Legal psychology

Legal psychology involves empirical, psychological research of the law, legal institutions, and people who come into contact with the law. Legal psychologists typically take basic social and cognitive principles and apply them to issues in the legal system such as eyewitness memory, jury decision-making, investigations, and interviewing. The term "legal psychology" has only recently come into usage, primarily as a way to differentiate the experimental focus of legal psychology from the clinically-oriented forensic psychology.

Together, legal psychology and forensic psychology form the field more generally recognized as "psychology and law". Following earlier efforts by psychologists to address legal issues, psychology and law became a field of study in the 1960s as part of an effort to enhance justice, though that originating concern has lessened over time.[1] The multidisciplinary American Psychological Association's Division 41, the American Psychology-Law Society, is active with the goal of promoting the contributions of psychology to the understanding of law and legal systems through research, as well as providing education to psychologists in legal issues and providing education to legal personnel on psychological issues. Further, its mandate is to inform the psychological and legal communities and the public at large of current research, educational, and service in the area of psychology and law.[2] There are similar societies in Britain and Europe.

Areas of research

Generally speaking, any research that combines psychological principles with legal applications or contexts could be considered legal psychology (although research involving clinical psychology, e.g., mental illness, competency, insanity defense, offender profiling, etc., is typically categorized as forensic psychology, and not legal psychology). For a time, legal psychology researchers were primarily focused on issues related to eyewitness testimony and jury decision-making; so much so, that the editor of Law and Human Behavior, the premier legal psychology journal, implored researchers to expand the scope of their research and move on to other areas.[3]

There are several legal psychology journals, including Law and Human Behavior, Psychology, Public Policy and Law, Psychology, Crime, and Law, and Journal of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law that focus on general topics of criminology, and the criminal justice system. In addition, research by legal psychologists is regularly published in more general journals that cover both basic and applied research areas.

In March 1893 J. McKeen Cattell posted questions to fifty-six of his students at Columbia University, the questions he asked his students were comparable to those asked in a court of justice. What he found was that it was reasonable to conclude eyewitness accounts of events were unreliable. His students were all sure they were mostly correct, even when they weren’t, and some were hesitant when they were in fact correct. He could not figure out specifically why each student had inaccurate testimonies. Cattell suggested that “an unscrupulous attorney” could discredit a witness who is being truthful by asking “cunningly selected questions”. Although a jury, or the judge, should know how normal errors are in eyewitness testimonies given different conditions. However, even Cattell was shocked by the level of incorrectness displayed by his students. Cattell’s research has been depicted as the foundation of forensic psychology in the United States. His research is still widely considered a prevailing research interest in legal psychology.[4] It has been thought that in America psychologists have been used as expert witnesses in court testimonies since the early 1920’s. Consultation within civil courts was most common, during this time criminal courts rarely consulted with psychologists. Psychologists were not considered medical experts, those who were like, physicians and psychiatrists, in the past were the ones consulted for criminal testimonies. This could be because in criminal cases, the defendant's mental state almost never mattered "As a general rule, only medical men — that is, persons licensed by law to practice the profession of medicine — can testify as experts on the question of insanity; and the propriety of this general limitation is too patent to permit discussion".[5]