supporting and defending others and making a difference in the lives of survivors of crime. 

If you are interested in pursuing a new career or unsure what path to take, consider contacting a career counselor for guidance. If you live in a remote location or feel most comfortable meeting with a therapist in the comfort of your home, you can also talk to an online therapist. Online therapy may be an ideal option for those looking for career counseling that meets their busy schedule. Research supports virtual therapy, proving it to be as beneficial as in-person options, with the potential added benefits of convenience and cost-effectiveness. 

Platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with one of over 30,000 therapists and counselors to help you discover your path to a career that fits. When you sign up for an online platform, you can clarify your goals for treatment and the types of subjects you'd like to address, whether it is career counseling or discussing the mental health impacts of your job, among other subjects. This flexibility can benefit those who can't find a relevant provider in their immediate area. 

Takeaway

Criminal psychology has grown as a career choice in the last century and may continue to grow into the future. Working as a forensic psychologist could allow you to support and evaluate survivors of crime, those who perpetrate crime, and the justice system. If you want to learn more about this career or receive career advice, you can contact a career counselor anytime online or in person for further guidance.
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