Thursday, March 01, 2007

What Does it Mean to be a Forensic Psychologist?

Mrs. Du Toit is confused over the term "forensic psychologist." She and her commenters take a stab at understanding what it is that we do and why in the world we preface the word psychologist with "forensic." Some of the comments are totally off the mark, others humorous and one is in the ball park of understanding what we do in the field but is too limiting:

She counsels people who have legal problems? She investigates legal problems from a psychological point of view?

I was under the impression that a forensic psychologist would be a criminal psychologist who uses his professional skills to help solve crimes (profiling serial killers - that sort of thing), as opposed to a criminal psychologist who studies criminals to try and understand what motivates people to commit crimes, say.

Oh, yeah. It may be the 21st century equivalent of the “domestic engineer” or “sanitary engineer.” Perhaps someone keenly aware of his own shortcomings in his particular metier or milieu appends a polysyllabic adjective to assuage his feelings of inadequacy. Or big words make me sound more important.

I don’t know whether it’s correct or not, but the concept I have for a “forensic psychologist” as opposed to a regular psychologist is that where a non-forensic psychologist has access to a subject, asks them questions and so on, and then draws conclusions about the subject’s mind based on the answers and responses to stimuli that they obtain themselves and can adjust and refine, a forensic psycologist has to attempt to draw conclusions without having access to interactive testing for the subject - they have to work backwards from only observed actions and attempt to establish motives.

Another commenter, a psychiatrist, attempts to explain what we do but gives only information about insanity evaluations, as if this is all that we do.

Let me clarify what forensic psychologists are and what we do. We are not typically "profilers" like you see in Silence of the Lambs -- that is generally the province of those in law enforcement, although I have done a few such cases. They are a rarity in my field. The word "forensic" is derived from the Latin "forum," the place where trials were conducted in Roman times. The current use of "forensic" denotes a relationship between one professional field such as medicine, pathology, chemistry, anthropology and psychology, with the adversarial legal system (Handbook of Psychology, Volume 11, 2003). We provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system. We deal with civil and criminal cases--a civil case being something like a child custody evalution or psychological injury to a person in a ligation case. On the criminal side, we might be asked to determine if someone is competent to stand trial, provide a violent risk assessment for someone who has committed a crime, or determine legal sanity.

Most of us have a PHD in clinical or counseling psychology with post-doctoral work in forensic psychology. A doctorate takes an average of seven to eight years of graduate work and includes a one year post-doc in many states, including Tennessee. In order to be an experienced forensic psychologist, one needs to study law, not necessarily in law school, although some forensic psychologists have a PHD in clinical psychology and a JD in law. There are some forensic psychology PHD programs such as the one at John Jay Criminal College in New York. The American Academy of Forensic Psychology where I receive much of my training provides excellent programs in everything from the role of the Forensic Psychologist in Death Penalty Litigation to a crash course in Law School.

There are many differences between regular clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists that people do not seem to understand. In a clinical setting, one evaluates or does psychotherapy with the client to benefit the patient in terms of personal growth and support. Forensic psychologists use their results of an assessment (and yes, we actually work with the client, whether that be in a prison setting, in court, or in our office--the patients are generally alive, not dead) to help or educate the court without regard to the potential of the person being examined. We are not a therapist to them, we do not counsel them, nor are we even supposed to have an empathetic orientation towards the client; we are supposed to remain detached, neutral and objective. If you are intestested in following up on the difference between clinical and forensic psychologists, read this article by Greenberg and Shuman (1997).

Just to conclude this long-winded post, being a forensic psychologist is hard work. It is not to be undertaken lightly, for the training is arduous, the pay sucks, and the work, rather than being glamorous, is often tedious and involves working with the seedy side of human nature. I would say many of my colleagues agree.

If you still think you are interested at this point, here are a couple of books I recommend to give you more insight into the field: Minds on Trial: Great Cases in Law and Psychology and Handbook of Psychology, Forensic Psychology. Or here is a good (and free) website about the field.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is stunning beauty a requirement, or is that just a bonus?

