Forensic Psychology vs Criminal Psychology

Forensic Psychology vs Criminal Psychology


“Oh, hey, you’re pursuing psychology, right? That means you must be able to read minds!” Awkward silence takes over, “Umm, not really”. Despite popular myths and misconceptions, psychology is a scientific field that deals with the study of an individual’s mind, behaviour, emotions, cognitive processes (which involve thinking, memory, decision making and so on) and personality. As it has humans as its most basic element of study, obviously it spills into nearly every sphere of life.

For any student who has interests in a variety of areas, psychology is an absolute dream. Some popular fields of psychology include clinical psychology, counselling psychology, sports psychology, health psychology, child or developmental psychology, organisational psychology, forensic psychology, and criminal psychology. In this article, we will be shifting our focus to the last two. Both forensic psychology and criminal psychology are employed in fields dealing with criminals, the criminal mind, crime investigations, and so on. While on the surface level, these may seem very similar, certain differences run deep down. Let us begin by understanding both fields independently first.

Key Differences between Forensic Psychology and Criminal Psychology

Forensic Psychology

Have you ever wondered whether someone is concerned with the psychological aspects that lurk behind law? Well, forensic psychology is your answer. The term ‘forensic’ refers to the application of scientific methods and theories to solve or investigate crimes. Forensic psychology is a professional psychology branch which deals with examining the psychological conditions embedded in the legal and judicial systems.

Workplace Setting:

Forensic psychology lies within the framework of the judicial and legal system. According to the American Psychological Association, it is aimed at providing psychological expertise in the above-mentioned areas. It rests at the intersection of psychology and law. 

Target Population:

Forensic psychology is at work alongside multiple professionals and people from different backgrounds. It works with attorneys, both civil (involved in any situations with personal injury, interpersonal relationships, property rights and so on) and criminal (those involved with defending delinquents, working with an insurance policy for acts under mental illness, insanity, rehabilitation for juveniles, and so on).

They are also involved in court proceedings as well as assessment of evidence validity. Moreover, a form of insurance policy aims at providing leeway to those who are mentally ill. Certain criminal acts (dependent on extremity) are excused by pleading insanity. However, these policies do not always excuse the person but can reduce the punishment since the act was caused by a mental illness and not deliberate action.

Duties Of a Forensic Psychologist

To reiterate, forensic psychologists are responsible for employing psychological theories and principles within the legal systems. They assess the workings of a legal system, and the route chosen by defendants in criminal proceedings and relay the nature of their assessments to legal professionals. 

They also act as advisors and expert witnesses. They evaluate the validity of a defendant’s plead insanity, the extent of punishment given the psychological condition of an individual, and criminal profiling which involves assessing the personality of the criminal, and they also act as expert witnesses on matters of criminal justice. They also provide a psychological lens to policies and strategies within legal systems and court proceedings.

How To Become A Forensic Psychologist?

In order to become a forensic psychologist, one must begin with getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology, or criminal justice. However, a bachelor’s degree is not the ‘be all, end all’ here, since many employers pay more heed to your Masters and doctorate qualifications. Thus, one must get a Masters in Forensic Psychology or simply in psychology with a specialisation in this field. If you want to practise within a clinical realm, you must also opt for a doctorate. Furthermore, licensure is required to work as a forensic psychologist in all areas except for research and other non-clinical setups. Finally, you must become registered with the Psychological board of Certification in your country.

Criminal Psychology

Criminal psychology also known as criminology deals with the scientific study of gaining insights about the thoughts, feelings and actions of delinquents. In a popular Broadway song, “Gee, Officer Krupke” a gang of juvenile delinquents attempt to convince the law enforcement officers that their offences are a mere result of them being psychologically unwell. Criminal psychologists attempt to understand what leads people to commit crimes or criminal acts. Let us highlight some major characteristics of this field and profession:

Workplace Setting

Criminal psychologists are employed by people in courts and law enforcement agencies. They are also primarily involved in prison settings where they assess and evaluate criminals and their behaviours. They also provide expert advice in rehabilitation settings.

