This article is written by Vanya Verma pursuing B.B.A. LL.B (Hons.) from the Alliance University, Bangalore. This article talks about psychology, the relevance of psychology in law and criminal psychology.


The question as to why people choose to commit crimes, often in the face of severe consequences lies at the root of criminal psychology. This branch of study focuses on the behaviour and intentions of the people who intend to carry out criminal acts. 

Criminal psychology provides a glimpse into a criminal’s psyche. It even plays a role in how the law is applied. Forensic psychologists and mental health professionals are often called to help in clinically evaluating the mental states of the people who break the law.

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What is Psychology and its significance in Law?

Psychology is defined as a science that studies the mental aspect of an individual that helps in determining human behaviour. The study of psychology includes the study of conscious and unconscious states of mind. In other words, psychology studies the mind of humans and its effect on human behaviour. The aspects included are conative, cognitive, and affective aspects. 

Psychology plays a key role in police work as well. Forensic psychologists or criminal anthropologists help to determine the suspects through analysing a crime-scene, investigative into psychology, and other behavioural sciences. Law enforcement agencies often rely on these experts to get inside the head of a potential culprit by identifying the perpetrator’s likely personality type, lifestyle habits, and quirks.

Psychology has been helpful in the legal aspect as it helps in determining the mens rea of a criminal while committing the crime, veracity of witnesses, and what punishment should be granted to a person committing an offence, by keeping in mind the person’s psychological frame of mind. To some extent, psychology has started determining a criminal, as a person suffering from a mental disorder and thus suggests that such persons should be medically treated and not punished. The significant changes in psychology include the deinstitutionalisation of the mentally ill, with a greater understanding of the treatments and causes for mental disorders.

Over the years, a greater understanding of psychology, human behaviour, and psychiatry has helped in bringing significant changes as to how the legal experts think about law, as well as changes, in how the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill persons.

Psychology in this era has become an integral part of the legal system. Psychology is relevant in law as the law embodies the theories of human behaviour. The legal rules, doctrines and procedures reflect the basic assumption of human nature. Though psychology is not considered by some legal authorities as a discipline that is relevant to the law, it assists the decision-makers in making decisions by providing more accurate images and pictures of human preferences and perceptions.

Psychology also helps in checking the veracity of witnesses, as often the eyewitnesses are known to be either influenced by the accused or they are afraid of the accused. Psychology can also help in reducing the false confessions by adopting peace models. Its studies include the examination of different areas having social and legal significance. It is based on the psychological and empirical research of law and legal institutions and helps in focusing on legal psychology rather than clinically-oriented forensic psychology. Considering the psychological aspects of a human mind while pronouncing a judgement ensures justice.

Theory on Human Nature and Crime

There are three major domains underlying assumptions about human nature, these are as follows-

  1. Conformity perspective: According to the theory of Merton R. K. ‘humans are fundamentally good people and conforming beings who are strongly influenced by values and attitudes of the society in which they live’. This theory assumes that humans are creatures of conformity who want to do the right thing. The right thing is what society considers to be right. Family, education, social network, and contacts’ influence, can help access the right thing. When there is ‘perceived discrepancy’, between the goals cherished and materialist values and the availability of legitimate means, then delinquency and crime occur. Individuals and groups who experience a high level of strain are forced to decide whether to accept or violate laws or norms; consequently, they withdraw, conform or rebel.
  2. Non-conformist perspective: This theory assumes that human beings are basically indisciplined creatures, if given a chance an individual would flout the society’s convention and commit a crime. It has been contended in Travis Hirschi’s social control theory that delinquency and crime occurs when a person’s ties to the normative or conventional standards are largely nonexistent or weak, where there is a fault in the checks and balances of the society. This theory assumes that human nature is fundamentally ‘bad’ or ‘antisocial’.
  3. The third perspective assumes that basically human beings are ‘neutral’ by birth and they learn all their beliefs, behaviors, and tendencies from the social environment. According to this theory, criminal behaviour is learned through social interaction with other people. Criminal behaviour is not the result of mental illness, emotional disturbance, or innate qualities of goodness or badness. People learn to be criminal as a result of the messages they receive from others, who were also thought to be criminals. The conventional wisdom that “bad company promotes bad behavior” aptly summarizes this theory.

