The Business of Practice

Forensic Psychology Careers: Social & Cognitive Subspecialty

Social psychology examines the impact of social influences on human behavior. Social psychologists typically explain behavior in terms of situational rather (external) than dispositional factors (characteristics). On the other hand, cognitive psychologists are interested in understanding the effects on thoughts and thought processes. 

Forensic Psychology Careers: Social & Cognitive Subspecialty

Although these fields are distinct sub-disciplines of psychology, and students are traditionally trained in one or another, this article combines because there is considerable overlap in their application to the law. For example, one legal topic that has interested both social and cognitive psychologists is the psychology of the jury. A social psychologist can analyze this institution as a collection of individuals who must listen to, persuade, discuss, and perhaps compromise with each other. A cognitive psychologist can examine the institution as a medium for understanding individual and group memory processes, decision-making abilities, and problem-solving skills.

Types of Careers for Social and Cognitive Psychologists

Any psychologist may be asked to offer expert opinions on social behaviors or thought processes in court. As their primary specialty, however, most work in:

  • Academia. Like developmental psychologists, most social and cognitive psychologists with legal interests are employed by colleges and universities where they teach and conduct research. 
  • Advocacy and policy. Less frequently, they are employed by governmental agencies, private foundations, or non-profit organizations doing some combination of advocacy and policy formulation and analysis. 
  • Independent Legal Consulting Services. Still, other social and cognitive psychologists may be involved with the law as independent consultants. 
  • Trial Consulting Services. Some individuals who offer trial consulting services have been trained in traditional programs in social or cognitive psychology, for example. 

Activities of Social and Cognitive Psychologists

Many social and cognitive psychologists have become increasingly interested in conducting scientific research. 


Psychological Research on the Courtroom

One setting, the courtroom, has captured the attention of both social and cognitive psychologists because it provides a rich laboratory for psychological inquiry. 

In addition to questions related to jury decision-making, a myriad of other issues related to the adversary system can be addressed by careful psychological research: 

  • Decision-making capacities of judges, jurors, and other experts
  • Criminal defendants' willingness to accept plea bargains
  • Civil litigants' attempts at negotiation and settlement
  • The effectiveness of alternatives to trial (e.g., mediation, arbitration)
  • Litigants' beliefs about the justness and correctness of the legal proceedings
  • False confessions in criminal investigations 
  • Individuals' propensity to sue and the specter of litigation affecting professional and personal relationships

Psychologists who work on these topics apply social and cognitive psychological theorizing to these complex legal questions. This work has helped refine psychological theory and opened the courthouse and state house's historically closed doors to scientific scrutiny.


Psychological Research on Memory Capabilities of Victims and Witnesses

Although psychologists' interest in the veracity of testimony can be traced back to early in the 20th century, recent work has concerned the memory capabilities of victims and witnesses to crimes and accidents. Research on these questions has its foundation in theorizing about human perception and memory, and psychologists who work on these issues typically have a firm grounding in those theoretical realms.

Recent studies have focused on factors that influence the reliability of human memories for complex, fast-moving, and fear-arousing incidents. A related topic that has generated both a great deal of interest and considerable contentiousness is the reliability of repressed memories. Cognitive psychologists occasionally testify about the results of these studies as expert witnesses in trials that involve eyewitness testimony or repressed memories. The contentiousness often concerns the extent to which research findings can be applied to real-world situations.


Additional Areas of Psychological Research

A number of other issues have captured the attention of social psychologists who apply their knowledge of psychology to the law. Among these topics are: 

  • Regulatory compliance
  • Discrimination
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Sexual harassment and sexual assault
  • Investigative interviewing
  • Psycholinguistic analysis of judicial language
  • Probabilistic reasoning and decision making about complex scientific and statistical information

Scientific methodologies generate data on these and similar topics. They are then disseminated to the legal community through advocacy, expert testimony, description in appellate briefs, or via publication or presentation to legal audiences.

Educational and Training Requirements

The only requirement for social and cognitive psychologists is graduate school, although many pursue additional training. These psychologists are not required to complete an internship and are not licensed. Types of training include: 

  • Graduate School. Social and cognitive psychologists who work on law-related topics are typically trained in traditional social and cognitive psychology graduate programs that may or not have a focus on law. These students often work with a faculty member who has law-related interests. Some recently-developed programs offer psychology and law as a minor, and others elevate the program to a status comparable to more traditional areas of psychology. 
  • Formal Legal Training. Social and cognitive psychologists who work in the legal arena may need formal legal training. Many of these professionals tend to learn about the law by immersing themselves in psychological work related to law and legal processes. 
  • Ph.D. The Ph.D. degree is required for employment at most colleges and universities and some administrative positions in agencies. Students who opt for a masters degree may have some difficulty finding a research position, although they may have more luck in the advocacy and policy realms. 
  • Post-doc. Occasionally, a student who has received traditional graduate training in social or cognitive psychology and wishes to move toward psychology and law can do so during post-doctoral training, although it is unnecessary. 

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