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The acceptable meaning of forensic psychology in general is the professional field that deals with the matters of the law, which require expertise in psychology as a key instrument. It is the branch of psychology that involves psychoanalysis and behavioral pattern investigations in attempt to unravel important aspects in criminal justice application. In simple definition we can infer it as the intersection between the practices of psychological principles in the legal system. It is also true that any professional in the field of psychology can double as a forensic expert, as well as perform many other clinical duties.
The individuals invited to assist in legal matters could be engaged in routine work as clinical psychologists, neurologists or professional counselors. An expert can provide health information concerning a person, who is facing the legal issues (Van, 2002). The information might be relevant in terms of medical history for mental disorders, diagnosis, treatment or even simple assessments related to substance abusers and addiction issues. In this case expertise opinion regarding the individuals involved in the cases becomes vital as testimony, expert analysis as evidence and possible recommendation for legal considerations.
Some people may start to wonder as to why this branch of professionalism has gained much recognition in the legal periphery. The reason behind this new trend is basically founded on the fact that all humans live and must relate to the many aspects of life either in conformity or contrast. This is what brings about psychology of human behavior in general (Duntley, Shackelford, 2008). This discipline of study attempts to investigate aspects of consciousness and mind in relation to human development, behavior, personality and relationship with the world around an individual being. Therefore, integrating all these factors and inherent principles into the legal matters is what brought about the relevance of forensic psychology.
The main difference between forensic experts and other professionals in this field is that the scope of duty in legal framework is minimal. For example school psychologists mainly handle children; in matters of the law they may be asked to evaluate children suspects of abuse cases, help to prepare minors to give testimonies in court, provide their own testimony as expert evidence, provide recommendations for juvenile offenders, as well as help to provide information in determination of child custody cases among other aspects of the law (Van, 2002). Most of the time the specialists in this line do not get involved in medical services, like diagnosis and treatment, but would always work in collaboration with other professionals offering such services.
The need for the accurate testimonies in legal matters dates back to the ancient times. We all agree that it would be not fair to convict someone based on testimonies, which are not entirely accurate to facts and circumstance surrounding a case. In 1895, Prof. James M. Catell of Columbia University conducted what became the earliest forms of research on the psychology of testimony (Bartol, 2012). His model involved posing series of questions to students and then rating their degree of confidence in their answers. His work generated more interest in research and eventually helped to establish the discipline as a proper subject in the USA.
More expert contribution in this field was made by William Stern. In 1939 he used an experiment, where students were asked to give a brief account on a dispute they had witnessed between the classmates. The results discovered common errors in the witness accounts and he concluded that emotions decreased accuracy of witness recall. His continuous study and investigation on this subject eventually led him to the establishment of the first academic journal devoted to applied psychology. This was a continuation for developing more academic journals in reference to the publications of James. M. Catell, which included American Journal of Psychology, The Psychology Review and Popular Science Monthly (Duntley, Shackelford, 2008).
This noble work was continued by Alfred Binet, who was so much inspired by Prof. Catell. He replicated the research, as well as incorporated other psychological experiments that applied to law and the criminal justice systems. His work in intelligence testing became very important in the development of forensic psychology. As early as 1896, psychologists had begun to appear in courts as expert witnesses in criminal trials in many parts of Europe. A good example is Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, who appeared for testimony at a murder investigation and dwell on the effects of suggestibility on witness testimony (Van, 2002).
Some other notable contributions came from fellows like Hugo Munsterberg, who published a book in 1908, On the Witness Stand, where he advocated for the use of psychology in legal matters. More contributions from other players in the field resulted in the beginning of using intelligence assessments on potential candidates for law enforcement positions. In 1917, William Marston discovered that systolic blood pressure had a very strong correlation to lying. This was a crucial milestone based on which, the modern polygraph detector was anchored.
The psychologist Marston became instrumental in a 1923 case of Frye vs. United States, where he appeared as expert witness. It was a turning point in legal matters and establishment of the precedence for the use of expert witnesses in courts (Brown, Campbell, 2010). As then determined by the Federal Court of Appeals, which indicated that if a procedure or technique is generally accepted, on assessments it can be used as evidence in the court. From that time, henceforth through the period of the world wars subsequently, the field of forensic continued to grow and evolve. Recently in 2001, the American Psychological Association has officially acknowledged the levels of specialization in the discipline and recognized forensic psychology as a specialty in the field (Davies, Beech, 2012).