Criticism of Psychology

The criticism that is most frequent is that psychology is a science, and certainty cannot be granted by science, while the law requires certainty.

Psychology covers or is helpful only in limited areas of law like criminal law. The other criticism is amicus brief, regarding the work of a psychologist as sometimes due to lack of training, amicus brief is cited just to support the personal beliefs of the psychologist. 

There are two units of psychology that influence law and justice- legal psychology and forensic psychology, which together form law and psychology.

Legal Psychology 

Legal psychology deals with social and cognitive principles and their usage in the legal system. Legal psychology is based on psychological and empirical research of law along with the legal institutions. Legal psychology differs from forensic psychology as forensic psychology is based on experimentation and clinical orientation. 

The relevance of legal psychology in legal proceedings can be seen in different manners:

Advisory role– It is often seen that legal psychologists play an advisory role in the Court. The psychologists advise the legal decision-makers on some psychological issues that are relevant to the concerned case.

Academics and research– Empirical research is basically conducted by legal psychologists on new legal topics, which have not been popularised. They also work as mentors and guide the legal representatives.

Trial consulting– Legal psychologists sometimes also work for trial consulting. A psychologist who also works as an academician sometimes, is called up as a trial consultant to help in a particular case with their expertise. Trial consultants play different roles such as mock trials, picking up the jurors, etc.

Policymaking and legislative guidance– A legal psychologist’s work is based on empirical research and there are times when there is a need to establish some policies based on empirical research, at those times of crises they help the state and national lawmakers.

Amicus briefs– Primarily amicus briefs means to provide an opinion with scientific statistics and backup. But the assistance provided by legal professionals in the form of amicus briefs is questionable.

Expert witnesses– Legal psychologists are trained to handle legal issues even though they have no formal training. They help in testifying the witnesses and also to test the memory of eyewitnesses whereas the forensic psychologist testifies particularly the competency of the defendant.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology means applying psychology to understand the crimes and other legal concerns. Forensic psychology is the application of clinical specialties in a legal arena. The experts in forensic law help with legal proceedings in different manners as follows:

Assessment of mental condition– Forensic psychology helps in analysing the mental condition of the offender concerned with the plea of insanity. Insanity is now used as a tactic used by people to avoid imprisonment and death sentences. Hence, forensic psychology helps to determine whether or not an individual is actually suffering from any mental disorder.

Prediction of violence and risk management– Forensic psychology also helps to determine whether an individual has a violent tendency or not, this helps to conclude whether such an individual can inflict harm upon himself or others. This method is applied mainly when an accused is imprisoned or is set free.

Assessment of Child Custody in Divorce– Determining the custody of a child after a divorce is the most difficult and crucial decision to take as the future of the child is at stake. Forensic psychologists analyse the situation and the couple and recommend to the judge or jury as to whom the custody of the child should be given.

Competency to stand trial– Since the trial process is too long and tiring, it cannot be handled by physically or mentally ill people. Thus, forensic psychology helps in determining who can endure the trial and if there is a need, who should be immediately sent for psychiatric treatment.

Criminal Psychology

Criminal psychology is the study of the intentions, actions, reactions, views, and thoughts of the criminals and the ones who partake in criminal behaviour. Criminal psychology is related to the field of criminal anthropology. The study helps in determining what makes a person commit a crime as well as the reactions after the crime, on the run, or in court. 

Legal psychologists also known as Criminal psychologists are the ones who make the decisions on offenders. They see if the offenders are a threat to society.

Often the criminal psychologists are called up in a court as witnesses so that they can help the jury to understand the mind of criminals. Psychology also helps in dealing with the aspects of criminal behaviour. Criminal behaviour can be termed as “any kind of antisocial behaviour, which is usually punishable by law, but can be even punished by norms, stated by the community”.

Criminal psychologists do the work involving investigation, like examining the crime scene photographs, or to have an interview with the suspect. Criminal psychologists are sometimes required to formulate a hypothesis, to assess what will be the next step of the offender after he has broken the law.

The psychologists to identify the individual, who commits a crime, look at the patterns in behaviour. The most psychological questions include- is there a risk of a sexual predator if he is put back into the society; whether the offender was sane or insane at the time of the offense; whether an offender is competent to stand trial.

