Forensic Psychology


What is Crime

Crime is the breach of a rule or law for which a punishment is given by legal enforcement agencies such as the courts.

‘English Oxford Dictionary’ Def: An act punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to public welfare…An evil or injurious act; an offence, sin; esp. grave of character.

Problems with the Dictionary Definition:

  1. Perception: It is against Islam for a Muslim to consume alcohol, but if they are over the age of 18 it is not against British State Law. The same can be said of taking a life. Against the law if committed on the street, but legal if carried out on a battlefield in the name of the Queen.

  2. Societal Norms: Some crimes are not crimes per se, when judged against social norms. Picking money up off the street and keeping it isn’t criminal, it’s lucky. Crime therefore depends on whether it is judged from a legal or normative perspective.

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Ways of Measuring Crime

Official Stats

The official crime figures for 2005-2006 suggest that crime has remained stable over the last few years, although there has been an increase in some violent crimes (e.g. Gun Crime). The government claim that despite a peak in 1995, the incidence of crime has fallen by 44% in the last 10 years.

Rose (2006) analysed these figures and made the following judgements.

  • The government failed to report the drop in conviction rates. This is shown in reported **** cases. 1997 – 6,281 cases: Conviction rate 9.2% and in 2004 – 12, 867 cases: Conviction rate 5.5%

  • The media cover the lack of conviction by reporting the rise in prison populations; however this just shows an increase in the severity of sentencing.

  • In 2004, the Crime and Society foundation stated that official stats did not show a valid picture of crime and that the stats were used as a political tool to get votes.

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Ways of Measuring Crime Cont.

The BCS is an example of victim survey. The BCS measures the amount of crime in England and Wales by asking 50,000 people about their incidence of crime in the last year and whether or not these crimes were reported. The BCS provides a more accurate picture of incidence of crime compared with official stats as it includes non reported crime e.g. The Dark Figure of Crime.

Reasons why people don’t report crime:

  • Some crime is regarded as too trivial. (Theft of £5)
  • Victims sometimes unaware. (Fraud)
  • Fear of revenge.
  • Lack of confidence in the police.

Some crimes are more likely to be reported and recorded:

  • Individuals are more likely to make a fraudulent claim on their insurance for household goods.
  • More serious crimes, car theft more likely than theft of a £5 note.
  • Media campaigns can highlight the incidence of particular crimes. This causes the public to more vigilant to this type of crime and so they report it more. 
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Ways of Measuring Crime Cont.

Self –Report Studies

Questionnaire which asks people voluntarily to record whether or not they have committed any of the listed offences. The data are then compared to the official number of convictions recorded in order to measure which types of offenders are most likely to be convicted.

Problems with Self-Report:

  • Unreliable answers: The respondents may exaggerate etc.

  • Biased selection of offences: Studies may ignore middle class crime, may uncover trivial offences rather than the more serious.

  • Biased selection of interviewees: Researchers may not be able to interview the more dangerous offenders; business executives who are rich and powerful may exclude the researchers from investigating certain areas of crime such as corporate crime.

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Offender Profiling

British Method = Investigative Approach       FBI = Organised or Disorganised Crimes

 The FBI Approach

  • Started in the Behavioural Science Unit during the 70’s
  • Techniques such as crime scene analysis form the basis of establishing whether an offender is ‘organised’ or ‘disorganised’.

Hazelwood (1987)

Organised Offender  (Disorganised Offender basically the opposite)

  • Usually above average IQ.
  • Sexually and socially competent.
  • Lives with a partner.
  • Angry or Depressed at time of attack.
  • Crime scene shows signs of careful planning and control with the victim usually being a targeted stranger.
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FBI approach Evaluation


  • Owing to its emphasis on intuition, the FBI approach to offender profiling has been criticised for lacking scientific evidence and evaluation.
  • Is it therefore disregarded as a science and considered more as an art.
  • Alison and Barrett (2004) state that the approach is over-reliant on dated theories of personality and contains ‘many erroneous lay beliefs about consistency of human behaviour and the ability to classify individuals into discrete types’.
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The Investigative Approach

Techniques of the investigative approach

The focus of investigative psychology is still on the crime scene but the aim is to identify a pattern of characteristics through the use of statistical techniques.

These techniques are then used to identify how likely it is that some characteristics will co-exist with others at the crime scene, thereby establishing a baseline. Data analysis can identify the statistical chances of this behaviour occurring again and may also identify other key features of the offender.

  • Interpersonal Coherence: The actions displayed by the offender will be the norm to him or her. For example, the choice of victim will be significant.
  • Significance of time and place: The offender needs to feel in control and so will choose a specific location.
  • Criminal Characteristics: Analysis of crimes and the offenders will assist in classifying categories and identifying patterns of behaviour.
  • Criminal Career: This is influential in the number of repeated crimes the offender commits. These crimes may increase as offender’s confidence grows.
  • Forensic Awareness: Offenders who have been in contact previously with the police will cover their tracks in order to mislead investigators.
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Investigative Approach Evaluation

  • Canter believes that, in comparison with the FBI approach, the principles of investigative psychology are more scientific and are potentially more useful to investigators in actually catching the offender than crime scene analysis.