When trying to examine the principles of human behavior in relation to psychology, we need to be able to place an individual in a constantly changing environment that influences him/her. We know for a fact that there is no single cause for human behavior. There is a huge field of different forces in play, which then make individuals’ behavior to be a result of the day to day interaction between them, the field forces and how they choose to respond to their surrounding circumstances (Duntley, Shackelford, 2008). The argument here is that it is not just the totality of these environmental factors that influence persons behaviors, but only the factors an individual perceives.
One important principle of psychology on human behavior dwells on personality development psychology. We can infer that personality, in general, is comprised of the traits or attributes that forms patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior that distinguishes individuals and makes every person unique in their own way. Experts argue that personality arises from within the individual and most of the time remains consistent in their lives. There are some advanced theories that try to explain aspects of development, while others focus on the differences in individual personalities.
One of the outstanding theories on personality development is the one advance by Sigmund Freud in 1915. His theory is pivoted on the importance of childhood events and experiences that eventually are thought to influence development of a personality. In this approach the theory focuses on the mental orderliness. Freud describes what he called psycho-sexual stages in development of the child. According to him, there are the oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital stages, and each of them involves satisfaction of some kind of libidinal desire, which will later play a significant role in adulthood. His argument is that if a child does not complete these stages successfully, then he or she may develop some hindrance or fixation that shall influence adult personality and behavior.
Erik Erickson is another theorist, who shared the view of a stage development in personality and behavior. However, his approach focused on continuous human growth through the entire life. His belief was based on overcoming of some kind of conflict at every stage in life. For example, he indicated that during adolescence, the primary conflict in a person would involve trying to establish a sense of personal identity. He argues that failure to develop a personality identity at this stage brings about role confusion in adulthood.
Jean Piaget differed in view, but shared the belief in development theories on personality psychology. He was of the inclination that children behave differently from adults simply because they just think differently. To this end, he referred his theory as a cognitive child development theory. According to this theory children can be thought to be like little scientists, who actively construct their knowledge and understanding of their surroundings as they grow, recognizing and gaining knowledge about the world around them.
Another angle taken by experts in this matter was based on behavioral development in a child in relation to the influences of their surroundings. John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov and F.B. Skinner theorized on observable behaviors, where personality development is considered in relation to reactions like stimulation, punishments and rewards among others. This theory focuses only on how some kinds of experiences can shape our personalities, but at the same time it gives no regards to an individual’s feelings or thoughts.
Psychologists have stressed the importance of understanding the human behavior from its cradle development. Nothing occurs from the blues, since humans begin to be aware of their surroundings and upbringing from the childhood. Ignoring early childhood development and their cognitive ability is no longer a viable option. So much happens soon after birth to adolescence and can easily shape the adulthood personality and behavior of the individual. It is essential to take this understanding in order to fully appreciate the abilities in children, as they grow being cognizant, physical, emotional, social, as well as educational aspects of their personality development.
It is true that all these theories might not be fully sufficient on their own to explain the personality development psychology. Theories can be tested on their ideas and sometimes have flows. However, as controversial as some of the theories might be in essence, the experts and theorists provided a base, which modern day psychology emanates from. In as much as our personalities are shaped by what is within the individual, it is also true that the influence of our social norms and activities plays a significant role to shape us too.
Considering the social development in children in a manner that shapes individual personality, theorist John Bowlby believed that personality development in children is highly influenced by their relationships with caregivers. Perhaps, this view is given weight by many people, who equate a mother to be the first school for a child. Of course, this view is based on the assumption that mothers are the primary caregivers.
In support of Bowlby theory, psychologist Albert Bandura intimated that children’s psychological development of personality is influenced by learning through observation. This expert further believed that factors like the sense of pride, accomplishment, satisfaction and personal goals provide intrinsic reinforcements that shape the personality of individuals. Thus, his argument is that children can learn all these by observing their peers, parents, caregivers and teachers among others, as they develop and acquire new information (Goldstein, 2006).
Experts intimate that the human perception in relation to their general behavior is founded on what they know, what they have learned previously and their own expectations for the future in relation to their surroundings. When one perceives that something is worthy gaining, they make it a desired target. What follows is then the mobilization of means towards the target. If, unfortunately, something happens to hinder them in the mobilization process, the individual counter-reacts to avoid the barriers. Naturally, we also know that the ways to achieve targets or even avoid barriers sometimes can be inhibited by other factors, like level of knowledge, social norms or financial constraints and uncertainly of consequences.
