What is criminal psychology?

In this part of the article first of all we will seek to explain that every single human being is totally different into criminal activity. Before we continue reviewing this topic we should keep in mind that there are no common rules that can be used to all of the people, who are involved in crime itself (e.g. offender) or investigation process (e.g. witness). As professionals state, this is why criminal psychology is so interesting and why they enjoy their work so much.


The term “criminal psychology” has been defined in a numerous ways. Even today it has no accepted definition. It can be defined as a science, which helps investigative institutions in fulfilling their mission more effectively by applying a psychological knowledge to it.

In this field psychologists mainly focus on offenders. They can engage in a number of activities related to investigation, ranging from profile creation process to conduction of psychological testing of people for courts/trials for various crimes.

People with this profession are also trying to find out why do people commit offence, what are their motives, what made them do so. The research of cause-effect relationship ranges from a serial killer’s childhood environment to psychological stress, which leads them to rob a bank in order to deal with financial problems.

In 1981, one of the fathers of UK’s criminal psychology – Professor Lionel Haward described four ways, that psychologist may perform upon being professionally involved in criminal proceedings. These are the following:

  1. Clinical: In this situation the psychologist is involved in assessment of individual in order to provide a clinical judgment. The psychologist can use assessment tools, interview or psychometric tool in order to aid in his/her assessment. These assessments can help police or other competitive organs determine how to process the individual in question. For example help finding out whether he/she is capable to stand trial or whether the individual has mental illness which means, that he/she is unable to understand the proceedings.
  2. Experimental: In this case the task of psychologist is to perform a research in order to inform a case. This can involve executing experimental tests for the purposes of illustrating a point or providing further information to courts. This may involve false memory, eyewitness credibility experiments and such. For example, this way questions similar to “how likely would a witness see an object in 100 meters?” will be answered.
  3. Actuarial: This role involves usage of statistics in order to inform a case. For example, a psychologist may be asked to provide probability of an event occurring. Therefore, the courts may ask how likely a person will reoffend if a sentence is declined.
  4. Advisory: Here a psychologist may advice police about how to proceed with the investigation. For example, which is the best way to interview the individual, how best cross-examine a vulnerable or another expert witness, how an offender will act after committing the offence.

Nowadays, as society throughout the world is much more developed than about an century ago, everyone agrees that fighting crime gets more and more sensitive and it is not simply “catch and imprison” work anymore. Modern approach considers also that offender is a member of the society, that after imprisonment they need rehabilitation, since the main goal is not to only punish someone, but to prevent them from re-committing a crime. Another very important point is taking care about witnesses and victims. Very often they might get really serious stress and it is concern of police and psychologists to help them recover.

The very main goal of this field of psychology, of course, is reducing the crime in general, but on this web-page we want to share information about the ways serving this main goal and talk about the really exciting challenges people working in this field may face.

In this video Dr. Laurence Miller, PHD (Clinical & Forensic Psychologist), the author of “Criminal Psychology: Nature, Nurture, Culture” is giving out a brief information about criminal psychology.


Criminal psychology as an academic discipline was established not so long ago. It was late 19th century when universities started to teach it. But actually methods of offender profiling was used earlier by the investigators. German psychologist Hugo Munsterberg is considered to truly start the criminal psychology, his works from 19th-20th centuries still are very useful for psychologists. Since early 20th century criminal psychologists role in the whole process of fighting criminal has been increasing rapidly and nowadays their work is highly appreciated in every developed country of the world.

What does a criminal psychologist do?

The term of criminal psychology for most people may associate with Hollywood movies, such as “Silence of the Lambs”. And the criminal psychologist, as we might think, is the person who helps police to catch the offenders, conducting interviews with them and gaining a better insight into the offender’s mind by talking to them about committed crime.


Of course these conceptions of the work of criminal psychologist are mainly true, but they do not represent the wide variety of roles their work covers. In this article we will try to give some general information about these roles.