  • Nevertheless, the use of psychological profiles has been much criticised. Copson (1995), in a survey of detectives working with offender profiling, found that the profile only succeeds in catching the offender in 3% of cases.
  • This is due to the difference in psychologists and psychiatrists ways of establishing psychological profiles.
  • As Ainsworth (2000) states, the reputation of offender profiling in the UK is at stake owing to, for example, the public disagreement between Canter and another high profile criminal psychologist, Paul Britton, who argues for a different approach to profiling.
  • This just highlights the inconsistency of profiling in the UK compared with the FBI’s more consistent approach in the USA.
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The Geographical Approach to Offender Profiling

Geographical profiling focuses on how the location of a crime scene can provide the police with vital clues about the offender. It assesses and predicts the most likely area that the offender might live, place of work, areas where the offender may choose to socialise, certain routes travelled etc.

The Geographical technique uses a computer system called Criminal Geographic Targeting (CGT). Spatial data, which are data relating to the distance, movement and time to and from the crime scene, are analyzed to produce a three-dimensional model known as a jeopardy model.

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Geographical Approach Evaluation

  • Campbell (1976) suggests no clear evidence that psychologists can profile offenders any better than anyone else. The police regard it as invaluable to assisting arrests.

  • Alison et al. (2003) gave police officers 2 criminal profiles and asked them to assess their accuracy based on the facts given by the offender. Both groups of police officers felt happy with the profiles despite the fact that they were very different. It seems that the police just selected out the facts that most closely related to the offender and ignored any inaccuracies.

  • Overall, all forms of offender profiling must be subject to a thorough evaluation, although it is clear that applying psychological principles to the investigation of a crime is positive, in terms of resources and strategies. Offender profiling can only serve to enhance the productive and realistic working relationship between forensic psychologists and the police and legal personnel.

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Theories of offending

Atavism Put forward by Cesare Lombroso in 1870’s. He stated that criminals had different physical characteristics compared with non-criminals and that this demonstrated a more primitive evolutionary stage of development. (strong sloping jaw, extra *******, toes and fingers = criminal).

Lombroso went further by stating that particular sub categories of criminal could be identified by certain characteristics. (Bloodshot eyes, curly hair and a prominent jaw = murderer).


  • Didn’t compare criminals with non criminals, so no use of comparative psychology.
  • Sampled psychologically disturbed people, could be confusing criminal behaviour with mental illness.
  • Goring (1913), compared the physical characteristics of 3,000 English criminals with 3,000 non-criminals and found no significant difference in the physical features. Although Goring’s research methods were themselves criticised, his findings were far less dubious than Lombroso’s.
  • Despite the criticism that Lombros received, he is still regarded as the ‘father of modern criminology.’
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Theories of offending Cont.

Somatotype theory

  • Endomorph – fat and soft - relaxed, loving nature, enjoy company of others.
  • Ectomorph – thin and fragile - solitary, introverted and self-conscious.
  • Mesomorph – muscular and hard - criminals, aggressive, callous and mindless of other people.

200 college students and 200 male delinquents were rated according to somatotype

The results showed, on average, that the students had the same body type. Whereas the delinquent group were significantly more mesomorphic thus supporting Sheldon’s theory.

  • Cortes and Gatti (1972)criticised Sheldon’s classification of somatotypes as unreliable.
  • Sutherland (1951) stated that the classification of delinquent wasn’t used with the legal criteria. When it was re-tested using legal criteria, the link between mesomorphic and delinquency wasn’t present.
  • Other explanations of the mesomorphic criminal trend could be: The only way some mesomorphs have ever gotten what they wanted was to behave in an aggressive way. Mesomorphs are attractive to gang members.
  • British Crime Survey research points to a link between Ectomorphs and delinquent behaviour.
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Biological Explanations of offending (genetic tran

Twin studies:

Lange (1929) MZ twins showed much higher concordance rate than DZ twins for criminal behaviour. Christiansen (1977) studied 3,586 twin pairs from the Danish Islands and found concordance rates of 35% (MZ) and 13% (DZ) for Male twins and 21% (MZ) and 8% (DZ) for female twins.

Adoption studies:

Crowe (1972) Almost 50% of cases in a sample of adoptive children, whose biological mothers had a criminal record, had one themselves by the age of 18. In a matched control group of children whose biological mothers didn’t have a criminal record, only 5% of the adopted children had been convicted of a criminal offence. Hutchings and Mednick (1975) found that, if both adoptive and biological fathers had a criminal record, 36.2% of sons also became criminals. When only the biological father was the criminal, 21.4% of sons were criminal. When only the adoptive father had a criminal record, 11.5% of the sons were criminal. When neither the biological nor the adoptive father had a criminal record. The findings show that, whilst genetic factors clearly play a role in influencing criminal behaviour, environmental influences cannot be neglected.

