Criminal psychology

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For the science pertaining to the intersection between psychology and the legal system, see Forensic psychology.

Criminal psychology is the study of the wills, thoughts, intentions and reactions of criminals, all that partakes in the criminal behavior.[1][2]

It is related to the field of criminal anthropology. The study goes deeply into what makes someone commit a crime, but also the reactions after the crime, on the run or in court. Criminal psychologists are often called up as witnesses in court cases to help the jury understand the mind of the criminal. Some types of Psychiatry also deal with aspects of criminal behavior.

Psychology's role in the legal system[edit]

Main article: Forensic psychology

Psychiatrists and psychologists are licensed professionals that can assess both mental and physical states. Profilers look for patterns in behavior to typify the individual(s) behind a crime. A group effort attempts to answer the most common psychological questions: If there is a risk of a sexual predator re-offending if put back in society; If an offender is competent to stand trial; whether or not an offender was sane/insane at the time of the offense.

The question of competency to stand trial is a question of an offender’s current state of mind. This assesses the offender’s ability to understand the charges against them, the possible outcomes of being convicted/acquitted of these charges and their ability to assist their attorney with their defense. The question of sanity/insanity or criminal responsibility is an assessment of the offenders state of mind at the time of the crime. This refers to their ability to understand right from wrong and what is against the law. The insanity defense is rarely used, as it is very difficult to prove. If declared insane, an offender is committed to a secure hospital facility for much longer than they would have served in prison. Theoretically, that is.[3]


Main article: criminal profiling

A major part of Criminal psychology, known as criminal profiling, began in the 1940s when the United States Office of Strategic Services asked William L. Langer's brother Walter C. Langer, a well renowned psychiatrist, to draw up a profile of Adolf Hitler. After the Second World War British psychologist Lionel Haward, while working for the Royal Air Force police, drew up a list of characteristics which high-ranking war criminals might display, to be able to spot them amongst ordinary captured soldiers and airmen.

A renowned Italian Psychologist Cesare Lumbroso (1835-1909) was thought to be one of the first criminologist to attempt to formally classify criminals based on age, sex, gender, physical characteristics, education, and geographic region. When comparing these similar characteristics he better understood the origin of motivation of criminal behavior. Published his book called The Criminal Man. Lumbroso studied 383 Italian inmates. Based on his studies, he suggested that there were three types of criminals. Born Criminals which meant these people are degenerates and the insane criminals are ones that suffer a mental illness. Also he studied and found specific physical characteristics. A few examples include asymmetry of the face, eye defects and peculiarities, and ears of unusual size and etc.[4]

In the 1950s, US psychiatrist James A. Brussel drew up what turned to be an uncannily accurate profile of a bomber who had been terrorizing New York.[citation needed]

It was first introduced to the FBI in the 1860s when several classes were taught to the American Society of crime lab directors. Most of the public at that time knew little if not anything about how profilers would profile people until TV came into play. Later films based on the fictional works of Author Thomas Harris that caught the public eye as a profession in particular Mindhunter (1986) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The fastest development occurred when the FBI opened its training academy, the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), in Quantico, Virginia. It led to the establishment of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and the violent criminal apprehension program. The idea was to have a system which could pick up links between unsolved major crimes.[citation needed]

In the United Kingdom, Professor David Canter was a pioneer helping to guide police detectives from the mid-1980s to an offender who had carried out a series of serious attacks, but Canter saw the limitations of "offender profiling" - in particular, the subjective, personal opinion of a psychologist. He and a colleague coined the term investigative psychology and began trying to approach the subject from what they saw as a more scientific point of view.[citation needed]

Criminal profiling, also known as offender profiling, is the process of linking an offender's actions at the crime scene to their most likely characteristics to help police investigators narrow down and prioritize a pool of most likely suspects. Profiling is a relatively new area of forensic psychology that during the past 20 years has developed from what used to be described as an art to a rigorous science. Part of a sub-field of forensic psychology called investigative psychology, criminal profiling is based on increasingly rigorous methodological advances and empirical research.[citation needed]

Criminal profiling is a process now known in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as criminal investigative analysis. Pro-filers, or criminal investigative analysts, are trained and experienced law enforcement officers who study every behavioral aspect and detail of an unsolved violent crime scene in which a certain amount of psychopathology has been left at the scene. The characteristics of a good pro-filer are discussed. Five behavioral characteristics that can be gleaned from the crime scene are described: 1) amount of planning that went into the crime, 2) degree of control used by the offender, 3) escalation of emotion at the scene, 4) risk level of both the offender and victim, and 5) appearance of the crime scene (disorganized versus organized). The process of interpreting the behavior observed at a crime scene is briefly discussed.[5]

Applied Criminal Psychology[edit]

The effect of psychological and social factors on the functioning of our brain is the central question forensic or criminal psychologist deal with because it is the seed of all our actions. For Forensic Psychiatry the main question is which patient becomes an offender or which offender becomes a patient and what came first the crime or the mental disorder. Questions that these psychiatrist consider are: 1. Is a mental disorder present now and was it present during the time of the crime? 2. What is the level of Responsibility of the offender for the crime? 3. What is the risk of reoffending and which risk factors are involved? 4. Is treatment possible to reduce the risk of reoffending? Accordingly individual psychiatric evaluations are resorted to measuring personality traits by psychological testing that have good validity for the purpose of the court.[6]ntd-cp


  1. ^ Richard N. Kocsis, Applied criminal psychology: a guide to forensic behavioral sciences, Charles C Thomas Publisher, 2009, pp.7
  2. ^ JamesBonta
  3. ^ Turvey, Brent E. (2002). Criminal Profiling, 4th Edition An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. California: Elseiver Science Ltd. ISBN 0127050418. 
  4. ^ Richard N. Kocsis, Applied criminal psychology: a guide to forensic behavioral sciences, Charles C Thomas Publisher, 2009, pp.7
  5. ^ O'Toole, Mary Ellen (2004). Pro-filers: Leading investigators take you inside the criminal mind. New York: Amherst, NY US: Prometheus Books. pp. 223–228. ISBN 1-59102-266-5. 
  6. ^ Turvey, Brent E. (2002). Criminal Profiling, 4th Edition An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. California: Elseiver Science Ltd

David Canter (2008) "Criminal Psychology" London: Hodder Education

See also[edit]