  • Crime Analysis (AKA Intelligence Analysis) – This field of the Criminal Psychology mostly includes case linkage. The process of case linkage involves analyzing the behaviours of the offender in some specific situation (according to the victim report, if available, or as inferred from the crime scene), and comparing the data to the similar crimes from the database. If matches are found, for example – the same weapon was used, the threats from the offender were the same, the crimes were committed in a close geographical location – this gives the police basis to investigate that potentially the same offender has committed both crimes.
  • Offender Profiling – There is an absence of the agreed concrete definition of Profiling, even in academic circles. What we can say for sure is that the end product of Offender Profiling is creating a psychological, and not only psychological portrait of the offender. Criminal psychologists use the information from the crime scene to draw conclusions about the person’s nature, who committed the crime. The conclusions must give answers to the questions, like – Was the crime planned, or was it impulsive, under strong emotional circumstances? What is the approximate age of the offender? Is the offender likely to live close to the crime scene? What is the gender of the offender? These types of information in most cases are very useful for the investigators and help them to target resources effectively.
  • Interviewing  – In order to collect reliable and accurate information about the case, interviewing people (witnesses or offenders) is crucially important. The most important point about interviewing them is considering that each person needs different approach – for example, child who was an eyewitness of the crime can give very useful information, but because of the stress a child might have been through psychologist has to be very careful while interviewing. Another example can be an offender, who doesn’t want to confess. Police and the criminal psychologist use his or her offender profile to determine the correct and productive approach.  In many cases the way the offenders are interviewed determines will the police reach the confession from the offender or not.
  • Rehabilitation of the offenders – The role of the criminal psychologist is not only helping the police to imprison someone. In most countries the society and government is concerned about the possibilities for prisoners to re-socialize after they leave prison. To achieve this goal government’s competent organs work with criminal psychologist and determine specific steps that can be taken to prevent the offenders from re-committing a crime and on the other hand to help them to find their place in the society.

Work environment of criminal psychologists

Criminal Psychologists may be employed in a number of settings. Some work as a private consultant, some may be employed full-time in governmental, usually in law enforcement organs, some of them prefer to work part-time at universities or other educational facilities.

They work closely with police officers and federal agents helping them solve crimes by developing profiles of various kinds, usually of violent offenders, such as murderers, kidnappers, rapists and so on… They can also work with private lawyers, state attorneys and the public defender’s office. Most of criminal psychologists spend the majority of their time in court or office settings. They spend a great deal of the workday conducting case research, performing assessments, interviewing people, researching the offender’s life history, providing expert testimony in the court. Most of them work full time, but those employed in private practices or educational facilities usually have more flexible hours.

To summarize, criminal psychologists may be employed by:

  • Private practices
  • Academic institutions
  • Forensic hospitals
  • Correctional facilities
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Law enforcement organs
  • Mental health centers.

Is the job as exciting as portrayed in television shows and movies?

Actually, the role of criminal psychologists is glamorized and overestimated in television shows. As a rule, they don’t accompany police officers in the detention of suspects. Moreover, solving a crime has been rarely as easy as shown in TV shows. Usually it takes weeks, months or even years to find a solution to the crime.

Despite the fact, that criminal psychology is not what you may expect from television shows, it is far from boring. Working in this field you can do something different every day. For example, you can spend time solving difficult puzzles, counseling those, who have committed crime in order to make a psychological assessment or even work on computer-related fields like online scam.

How to become a criminal psychologist?


You can become a criminal psychologist using a number of ways. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology, criminal justice, criminology or a related field major would be a good start. It will be enough for admission in the most graduate programs. The best way would be to get a BA (Hons) degree in psychology and criminology (many universities in UK offer such programs), but it is not always an option and most professionals in this field begin their career by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The first stage will take approximately 3-5 years depending on the program itself and and how you plan courses. In the last year you will have the opportunity to choose one of the subjects as your major and at that time you will have an idea which one suits your needs and interests best.

It is recommended to participate in internships or volunteer in criminal or forensic settings. It will give you a valuable experience in criminal psychology and some ideas about planning your career. You will also stand out from other candidates when applying for graduate programs.

The next step is to earn a graduate-level education in forensic or criminal psychology. Master’s degree will take approximately two years to complete, while doctor’s degree will take approximately 5-7 years. There are several career opportunities available for MS graduates, but according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of BLS, competition in this field is very tough and those, who have Psy.D (Doctor of Psychology) or Ph.D (Doctor of Philosophy) have better chances to find a desirable job. It is wise to obtain a doctorate in schools, which offer forensic specialty, but if it is not an option, counseling or clinical specialty with a prominence given to forensic psychology is a good alternative. Ph.D is research-oriented, while Psy.D is more practice-oriented. In the end of Ph.D programs, students usually are required to submit a dissertation, while in Psy.D they complete a practical work. Almost all Criminal Psychologists are required to meet a state’s license requirements. In most cases these requirements are doctoral degree and at least one year of working experience, you also may have to pass state examinations. There are also other training options for particular fields in criminal psychology. For example, FBI and other law enforcement organs handle trainings in criminal profiling.

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Criminal psychologist salary

How much a criminal psychologist will earn depends on the organization, location he/she will carry out the practice and skills and other circumstances. According to Occupational Outlook Handbook, in 2012 the median pay for psychologists was $69,280 per year. According 225 individuals reported on PayScale, the income of criminal psychologists varies from $38,598 to $122,478 total pay per year. In UK, the income typically is between £25,000 – £63,000.