The question of competency to stand trial by the offender depends upon his current state of mind. This helps in assessing whether the offender is able to understand the charges put against him, what will be the possible outcome of conviction or acquittal depending upon these charges and to assist their attorney with their defense. 

The question of sanity or insanity or criminal responsibility at the time of the crime of the offender helps in assessing his state of mind, that is their ability to understand right or wrong and what stands against the law. The defense for insanity is rarely used because it is very difficult to prove. If the offender is declared insane, he is committed to a secure hospital facility. 

Roles of criminal psychologist

Roles of criminal psychologists are as follows:

Offender Profiling/ Criminal Profiling: This is the main role of a criminal psychologist. The criminal psychologist under offender profiling studies the thoughts and behaviour of the criminals. It is a method through which the psychologist seeks to identify the individual’s emotional, personality, and mental characteristics that are based on things left or done at the crime scene.

Rapport Maintaining: Rapport refers to a condition where two people are able to feel that they are able to connect and communicate with each other. Rapport is usually based on values, interests, and might involve other personal factors. The feeling of rapport can be stimulated through eye contact, mutual attention, mirroring body postures, etc. The psychologist tries to cultivate this type of relationship with the individual because it is essential for the psychologist to maintain effective communication in order to gain the confidence of the accused so that he feels comfortable and easily shares his thoughts without any pressure. The psychologist tries to study the criminal base upon his actions like whether the individual is trembling while having the conversation or his pupils are getting bigger or his palms are sweating which indicates that he is nervous or lying in his statement. These small actions also help the psychologist to understand the criminal’s mind.

In 1981, Professor Lionel Haward had once described the ways in which a psychologist may perform being involved professionally in criminal proceedings. There are four roles of criminal psychologists, as follows-

Clinical: Under this situation, a psychologist is involved in an individual’s assessment to provide a clinical judgement. The tools that are used by a psychologist are assessment tools, psychometric or interview tools, these can help the police or other such organization in order to determine how to process the individual in question. Example- helping to find out whether the individual is capable of standing a trial or he has mental illness due to which he is unable to understand the nature of proceedings.

Experimental: The psychologist in this case performs research to inform the case. The research may involve the process of executing experimental tests, the purpose of this is to illustrate a point or to further provide information to the courts. This involves a false memory, the credibility of the eyewitness experiments, and such. Example- A question similar to “how likely would a witness see an object in 100 meters?” can be answered.

Actuarial: This role involves a psychologist to use statistics in order to inform a case. A psychologist in this case may be asked to provide the probability of an event that is going to occur. Example- It can be asked from the courts how likely it is if a sentence is declined that a person will re-offend.

Advisory: In this role a psychologist may advise police as to how to proceed with an investigation. Example- what is the best way to interview an individual, how an offender will act after committing the offense, how to cross-examine a vulnerable or another expert witness in the best way.

Criminal and forensic psychologists may also consider the following questions:

  • Was the offender suffering from a mental disorder, was it present during the time of the crime?
  • What is the responsibility level of the offender for the crime?
  • What is the risk involved in reoffending and which risk factors are involved?
  • Is there a possible treatment to reduce the risk of reoffending?

Accordingly, individual psychiatric evaluations are resorted to measure the personality traits by psychological testing, they hold a good validity for the purpose of the Court.

Criminal Profiling

Criminal profiling is one of the major parts of criminal psychology. Criminal profiling also known as offender profiling is the process in which probable characteristics of a criminal offender(s) are predicted based on their actions exhibited in the commission of a crime that help the police investigators to narrow down the suspects. Profiling is based on increasing rigorous methodological advances and on empirical research.

Criminal investigative analysts or profilers are experienced and trained law enforcement officers who study each and every detail and behavioral aspect of a crime scene in which there is the involvement of a certain amount of psychopathology. 

Five behavioral characteristics that can be gleaned up from the crime scene are as follows: 

  1. amount of planning that was involved in the crime, 
  2. degree of control that was used by the offender, 
  3. escalation of emotions at the scene, 
  4. risk level of both the victim and the offender, 
  5. appearance of the crime scene (organized versus disorganized). 


Psychology is a step forward in making the legal system perfect, the role played by psychology in the legal system helps in modifying our legal system and also helps in maintaining justice, equity, and good conscience. The study of criminal psychology can help in preventing more crimes happening in future as the best way to reduce crime is to understand the criminal’s mind. 


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