This article has been written by Satwik Sharma, pursuing the Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.This article has been edited by Aatima Bhatia (Associate, LawSikho) and Dipshi Swara (Senior Associate, LawSikho).


Web series and movies like “Criminal Minds” have painted very intriguing pictures of criminal psychologists in our minds. However, the reality is very different from what these web series and movies portray. A criminal psychologist has a desk job where a psychologist has to go through various previous case files and do their research. Unlike in web series and movies where the criminal psychologist plays an active role in every case and visits every crime scene, in reality, criminal psychologists rarely get a chance to visit the crime scene and they work on a case only when they are required by the concerned officers. 

Recently, National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) released the report “Crime in India – 2020”, according to which the crime rate in India increased to 487.8 (crimes per 1 Lakh people) in 2020 from 385.5 (crimes per 1 Lakh people) in 2019. Among all the states, Tamil Nadu has the highest crime rate, Kerala has the second-highest crime rate and Delhi has the third-highest crime rate. Registration of crime increased by 2.8% in which cybercrime increased by 11.8%. As stated above the crime rate in India is rapidly increasing, especially cybercrimes. Here criminal psychology comes into play, the criminal psychologist would see the motivation that derives criminals to commit crimes and thereby, would tell how to stop these criminals. The aforementioned report shows that crime against women decrease by 3% and rape and human trafficking also showed a lower trend. 

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Now, a question that arises is that whether the decrease in cases of rape or human trafficking is due to the deterrent effect of law or due to victims are denying or scared to report such crime? That is the question that can be answered by criminal psychology with a solution. That’s why an attempt is being made to apprise readers about the essence of criminal psychology to promulgate an effective law and system and what is the role of a criminal psychologist.

What is criminal psychology?

Criminal psychology is the study of thoughts, intentions, actions, or reactions, of a criminal to analyze and derive a pattern that would help police or other related agencies to apprehend criminals or help a court during proceedings. A major portion of criminal psychology deals with criminal profiling. The person who practices in the field of criminal psychology is called a criminal psychologist. Criminal profiling is a process of linking the actions of an offender to the crime scene to explore characteristics of similar kinds of offenders so that it becomes easy for police or other related agencies to apprehend similar kinds of offenders by just examining the crime scene.

Criminal psychology is now a properly-recognized field of applied psychology. Schuller & Ogloff (2001) have shown that there is an increase in the number of quality texts, dedicated research journals in the area of criminal psychology, also mainstream journals are recognizing. There is also improvement in the quality of undergraduate and postgraduate training opportunities. Criminal psychology is like an ocean that is largely unexplored with the skills to conduct research in the field of criminal psychology.

Difference between criminal psychology and forensic psychology

People in common parlance use criminal psychology and forensic psychology interchangeably. But this notion of people is wrong. Criminal psychology and forensic psychology are distinct subfields of psychology. However, there are few areas where these overlap. Hereinbelow, are a few differences between criminal psychology and forensic psychology.


Criminal psychology: Criminal psychology is the study of criminal behaviour to find the motivation, intention, and thought process of a criminal to get an insight into Why do criminals do what they do?. It exclusively deals with criminals. 

Forensic psychology: Forensic psychology is the application of the teaching and principles of psychology in the justice system to increase the productivity and efficiency of the justice system. So that the result, the sequel of the case proceedings is undeniable.


Criminal psychologist

a. Major portion of criminal psychologist work involves criminal profiling. 

b.Help investigating agencies to find the criminal by providing age, gender, physical appearance, and behavioural information of such criminals with the help of criminal profiling.

c. Appear as an expert witness in the court.

Forensic psychologist

a. Aids law enforcement agencies to develop a productive and efficient system of justice.

b. Gauge the mental health of a criminal.

c. Gauge whether a person is adult or juvenile.

History of criminal psychology

The inception of psychology as a science can be traced back to the year 1879. Since then psychology has evolved manifold and various subfields have evolved like criminal psychology. Many psychologists have conducted experiments that contributed to the genesis of criminal psychology. Like, Milgram’s experiment in the 1960s which fairly apprised how a person’s natural behaviour mutates under pressure. Though Milgram’s experiment majorly contributed to the literature of criminal psychology, still he was not called a criminal psychologist. The roots of criminal psychology can be traced back to the 19th century. Therefore, it is a new discipline under the umbrella of Psychology that is still developing. Now, people in different countries have begun to see the significance of criminal psychology. In India, criminal psychology is still at the budding stage. 

Early experiments in the field of criminal psychology are related to eyewitness testimony. As eyewitness testimony is of great significance to reach the culmination of a case. James McKeen Cattell conducted experiments on eyewitness testimony in North America that contributed significantly to the literature of criminal psychology. These experiments were not specifically conducted to add to the literature of criminal psychology but later these were added. In his experiments, subjects were made to reminisce about what they witnessed every day. The results of such experiments were that most of the people were not able to reminisce about what they witnessed a day earlier and those who reminisced about what they witnessed a day earlier were not able to clearly describe what they witnessed. Therefore, the information given by them was largely incorrect. This was the first experiment conducted by James Mc Lean Cattell in 1938 to understand the psychology of eyewitness testimony. 