11:32 AM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous 11:32:

I really enjoy having a positive troll, although can you really be a troll is you say something positive?

11:38 AM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

I did my BA in bioanthropology back in the 70s. I studied with a forensic anthropologist there -- one of the very few that existed at the time -- and that's what I wanted to do. However, then, there weren't programs in forensic anthropology; most places required you to do a PhD in anthropology and an MD. So I didn't.

To this day, I wish I had.

12:18 PM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


If you are interested in forensic anthropology, you might like our podcast with Bill Bass on forensic science at:

12:21 PM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Jerub-Baal said...

Thanks for the post, it's very informative for a subject that I find facinating but really know jack about.

Also, thanks for the work you do. I trust you when you say that the pay stinks. It seems that the jobs that are really important for the protection of our society don't get much money and even less recognition. So for what little the kudos of a complete stranger means,...


12:21 PM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Mrs. Du Toit,

Thank you for your post!

6:16 PM, March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system."

Although I admire your qualified beauty, I would be thrilled if you could define the "expertise" that you professionally profess.

Your entire scholarly discipline is a charade!


Tell me one TRUE thing that you definitively KNOW.... within the terms of your profession....

You cannot....

8:03 PM, March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I know that you are a chickenshit troll.

That felt so good for being so easy.


12:12 AM, March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


He may have said some things you didn't agree with, but a "chicken-shit troll"?

There is a LOT of false certainty, inaccuracy, bias, prejudice, incompetence, nonsense, and corruption in psychology and psychiatry. Perhaps your strong reaction to someone pointing that out has some clinical significance.

9:53 AM, March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, forgot one for the list above - lots of junk science too.

9:55 AM, March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey second Anon, thanks for such a nice question. Yes, chickenshit troll. Not like you, you raise some good points that I agree with. There is indeed lots of certainty, inaccuracy, bias, prejudice, incompetence, nonsense, and corruption in psychology and psychiatry. I completely agree with you.

But even if I did not, we could have a discussion because you presented your thoughts in an orderly, balanced fashion which speaks of a mature thought process. So we could disagree based on facts and have a pleasant and hopefully enlightening exchange. I like that, and I benefit from that.

And you are also correct in noting that my strong response has some clinical significance. I am sick to death of chickenshit trolls! Criticism, thoughtful criticism rather, is quite helpful to me and my profession. I welcome it. But that anon asked a question and I answered it. And it felt good!

We agree about the junk science as well. Yesterday I was at a training event in which the presenter denied any benefit to dietary treatment of ADD. I have read the articles and seen the brain scans of people who reduce their simple sugar intake as a way of reducing their ADD symptoms. So the presenter was wrong. A small thing, but it supports your statements.

So I was referring to the style of his post, not the content. Now he did make a false statement, the entire field is not a charade. Too much of it is, but not completely!

It is the chickenshit trolls I am tired of, not a reasoned (though anonymous) critique of my profession. I went to school with, practice with, and at times even recreate with people in my profession. So it is easy to be aware of my field's failings. While I am sad and a bit embarassed by them, I am not defensive about them.

Thanks for posting, I hope you post again because I look forward to your thoughts.


10:16 AM, March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Helen, I was wondering, do forensic psychologists in general and you in particular perhaps use empathy in your practice but for a different purpose?

Therapists like me use it to enter the world of our patient's and assist them in changing. I wonder if you guys use it to enter the world of your subjects to understand and then explain them more accurately.

Therapists are certainly not supposed to remain detached, but I do think it helps when we remain objective! As far as neutrality, I had a lot of contemporary psychoanalytic training which did value neutrality, but I find myself advocating for growth and health. That is not neutrality.

