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What Is Forensic Psychology?

What Is Forensic Psychology?

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Forensic psychology is a subfield of psychology that explores how psychology and the law are connected. Author Christopher Cronin defines forensic psychology as, “The application of clinical specialties to legal institutions and people who come into contact with the law.”

This article discusses the history of the field of forensic psychology and how this area of psychology is utilized in the real world.

Origins of Forensic Psychology

The term ‘forensic’ comes from the Latin expression ‘forum’, which means place of public discussion. The word forensic psychology, therefore, implies practice in a judicial context, typically as an expert witness testimony at a trial. In this sense, forensic psychology may also be referred to as legal or court psychology.

History of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology was not officially recognized as a separate and distinct discipline by the American Psychological Association until the year 2001. However, the study of the intersection of psychology and law dates back much further. 

Early psychologists including Wilhelm Wundt and James McKeen Cattell were interested in topics relevant to the field of forensic psychology. During the 1950s, psychologist Hugo Munsterberg published a book focused on how psychology could be applied in legal settings. Psychologists such as Alfred Binet and Lewis Terman made contributions to the field of intelligence testing, which is often used as an assessment tool in legal contexts.

Uses for Forensic Psychology

In addition to psychological assessments and forensic consulting, forensic psychology may involve research and the development of forensic assessment techniques.

Forensic psychologists might work in a courthouse or prison setting as well as for law enforcement agencies or private companies such as those within the criminal justice system. Forensic psychologists often train as clinical psychologists and receive additional training in forensic assessments either during their education or after.

Some of the ways that forensic psychology is used include:

  • Competency evaluations: Forensic psychologists often assess a defendant to determine competency to stand trial and criminal responsibility. Competency to stand trial typically refers to whether a person charged with a crime is aware of what they have been accused of, if they understand the nature of the court proceedings against them, and if they can assist in their own defense.
  • Job evaluations: Forensic psychologists may also assess police officers to determine fitness for duty and suitability for promotion. This may be related to an officer’s ability or capacity for meeting physical requirements or performing certain tasks such as handling a firearm. 
  • Child custody evaluations: Forensic psychologists may play a role in child custody cases to inform judicial decisions regarding child custody. 
  • Eyewitnesses assessment: Professionals who work in this field may also be tasked with assessing whether an eyewitness’s age or emotional state affected their ability to accurately identify a perpetrator.

Forensic psychologists specialize in applying psychological knowledge in the area of the law and criminal justice. Some other tasks performed by forensic psychologists include:

  • Providing expert testimony in court cases
  • Briefing witnesses
  • Offering treatment recommendations
  • Writing mental competency reports
  • Diagnosing and treating incarcerated individuals
  • Training prison and court staff to work with individuals who may have a mental health condition

This field has grown in popularity in recent years, partially due to depictions of the career in films, books, and television programs. While these pop culture portrayals might not necessarily give the most accurate view of forensic psychology, this field is still a promising area for people who have an interest in psychology and the law.

Forensic Psychologist Salaries

Forensic psychologist salaries can vary considerably depending on factors ranging from geographic location to years of experience. Salary statistics suggest that forensic psychology can be a well-paying field, particularly for those with advanced degrees and experience.

Just how much do forensic psychologists typically earn?

As with most careers, specific salaries vary depending upon factors such as educational background, geographic location, employment sector, and years of experience in the field.

Exact figures on forensic psychologist salaries are difficult to locate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not compile data on this specific subfield.

According to figures compiled by job search engine, the average national salary for a psychologist was $86,185 per year as of September 2021.

Figures offered by salary website suggest that wages vary from a low of $51,000 to a high of $92,000, with a median annual salary of around $82,000. These figures are aggregated based on self-reports from website users who work in those fields.

In many cases, those at the lower end of the scale tend to be those in entry-level positions. These starter salaries are often offered to those with a bachelor’s-level degree in psychology. Those employed by non-profit organizations and government agencies often find lower pay rates than those employed in the healthcare industry, private agencies, or in private consulting.


Forensic psychology is a growing field that has attracted a great deal of interest in recent years. Potential salary is only one of many factors you should consider if you are thinking about pursuing a career in this field.