Sometimes some individuals’ personality traits do not conform to the social standing. Going by the above theories in totality, it can happen that an individual eventually portrays some abnormal behavior in adulthood, as a result of one or some of the factors that influenced their childhood psychological development. This is what experts call psychological personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), a personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experiences and behavior that deviates from cultural expectation, a behavior that is pervasive and inflexible, which had an onset in childhood or adolescence and has been stable over time leading to distress and impairment (Davies, Beech, 2012).
There is conflicting or opposing views regarding the possible causes of personality disorders. One school of thought holds the view that such disorders emanate from early childhood experiences that prevented the development of normal thought process and behavior patterns in the affected person. The other group is of the opinion that biological or genetic influences are the root causes of such. Researchers have not been fully able to give a conclusive cause so far. However, there is a higher possibility that psychologically personality disorders occur as a result of a combination of both genetic predispositions and environmental variables.
Psychologists have outlined some basic criteria for bench-marking potential candidates requiring further assessment and diagnosis for determination of personality disorders (Mart, 2006). If a person exhibits behaviors that cannot be explained by mental disorders, substance abuse or even medical conditions, they might be likely candidates for personality disorder checks. Consider also if the said pattern of behavior has been consistent over time and if the symptoms affect at least two areas from thoughts, emotions, impulse control and interpersonal functionality (Roesch, Hart, 2010). Most importantly is a determination whether the pattern is chronic and pervasive affecting aspects of the person’s life including work, school, family relation, social function and personal safety.
Before the experts can pass a verdict of personality disorder, there are a number of factors to be considered and examined for other possibilities of influence to the behavior exhibited that does not conform to cultural norms. They have to rule out even some medical conditions that could have triggered the odd behavior (Towl, Crighton, 2010). It is also true that most of the time personality disorder can occur concurrently with other types of illnesses. The potential differentials that must be ruled out include substance abuse, anxiety disorders, depression, dissociative disorders, social phobia, post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
Personality disorders have been aligned as ten different conditions. These conditions have also been clustered for ease of understanding into their aspects and management. The first cluster comprises of paranoid, schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders. These are what are professionally referred to as eccentric or odd disorders. The second cluster comprises of erratic disorders which include antisocial, borderline, histrionic and narcissistic personality disorders. And lastly, the final cluster is comprised of fear or anxiety disorders, which include avoidance, dependent and obsessive personality disorders (Fulero, Wrightsman, 2009).
In matters of legal implications, for instance the testimony of an individual that is thought to be suffering from personality disorders of any kind might not hold much substance as evidence in a case. On the other hand, an individual suffering from such disorders can commit heinous crimes, including murders, and would require expert witnesses to prove that such offenders were under the influence of psychological personality disorders for their cases to be determined for the necessary corrective sentences (Huss, 2009).
Let us take an example of a person suffering from Schizotypal personality disorder. Such people have a chronic condition that is manifested through distorted thoughts, behaviors and functioning. Such individuals are likely to suffer from depressions and even psychotic illnesses. The main traits in such persons include odd perceptions, thoughts and behaviors. They will also claim to be able to read other people’s minds and have a major difficulty in forming relations with others. Often these individuals talk to themselves and experience severe anxiety for social activities (Canter, 2012).
When such individuals are to give testimony as evidence in court, it would be very difficult for the jury to determine the truthfulness and accuracy of their testimony. At the same time, people suffering from these conditions may be the offenders themselves. Therefore, in the dispensation of criminal justice, we find at some point of the litigation the judge orders for mental assessments of offenders before a case can be fully exhausted on trail and verdict determination. When such orders are granted, then the examining doctors subsequently must appear in court as expert witnesses in the proceedings (Needs, Towl, 2004).
Psychology as a discipline tries to shed light on the nature of human behavior, which is as complex as much as our general perceptions about the world. We all perceive things selectively. That is to say we see what we want to see, or what we set our minds to acknowledge. This is simply because it is impossible for us to assimilate everything that we come across, as only up to a certain level of stimuli can be processed in our minds at any given time (Rosenfeld, Penrod, 2011).
Therefore, forensic psychology as a branch of the discipline will continue to be useful in the determination and dispensation of criminal justice. It has provided a window, for which human behavior based on their previous upbringing and mental or social development from childhood can be linked to current behavior patterns. Forensic experts in this line have become an essential part of day to day litigation processes.