Two of the classic motivations for entering the field are wanting to help and wanting to know. I am convinced that the third is wanting to surround yourself with people who are more disturbed than we feel ourselves to be, but hopefully that is a minority of us! Maybe clinical psychologists want to help more and forensic folks want to know more? But then, I find in myself that my motivation to know has grown over the years, and certainly forensic psychologists help.

What do you think?


10:27 AM, March 02, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Hey Trey,

Of course when we are acting in a capacity as a psychotherapist, forensic psychologists have empathy with clients--it is just that assessments for courts etc. are by their very nature different and empathy is not even fair to the client, for it may lead them to feel the doctor is "on their side" when we are not or should not be on either side, the point is to stay objective. Ethically, forensic psychologists must inform their clients that they are not working for the client, but will do an objective report that will go to a court, company etc. We must make sure that the client does not confuse our role.You can see more in the Guidelines for Forensic psychologists if you google it, I think the Tennessee Board has a copy online.

11:09 AM, March 02, 2007  
Blogger TMink said...

Hey Helen, you wrote: "empathy is not even fair to the client, for it may lead them to feel the doctor is "on their side" when we are not or should not be on either side, the point is to stay objective."

Agreed. The client would feel betrayed if they experienced empathy from the examiner. It would be at best a set up.

But, do you guys use empathy as you are concolidating the data? I do not mean expressed empathy, but empathy in terms of trying to get inside the head of the client to make sense of the data.

Kind of like how accomplished actors work to understand the role from the inside out. I think they use empathy to seek to understand the role. It is not expressed or relational, not like therapeutic empathy.

I wonder if profilers use it as well. A kind of empathic resonance where the examiner or profiler gets to a place where the actions make sense from the point of view of the subject.


3:19 PM, March 02, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


In forensic evaluations, we typically use third party information, interview information from the client and records and test data. This is more objective than just "putting yourself in someone else's shoes." You may be wrong. Say the examinee tells you they killed someone because of their horrible childhood etc. but when you talk to their neighbors etc, you find out that the child lived pretty well, etc.--it is the discrepancies that often give one clues about whether someone is telling you the truth or not.

Profilers certainly try to put themselves in the mindset of a killer to get at what kind of motive a person has, but the basic premise in much of profiling is that behavior reflects personality. Insight into the personality is gleaned through questions about the murderer's behavior. This article from the APA should help you to understand more about profiling:

7:29 PM, March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hats off to you Dr. Helen, for doing this type of work and having spend so many diciplined years in studying your field. I admire you!
Thank you for your work.

6:09 AM, March 03, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

"f you are interested in forensic anthropology, you might like our podcast with Bill Bass on forensic science at:"

Thanks. I'm familiar with Dr. Bass, of course, from my undergraduate work, as well as all the work he's done since. Fascinating.

As for the psychology bashing, and I do some of it myself (just not here), psychology is what I call an umbrella discipline, as opposed to, say physics, which is not. The difference is that practitioners of an umbrella discipline vary in their philosophical approach to knowledge, research, and even the definition of the discipline. So you can find empiricists, behaviorists, a whole spectrum of different philosophies in any psychology department. This makes it inaccurate, if not plain stupid, to label psychology a pseudo-science.

6:31 AM, March 03, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


Thanks for the kind words.


I figured you knew Bass's work, but I found his interview very informative, even though I have read his books, and he lives here in Knoxville, etc. I get a kick out of seeing his books in the local supermarkets. I guess he really helped to make forensic anthropology a household word.

I think psychology is still as much art as science--part of this is that when working with human beings, some treatments work with certain types of clients and others do not--this is even true to some degree in medicine where doctors must try different methods with different patients to see what works. I was trained in both psychodynamic psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy and use both in my work, depending on the presenting problems etc. It is not that there are different orientations in the field (even medicine has different philosophies of how to treat a patient for the same disease) that make it less than science, it is that it is now driven by politics and political correctness.