Albert appeared as the first witness in a trial at Munich Court, Germany. In 1908, Hugo Münsterberg released his first book on the witness stand. In 1911, Julian Varendonck tested the reliability of the testimony of child witnesses through his classic experiments. In 1913, the first time psychological services were offered in a Women’s reformatory in New York, USA. In 1964, Hans J. Eysenck published his book on crime and personality which was the first comprehensive book on the application of psychology to understand crimes and criminal behaviour. In 1974, the University of Nebraska Lincoln introduced the first interdisciplinary degree in psychology and law.

Pioneers in the criminal psychology

  1. Hugo Münsterberg: He was a German psychologist who published a book containing a collection of essays on how psychology can significantly contribute to the field of law. Many people call him the father of criminal psychology. He discovered how psychology can contribute significantly in resolving issues related to eyewitness testimony, false confessions, suggestibility, crime detection, hypnotism and crime prevention. Hugo was the student of Wilhelm Wundt who was a renowned criminal psychologist. He appeared as an expert witness in many cases including the infamous case of Oz magazine.
  2. William Stern: He was a German psychologist whose experiment based on emotional arousal of the eye witness, was of great significance. In the experiment, subjects were made to witness the fight between two students. During such a fight one student took out a gun and shot the other student. This incident rendered them emotionally aroused and, thereby, this affected the testimony rendered by them. 
  3. Schrenck Notzing: He was a German psychiatrist, physician, and psychical researcher, who spent his time studying paranormal events connected with mediumship, hypnotism and telepathy. He explained the concept of retroactive memory falsification as a process where the information presented by the media and other sources interfere with the actual memory event of the witness.
  4. Albert Bandura: He was an American-Canadian psychologist. His ‘Social Learning theory’ is of great aid to understand the basis for many behaviours. He performed the famous experiment named Bobo doll experiment to test his social learning theory which states that how any person absorbs or learns any behaviour from his milieu through the process of mediation, retention, motivation and reproduction.
  5. Lionel Haward: He is also known as the father of the UK’s Criminal Psychology. In 1981, he described four ways for a psychologist involved in criminal proceedings i.e., clinical, experimental, actuarial and advisory. In clinical, the psychologist may use assessment tools, interviews, or psychometric tools to make their assessment more efficient. In experiments, it is the work of the psychologist to perform experiments on issues such as eyewitness testimony credibility, false memory, etc. thereby enhancing the judicial system, understanding criminal minds, new techniques for law enforcement agencies, etc. In actuarial proceedings, here the psychologist has to maintain proper statistics that would help court as well as law enforcement agencies to derive a conclusion. In Advisory, the psychologist may provide advice to help the court or the law enforcement in any particular case.

Role of criminal psychology

  1. Criminal profiling: The psychologist examines various crime scenes and criminals to understand the motive, intention, action, reaction, thought process to enlist characteristics shown by the offender of a particular crime. This would help law enforcement agencies to draw a profile of a criminal to make apprehension of such criminals easy and fast.
  2. Assess individual: The psychologist is required to assess the cognitive state of not only a victim but an accused also. The psychologist assesses whether a victim or an accused is mentally unfit as they claim or a victim or an accused is mentally unfit about which no one is aware of including a victim or an accused themself. The assessment involves gauging the strength, aptitude, intelligence level, personality, etc. to speculate what kind of personnel should be recruited that would have the amount of strength, aptitude, intelligence level, personality, etc to counter criminals. The assessment also helps to discover what kind of social, biological and environmental factors are aiding to foster a particular type of criminal behaviour.
  3. Actuarial: Psychologists are required to prepare statistics related to any crime, criminals or victim about their nature, growth, development, place or time in a community, religion or country. This would help the government to reduce a particular crime and also to prevent them. Also, would help the court to deal with a particular type of victim or criminal.
  4. Correctional system: After the apprehension of criminals, it is the duty of the concerned government to formulate a program that would help criminals to reintegrate into society, otherwise prison would get flooded with criminals. Therefore, the concerned government would require help from criminal psychologists to make criminals better human beings. There should be a separate correctional system based on types of crimes and criminals such as child, woman, man and degree of a crime. One correctional system or intervention plan would not work universally. The correctional system would also be required for a victim, witness, and especially for the personnel working in the law enforcement agencies to enhance their efficiency.
  5. Experimental: Research is required to be conducted on specific cases to get the insight of the perspective of a victim, a criminal or an eyewitness.
  6. Advisory: History evidently shows that the advice of a criminal psychologist is of great significance in an investigation. The psychologist examines the crime scene and the evidence retrieved from the crime scene, thereafter trying to find the motive and intention of the offender which helps the investigator to apprehend the criminal swiftly. The psychologist also gives advice to the court.
  7. Private practitioner: The psychologist also works as a private practitioner and provides their service to the general public. The private practitioner is of great help to solve domestic issues or divorce-related issues and save them from going to court. advocates also take the help of such private practitioners if their case requires such help.


Criminal psychology has emerged as an essential discipline that would help law enforcement agencies and courts to enhance their performance as well as to counter crimes and criminals efficiently. In India, criminal psychology is still in the budding stage. The government needs to provide more funds and build proper infrastructure so that students and researchers get attracted towards criminal psychology and more and more research and experiments can be done to get a  better outcome.


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