Forensic Psychology and Law

Forensic Psychology and Law

In their textbook entitled, Forensic Psychology and Law, Ron Roesch, Patricia Zapf, and Stephen Hart provide a brief synopsis of the history of forensic psychology. They write that there is general agreement that although medical experts testified in some criminal cases in the 1800s, the roots of modern day forensic psychology (psychology and law) were not established until the early part of the 20th Century. If these roots can be traced to one individual, it would perhaps be Hugo Munsterberg, who was the director of Harvard’s Psychological Laboratory.

Munsterberg, Wigmore, and Early Psychology and Law

Munsterberg was a strong advocate of the application of psychological research to legal issues. In his book On the Witness Stand, which was published in 1908, Munsterberg reviewed research on such topics as the reliability of eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and crime detection and prevention, and argued that the legal system should make greater use of this research. He wrote “The courts will have to learn, sooner or later, that the individual differences of men can be tested to-day by the methods of experimental psychology far beyond anything which common sense and social experience suggest” (p. 63). Munsterberg was a controversial figure whose claims for the contributions of psychology to law were not supported by empirical research.

Criticisms of Munsterberg were rampant. Notable among the critiques by both the legal and psychological communities was one by the legal scholar, John Wigmore. In a satirical article published in a law review in 1909, Wigmore staged a mock lawsuit in which he accused Munsterberg of libeling the legal profession and exaggerating his claim of what psychology had to offer the law. He subjected Munsterberg’s claims to a rigorous cross-examination in which he argued that psychological testimony about such issues such as eyewitness credibility should not be admissible in the courts. Of course, Munsterberg was found guilty. It is of interest to note that, despite his scathing critique of Munsterberg, Wigmore was positive about the potential of psychology to offer assistance to the courts on a range of legal issues, noting that the courts will be ready for psychologists when psychologists are ready for the courts. It was not until the past few decades that psychology has begun to answer Wigmore’s call.

Louis Brandeis

At the same time that Munsterberg published his book, Louis Brandeis, a lawyer who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, submitted, in the case of Muller v. Oregon (1908), a brief that summarized the social science research showing the impact that longer working hours had on the health and well-being of women. The Oregon court’s decision was consistent with the conclusions Brandeis reached in the brief. This marked the first time that social science research was presented in court in the form of a brief, and subsequent briefs of this nature became known as Brandeis briefs. These briefs, however, were not commonly presented in the courts until decades later.

Perhaps the most cited social science brief was the one submitted in the famo

us desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Led by psychologist Kenneth Clark, Isidor Chein, and Stuart Cook, a brief was prepared that summarized research demonstrating that segregation has negative effects on the self-esteem and other personality characteristics of black children. The brief was cited as a footnote in the Supreme Court’s decision that segregation violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. While it has since been debated whether or how much this research influenced the Court’s decision, there is no question that it marked the potential of using psychological research to inform courts about the negative consequences of social policies and practices.

Early Research in Psychology and Law

Another early historical event was the publication, in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin, of a series of articles by Guy Whipple that in part related memory and the accounts of witnesses. In an article published in 1909, Whipple set the stage for later laboratory research on witness behavior. He wrote,

If, then, the work of reporting is difficult even for the trained expert working under laboratory conditions and using a carefully refined terminology, how much more difficult must it be for the untrained individual to report with accuracy and completeness the experiences of his daily life, when to the inadequacy of his language there must be added the falsifying influences of misdirected attention, mal-observation, and errors of memory, not to mention the falsifying influences that may spring from lack of caution, of zeal for accurate statement, or even from deliberate intent to mislead. (p. 153)

Forensic Psychology in the Modern Era

The modern era of forensic psychology can perhaps be traced to the late 1960s when two psychologists, Jay Ziskin and Eric Dreikurs, began discussions that led to the creation of forensic psychology’s first professional association. These early meetings, which initially took place at the American Psychological Association Conference in San Francisco in 1968, let to the development of the American Psychology-Law Society (APLS). Ziskin in particular was the driving influence, and he had lofty aspirations for the impact of psychology and law. He wrote in APLS’s first newsletter:

“While only the future can reveal the significance of a present event, I feel that [the meeting] in San Francisco will prove to be an event of historic significance… It may not prove grandiose to compare the potential impact of the creation of this society in its area with that of the Royal Academy of Science in Britain and the Academie des Sciences in France… We can perceive that we have taken on a precious responsibility, for there are few interdisciplinary areas with so much potential [as psychology and law] for improving the human condition and for acquiring and utilizing greater understanding of man. (p. 1)

Whether APLS will realize Ziskin’s vision, it is noteworthy that APLS has thrived since its inception. APLS has now grown to over 2000 members, has sponsored a major journal, Law and Human Behavior, a scholarly book series, and has developed guidelines for the professional practice of forensic psychology, among other accomplishments.

Excerpted from: Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic Psychology and law. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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