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Forensic Psychology: Television v. Reality Term Paper

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Updated: Mar 31st, 2022


Forensic psychology is one of the areas in the medical field that has experienced tremendous growth over the years. One factor that is said to have contributed immensely to this growth is the sensationalized portrayal of this field in movies and television shows. For some reason, quite a good number of shows in television and movies have their theme line revolving around this field.

This paper seeks to compare the portrayal of the forensic psychology professionals in movies and shows on television with the actual practice and see whether the representations made of these professionals in movies and television shows is accurate. The paper will also focus on some of the shows and movies in which the field of forensic psychology has been used as the theme line.

Background Information

Forensic psychology refers to an overlap or a link between psychology and the system that oversees criminal justice. Professionals in this field therefore work to make out or understand the various laws governing a particular state or jurisdiction so that they have a smooth interaction with professionals working in the legal field like judges or lawyers.

One very crucial aspect of professionals in this field include being able to give testimony in a court of law and putting matters related to psychology in a legal perspective for sound understanding by the court. For any professional in the forensic psychology field to be considered a credible witness in court, it is essential that they have proper understanding of the judicial system of a given country in which a particular case is being tried.

Usually, a forensic psychologist undergoes training in any of the branches of psychology. (Gregerson, 2009). A forensic psychologist may be required to appear in court and give evidence as an expert witness. The qualification of a psychologist in the forensic field to qualify as an expert witness is dependent on the reputation as well as the experience that a psychologist has in this field.

Movies and Television Shows

It is rather disturbing to observe how much violence is being depicted in most of the shows that are being aired on television and movies. You can almost bet that the next program that is about to premier in your favourite television channel or that movie that you have been wishing so much to watch has got a whole scene of violence if not more.

For this reason, there has been a lot of inclusion of forensic psychologists in these shows and movies who play roles that are not always a true depiction of what a forensic psychologist is supposed to do in the actual field.

Roles of a Forensic Psychologist

To gain a clear understanding of the roles played by a forensic psychologist, it is important to understand the key words which in this case are forensics and psychology (Costanzo & Krauss, 2011). Psychology simply defined is the study of human mind and understanding.

Forensics on the other hand refers to a critical analysis of information which can be used in a court of law to back evidence gathered by investigators. A forensic psychologist therefore makes analysis of information in case that is before the court system and makes sense out of it and then simplifies the issues for easier the understanding of the matter at hand by the court. The following are some of the duties that a forensic psychologist carries out in the real field:

  1. Participating in competency hearings- During a criminal trial, it becomes important to determine competency for a couple of reasons. The court will require the forensic psychologist to carry out an assessment to determine whether or not the defendant is competent to be tried. In addition, the psychologist will also determine whether the defendant can waive the Miranda rights accorded to him or her and give a testimony in a case in which he or she is being tried. Other issues that a forensic psychologist will normally look at will include the defendant’s competency to understand the nature of the crime for which he or she is charged with, consequence or penalties that the crime carries in case the defendant is found culpable and other matters surrounding the defendant’s ability to have a fair case.
  2. Assessing insanity-a forensic psychologist will also be called upon by the court to determine whether an accused person was in his or her correct state of mind as at the time when they committed the crime. This is done by taking the defendant through a series of interviews all of which focus on various aspects of the life of the defendant especially in the past. Having taken the accused person through the interviews, it becomes apparent to the psychologist as to whether the crime committed was planned by the accused and whether there was any kind of pre-meditation by the defendant.
  3. Expert Witnesses- depending on the nature of the case, a forensic psychologist may be asked to give a testimony in a court of law regarding some of the assessments made having interviewed the defendant. This is normally done to enable the court make a more informed decision regarding the defendant’s culpability of the crime for which they are charged with. The psychologist may also be asked by the court to make suggestions regarding the treatment of the defendant if it is established that indeed the defendant is suffering from a mental disability.
  4. Advisors in a trial process- When a case is ongoing and the defendant is being tried to establish whether or not he or she is guilty as charged, a forensic psychologist may be asked by the court to make an assessment either prior to or when the case is ongoing and give appropriate advice regarding on the best method to use to carry out investigations or conduct the trial. In case there is a child witness in a given case, the forensic psychologist will be asked to give relevant advice regarding whether or not such evidence should be taken in closed court, open or closed circuit television with great interest being placed on the mental health of the child and how the participation of the trial is likely to affect the child.
  5. Criminal profiling- forensic psychologist at times are asked to make assessments regarding a particular crime so as to help correctly determine who is culpable in the crime committed (Barak, 2005). Forensic psychologists are always preferred in such cases since they undergo training to be able to make evaluation of behaviour and minds of people based on the evidence adduced.

James Patterson’s Work

James Paterson is an ardent writer whose tales you keep yearning for due to the suspense that he creates. Having written quite a large volume of fictional work, James has managed to create a fictional character by the name of Alex Cross.

Alex is depicted as this brilliant forensic psychologist who goes chasing serial killers in the woods, goes that extra mile to find the criminal and then brings him to court to prove his guilt. Creation of such characters by fiction writers and movie directors compromise to a great extent the understanding of the actual roles played by a forensic psychologist (Arigo & Shipley, 2005). In the actual field, a forensic psychologist will not run into the woods hunting down killers.

Usually, when forensic psychologists are given work by the courts they are expected to play a contributory role in carrying out investigations and their participation is always limited to the specific area for which they were hired. Failure to do so is likely to greatly compromise investigations and a legal backlash could occur as a result.

Silence of the Lambs

In this movie, a young man, Clarice, working with the federal bureau of investigation has been given an assignment in which he is supposed to help trace a woman who has gone missing and who is suspected to be in the hands of a serial killer. Clarice approaches a psychiatrist whom he believes will help in mind reading and manipulation and can help locate the serial killer.

The role carried out by the forensic psychiatrist in this case is quite exaggerated since Hannibal who is the psychiatrist is involved in the actual manhunt of the serial killer a role that cannot be played by a forensic psychiatrist in the real field. Other movies that have included forensic psychiatrists in the theme line include The Shelter and the Black Dalia.


The inclusion of forensic psychiatrists in movies and shows in televisions has become a common phenomenon especially in those series that have been released in the recent times.

This is perhaps due to the massive violence that has become characteristic of the world today. However, every show that goes on air on a television screen or a movie that is showing in theatres should have something like a moral lesson or general issue that it hopes to teach the public or get to enlighten the public on.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case with most of the shows that have been using a lot of forensic psychiatry in their theme lines. This is because more often than not, these people are depicted as playing the role of investigators who carry out investigations and also undertake to carry out the manhunt for wanted criminals.

The truth of the matter is that this is not the correct job description of a forensic psychiatrist. For this reason all these television shows and movies with scenes of forensic psychiatrists are doing a great disservice to the public by misleading the public on the duties of a forensic psychiatrist.

It is therefore of great importance that this issue be taken with great weight by those who write scripts for movies, televisions shows and those authors whose line of fiction touches on criminal matters. The public has a right to get the correct information regarding any matter. Therefore, if any director of a movie or a television show wants to include a forensic psychiatrist in their work, it is only fair that the roles played by such an actor be limited to the actual duties carried out by an actual forensic psychiatrist.


Arigo, B.A., & Shipley, S.L., (2005). Introduction to forensic psychology: issues and controversies in crime and justice. California: Academic Press

Barak, G., (2007). Battleground: A-L. London: ABC-CLIO

Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D., (2011). Forensic and Legal Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

Gregerson, M.B., (2009).The Cinematic Mirror for Psychology and Life Coaching. London: Springer.

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