Target Population

Criminal psychologists primarily work with law enforcement officers in evaluating as well as catching criminals by relaying knowledge about the possible personality and traits during criminal profiling. While it is distinct from forensic psychology, it can be related to it. While forensic psychology is primarily related to the application of knowledge, criminology depends more on understanding and gaining knowledge about criminals and the nature of crimes.

Criminal psychologists are also heavily involved in prison systems and rehabilitation. Their study focuses on the effect prisons have on individuals, interactions between different kinds of criminal personalities, and the interpersonal relationship between prison guards, wardens and prisoners. It uses its knowledge of criminal temperaments to advise on rehabilitation procedures and helping prisoners get psychological help to assimilate back into their everyday lives.

Duties Of A Criminal Psychologist

As you can see above, criminal psychologists are involved in numerous settings with people from various professional backgrounds. Thus, the duties of a criminal psychologist also cover a vast range of responsibilities. These include criminal profiling which is essentially assessing the personalities of criminals. This helps in the catching of criminals which once again is something a criminologist collaborates on with police officers.

They also work at bettering or providing new interrogation strategies and helping implement them with law enforcement officers. Interactions with criminals daily can take a toll on one’s mental health, criminal psychologists also address this. They are interested in understanding how such interactions affect law enforcement officers and providing necessary mental aid. 

The research within this field is aimed at understanding the underlying behavioural patterns and ideation behind criminal acts. It is necessary to lay down offender policies and identify the extent to which a crime can be attributed to someone’s mental illness. They offer an extensive analysis about crime scenes through a psychological sense. The duties of a forensic and a criminal psychologist may overlap.

How To Become A Criminal Psychologist

To become a criminal psychologist, the first step you must take is to obtain a relevant bachelor’s degree, preferably a Bachelor’s in Psychology with some sort of course in Criminal Justice. The Bachelor’s can be of Arts or of Science. You must also undergo clinical training in Psychology since this profession involves direct contact with mental health patients. Extensive and highly specialised knowledge is required to enter this profession, thus you must acquire a doctorate degree in criminal psychology. Finally, you must become a licensed professional by registering with the psychological association of your country.

Research Done In These Areas

Forensic tends to be a more applied field whereas criminology focuses a lot on research. Looking at recent Research done in both areas might help you with narrowing down your field of choice.  

Research published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice in 2022 explored the role of drug use, smartphone use to a pathological degree and neuroticism on lockdown-related stresses in young adults during the time of COVID-19. The results were positive and indicated that young individuals who tended to overuse drugs underwent more lockdown stress over others. Pathological use of smartphones and neuroticism were also linked to higher levels of stress. This research can help forensic psychologists designing interventions to break this cycle which leads to a lot more stress on youth by lessening the three variables- drug overuse, pathological smartphone use, and neuroticism.

Research published in 2023 in the most recent issue of the Journal of Criminal Psychology aimed at assessing difficulties and abnormalities faced during birth as well as other early childhood and family factors such as abandonment from apparent, abusive parental relationships, exposure to narcotics and alcohol and so on and then understanding their effect on psychopathic traits that are observable at the age of 48. The results found that while difficulties faced during birth had little to no effect, early childhood factors have a much more significant link with the development of psychopathic traits.


Forensic psychology and criminal psychology are very niche fields in the realm of psychology. If you are interested, there are numerous aptitude tests available such as Rorschach’s Inkblot test, MBTI Personality Inventory, and even career counselling. However, it must be noted that these fields tend to be very heavy on an individual’s mental and psychological well-being. Thus, one must be very resilient and mentally strong to pursue a career in these fields. You must also be extremely sensitive while dealing with such situations since your judgement may very well have an impact on ‘life and death’ situations.

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