I agree with you that psychology is not up to the standards of a science but I think that it is important that we continue to strive to use scientific tools to design studies, collect data, and draw valid conclusions. One of the big problems these days with psychology is that the "scientists" who collect data are biased with a left-leaning orientation for the most part and have allowed politics to color the outcomes of their studies or even what studies they will publish. This means that the public cannot trust the outcomes of the studies since they are not done in an objective fashion.

7:00 AM, March 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Helen, thanks for taking the time for the discussion. It looks like I am just wrong about the whole empathy in evaluation idea. But, now I know!


9:50 AM, March 03, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


Glad you found the discussion helpful. Perhaps at some point in your career, you will want to do some forensic work, if you haven't already.

10:04 AM, March 03, 2007  
Blogger TMink said...

Well, I do a tiny bit of forensic work, mostly in the form of competency and psychosexual evals of adolescents. Most of my court work is in termination of parental rights cases. Some of the surrounding counties send me their more complicated or intense child abuse cases and those end up in court.

While the testifying part of court work is ok, the sitting and waiting or clearing a whole day to have it canceled at the last minute drives me to the edge! I raised my fee about such stuff to try to lower the wasted time, but to no avail.

Overall, I believe that my skills and personality fit as a therapist exceed those qualities as a scientist or forensic psychologist. But I appreciate the type of work you do, as a good forensic report gives me a huge headstart in working with people.



11:10 AM, March 03, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

"I agree with you that psychology is not up to the standards of a science"

Oh, I'm very sorry, I didn't mean to give that impression. What I meant was that psychology -- like anthropology, as a matter of fact, or sociology -- is not a field with a unified philosophical approach. You can find lots of psychologists who do, well, science. And though I admitted that I do some psychology bashing on my blog, I reserve it for certain segments, and never the whole field.

Your observation about research is correct, though I might point out that it applies to lots of fields these days. When politics drives research, that's the inevitable result.

12:43 PM, March 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

Thanks for that.

I prefaced my comments by stating that I'm a psychiatrist as we do different things, (and what we do varies between jurisdictions -- In NZ there are no jury selection (limited challenges), no death penalty, but there is preventative detention (Section 77, crimes act 1962)).

What each profession can state as an expert witness will depend... on the courts.

11:29 PM, March 04, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


I didn't mean to pick on you in particular... just using your comment as a jumping off point to discuss the variety of things that we do as forensic psychologists. Certainly, US law and NZ law are very different, as are even the laws in various states here. There is so much to know, no wonder our various professions confuse people.

11:24 AM, March 05, 2007  
Blogger marklewin said...

Do you have concerns that having such a public and ideologic presence with your blog could, at times, serve to undermine your effectiveness as a forensic psychologist by, say, leaving you vulnerable to questions regarding your objectivity and neutrality?

3:04 PM, March 05, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


No, really just the opposite, the majority of psychologists are left leaning so juries and others should be concerned about objectivity, particularly when studies find that psychological experts are often dismissed as bleeding hearts and juries view their testimony as no better than that of the defendant in the case. I strive to be objective in my work and put politics aside, for it has no place in preparing a report for a court of law.

4:26 PM, March 06, 2007  
Blogger Janina L. Sola said...

Dr. Helen,

I am not sure of how to email you but I would like to know how you became a forensic psychologist. I am currently a senior at the University of Tampa looking to become a forensic psychologist. Can you tell me your path?

1:53 AM, January 05, 2008  
Blogger dc said...

Can you tell me whether or not you could with your professional experience and knowledge, if you could say profile a person who was killed? By reviewing their personal history, associate and friend & family input, by photos, or any other means to determine if the deceased person was capable or would do something of great harm to themselves? and / or why they would associate and get involved with someone for less than 3 months that would end up killing them? This is a question I have that is very case specific as I have just lost my 23 year old daughter in such a situation. This was very much out of line for her in the type of person it was she became involved with. I also have a letter she wrote to this person just before he killed her.
Thanks, I appreciate anything you might be able to tell me.

10:25 AM, March 18, 2008  
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