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Psychodynamic explanations

Imbalance in the superego:

Harsh superego – can result in immense feelings of guilt and obsession when the id attempts to get satisfaction.

Strong superego – tends to be law abiding although they do at times, commit anti-social behaviours and strange deviant behaviours. For example, it is suggested that when sexual urges from the id become so overwhelming the person feels guilty and so commits a crime such as flashing towards another person so as to be punished.

Weak superego – individual is oblivious to other people’s feelings and is led by the demands of the id.  

Bowlby states that weak superegos are the result of maternal deprivation (absent or unloving parents). Bowlby (1946) undertook a study to see if teenage thieves who displayed affectionless psychopathy were more likely to have experienced early maternal deprivation compared with those who did not. From his findings he concluded that delinquency is linked to maternal deprivation in childhood.

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Learning theory explanations

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory acknowledges the role of mediating processes that lie between stimulus and response. These mediating variables help to shape our behaviour by making us think about the consequences of our actions. Bandura et al. (1963) stated that the main influences on an individual’s behaviour are from observations of role models in the individual’s environment.

Whether role models are imitated depends on a various number of variables: Social Status, Consequences of actions, If the model is positively reinforced. Also Vicarious Reinforcement plays a part.

Vicarious Reinforcement

Indirect reinforcement is an indirect form of reinforcement and involves learning by observing others rather than directly receiving rewards or punishments oneself.

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Learning theory explanations Cont.

Sutherland’s differential association theory

Sutherland’s (1939) theory of differential association is a sociological one. Criminal behaviour is the result of exposure to criminal norms.

Crime occurs because of two factors: Learned Attitudes and Imitation of specific acts

Criminal activity is the result of an individual expressing their needs (e.g. for money). However the need for money is learned and so can’t be used to explain all criminal behaviour. Sutherland states that an individual is exposed to the values and attitudes of the people who surround them in their environment. For example a child learns the needs and values of their parents by observing their attitudes towards the law. If, as a result of learning, the child acquires more favourable attitudes towards crime, then they too may become a criminal like their parents.

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Eysenck’s theory of criminal personality

Extroversion – Relates to the amount of stimulation an individual receives from their environment. If they receive a lot of stimulation they are said to be extrovert.

Introversion – These people require little environmental stimulation and can often be withdrawn.

Emotional Stability – Low in neuroticism means an individual is more emotionally stable.

Neuroticism – High in neuroticism means an individual is prone to depression, anxiety and variable moods.

Eysenck theorised that criminal behaviour is associated with individuals who scored high on both extroversion and neuroticism dimensions. The combination of these two traits means that an individual would constantly seek stimulation (high on extroversion) but does not learn from their punishments (high on neuroticism). Later, Eysenck suggested a third personality dimension: psychoticism (P). Individuals who are high in psychoticism are uncaring, aggressive and solitary. He stated that individuals are high in psychoticism are likely to commit criminal acts.

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Custodial Sentencing

Aims of sentencing

  • Retribution – Simply means punishment. The offender will receive a punishment that will reflect the seriousness of the crime and the level of moral fault.

  • Deterrence – To deter other people from committing a crime. Individual Deterrence is to stop the criminal committing the same crime in the future. General Deterrence – aims to deter the rest of the population from committing the same crime. However, Home Office figures on recidivism show that 70% of offenders who receive custodial sentences go on to reoffend within two years of release.

  • Rehabilitation – To cure the offender from their deviance (E.G. Drug Treatments etc). Counselling and therapy sessions are needed for this.

  • Protection of Society – Serious offenders, such as those who commit murder or ****, should be put in prison for the protection of the rest of society.

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Custodial Sentencing Cont.

Bartol (1995) states many offenders find prison to be demeaning and brutal. However there is a lack of longitudinal research into the psychological effects of prison, as prison regimes can be very different from one another, making comparative investigation difficult. Nevertheless Bukshel and Kilmann (1980) found that symptoms such as restlessness, anxiety and sleeplessness tend to occur at the beginning of the prison term and an adjustment to prison life is needed.

Zimbardo (1971) Stanford Prison Study

Aim: To investigate how the situation of being in a prison can influence behaviour.

Method: A ‘mock prison’ was set up in the basement of a Stanford University building. 22 male participants that had volunteered were placed into the role of either guard or inmate. They were placed under lock and key 24 hours a day. The experiment was supposed to last 2 weeks.

Results: The study was shut down after 6 days because of extreme psychological distress of the inmates because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of ‘the guards’.

Conclusions: It was the prison itself that caused the extreme behaviour, therefore we can see how prison can be an extremely harmful place.

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Custodial Sentencing Cont.

Alternatives to custodial sentencing

  • Absolute or conditional discharge- released with condition of non-offence for a certain amount of time.

  • Fines- Sum of money relevant to severity of crime.

  • Community orders

    • Community Rehabilitation Order- Probation officer sometimes with counselling or programmes of treatment

    • Community Punishment Order- Community service

    • Community Punishment and Rehabilitation Order- Combines both.

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