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Law and Crime

10 Things Crime Fiction Gets Wrong About Forensic Psychology

These errors can be avoided with better research.

Key points

  • Many crime fiction writers often make mistakes about what forensic psychologists do.
  • The range of errors covers investigations, consulting, and the courtroom.
  • There are resources that can help to present this profession correctly.
Source: Photo by K. Ramsland
Source: Photo by K. Ramsland

Forensic psychology is the application of concepts and research from social, clinical, experimental, and cognitive psychology to the civil or criminal legal arena. Forensic psychologists generally work within the prison or court system. My discussion below covers typical conditions.

In most of the U.S., forensic psychologists generally ascertain a defendant’s mental state when they’ve committed a crime (MSO) and/or determine competency to participate at various stages of the legal process, e.g., waive rights, confess, stand trial, testify, or represent themselves. Psychologists might also serve as experts to explain complex concepts or conditions to fact-finders (judge or jury), and might be involved in offender assessment or treatment programs. In addition, they might offer predictions about future potential violence or advise on such behaviors as lying, malingering, and falsely confessing. They might offer police training or consult on unusual investigations.

When I reviewed depictions of forensic psychologists in crime novels for my MFA, I found many incorrect assumptions. For example, forensic psychologists were often posed strictly as profilers. Some writers understood their clinical work, but many thought they’d be active investigators. (My own forensic psychologist in my Nut Cracker series, Annie Hunter, has a PI license and uses an investigative team.)

Following are 10 errors I’ve seen in fiction about forensic psychologists:

Error 1. They’re used as profilers because detectives can’t do this work.

The FBI offers U. S. jurisdictions its Behavioral Analysis Unit at no cost, if needed, and plenty of detectives get training in profiling at the FBI’s National Academy. Britain has a program where psychologists (and others) might be trained as behavioral investigative advisors, but BIAs mostly gather victim and crime scene data. Research psychologists with special knowledge about certain types of crimes might consult, but they don’t generally step in as profilers. Frankly, detectives resent the notion that they’re deficient in criminal behavioral analysis.

Error 2. They visit crime scenes to advise on catching a killer.

Forensic psychologists might view crime scene photos for their reports, but they don’t lie in graves, barge into active investigations, or examine bodies to advise on how to locate and arrest offenders.

Error 3. They profile a person.

Even when they do act as death investigation consultants (my character is a suicidologist, a discipline in which few cops are trained), they don’t profile a specific person. Profiling focuses on victimology and crime scene behavior to envision the type of person who would behave in this way. It’s about reconstruction and linkage analysis. Profiling a person is more correctly called kinesic analysis or reading body language. Also, the phrase, “s/he doesn’t fit the profile,” mistakenly suggests that a profile is a blueprint developed before a crime has even occurred.

Error 4. They undertake hypnosis or therapy in the courtroom.

If they’re testifying as experts, they’re explaining psychological concepts or conditions that would be difficult for a layperson to understand. They don’t approach defendants, let alone put them under hypnosis. They also don't betray their own clients by revealing the content of sessions without permission. (When the experts who are testifying are the defendants’ treating clinicians, they’re not acting as expert witnesses. They might be there to clarify motivation or aberrant conditions or to offer mitigating factors for sentencing.)

Error 5. They interrogate suspects.

Although psychologists might advise detectives about interrogation research and strategies, they don't displace detectives to interrogate suspects as some kind of specialized expert.

Error 6. Forensic psychiatrists, forensic psychologists, criminologists, and criminalists all do the same work, so the titles are interchangeable.

Psychiatrists obtain medical degrees and complete specialized training in psychiatry. They can prescribe medications. Psychologists cannot. A criminologist typically studies crime and criminal behavior from a sociological perspective, specifically regarding trends and causal factors; they devise ways to contain or prevent crime. Criminalists deal with physical evidence from a scene. (I differentiate these roles in detail here.)

Error 7. Police psychologists act as “the” profiler.

Clinical psychologists employed in police departments carry out activities such as fitness for duty evaluations, critical incident debriefing, counseling, or stress management. They might offer advice in a hostage situation or provide training, but they’re not invited into brainstorming sessions with detectives to perform the profiling.

Error 8. Thanks to their clinical training, psychologists can always spot a liar.

Unless they do specific research on deception, research shows that forensic psychologists have no special talent for spotting liars. (Neither do detectives, despite what they want to believe.) Even those who do deception research know they have limits.

Error 9. Forensic psychologists pronounce defendants to be sane or insane.

During the 19th century, insanity was a medical term, but now it’s a legal term that describes a mental disease or deficiency that prevents a person from knowing that what they did was wrong or from comporting themselves according to the law. In addition, a finding of insanity is the “ultimate issue” for the fact-finder (judge or jury) to decide, not an expert witness. Psychologists can describe the mental state at the time of the offense, but the fact-finders determine whether it qualifies as legal insanity. Each state has its own criteria for an insanity defense (or has none at all).

Error 10. Forensic psychologists can accurately predict long-range future violent behavior without standardized tools.

They can’t predict potential future danger with much range or accuracy, and best practices call for using detailed standardized assessments based on several life domains. Some clinicians are risk assessment specialists, but even they know that the ability to predict future violent behavior is complicated and limited in scope.

Crime writers can avoid errors like these with some basic practices:

  1. Don’t expect television series to provide accurate models. TV is for entertainment, period. If facts conflict with a cool plot, the plot wins. (I’ve experienced this as a TV writer.)
  2. Don’t look to other fiction writers as models unless you have reason to accept their credibility, e.g., they have professional background in the field or they use consultants with professional background.
  3. Take seminars or classes, or purchase some nonfiction books by professionals in the field. Many writing groups host such experts or offer seminars or courses. Listen to them.

Facebook image: SeventyFour/Shutterstock


Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2018) Forensic and legal psychology, 3rd Ed., Worth.

Hafemeister, T. (2019). Criminal trials and mental disorders. New York University Press.

Ramsland, Katherine. (2002). The criminal mind: A writer’s guide to forensic psychology. Writers’ Digest Press (outdated info for the DSM, which changed editions in 2013.)

Ramsland, Katherine. (2018). The psychology of death investigations. CRC Press.

Scherer, A., & Jarvis, J. (2014). Criminal investigative analysis: Practitioner perspectives. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. (a 4-part overview of profiling).

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