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Understanding Law and Psychology in Media

Alliant International University
Published on: 09/14/2021
Last Updated: 05/26/2023
5 minute read

Understanding Psychology & Law In the Media

Crime shows keep audiences riveted nationwide. Shows like CSI and Criminal Minds showcase the mysterious nature of crime and the fascinating psychology that drives criminal behavior. 

Despite these TV shows’ popularity, the depiction of psychology and law in the media isn’t always realistic. If you’re interested in a career in psychology and law, you may be wondering what the field is really like. 

To learn about the differences between psychology and law and their popular media portrayals, keep reading. 

Discover our Psychology programs today.

Psychology and Law: An Important Crossroad

Psychology and law are two distinct fields. However, they intersect in very interesting ways. Most notably, they both focus on human behavior, decision making, and the resulting consequences. 

  • Law – The purpose of the legal system is to maintain lawful order in society. The criminal justice system seeks to deter crime and uphold justice. It also removes the most dangerous criminals from society, ensuring that law-abiding citizens enjoy greater safety. 
  • Psychology – Psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior. When a criminal is on trial, jurors and judges need to understand their psychology at the time of the crime. Likewise, the psychology of the litigators, jury members, and judges impacts how they arrive at their final sentencing decision.

For the legal system to be effective, it needs to be guided by an understanding of human psychology. Otherwise, it can do more harm than good. 

That’s where forensic psychologists, also known as forensic behavioral psychologists, come into play. They inform investigators, prosecutors, and judges on how to properly handle a case. 

Law and Psychology in Media

Now that you know how the fields of psychology and law work at a glance, let’s examine its portrayal in the media and on social platforms.

Forensic psychology in the media is often sensationalized. Most forensic psychologists don’t solve specific crimes like CSI would lead you to believe. They also don’t profile criminals in the way that Criminal Minds portrays.

Instead, most forensic psychologists spend their time performing psychological assessments, conducting psychological research, and providing clinical treatment. Though less riveting, this work ensures the legal system operates fairly.

What is a Forensic Psychologist?

The term “forensic” refers to the scientific study of crime. Forensic psychologists use their expertise to study crime from a psychological perspective. They apply their clinical understanding of human behavior to the legal field. 

In turn, they are uniquely qualified to evaluate a criminal’s psychology and suggest ways to optimize the legal system to make it more equitable, impactful, and humane and improve outcomes. 

Studying Criminals

Many forensic psychologists dedicate their careers to studying the inner workings of the criminal mind. They research ways to reduce crime, reform criminals when it’s possible, and ensure that defendants receive fair and just sentences. 

During this work, they may:

  • Evaluate if a defendant is fit to stand trial
  • Assess a defendant’s “mens rea” (their criminal intent)
  • Conduct psychological assessments
  • Assess the risk of whether or not a convicted criminal will offend again
  • Provide clinical treatment to juvenile and adult offenders
  • Undergo deep research into criminal and violent behaviors

Studying Legal Decision-Makers

Even though criminals are the ones on trial, they are not the only focus of a forensic psychologists’ study. Some forensic psychologists also delve into the decision-making process of litigators, law enforcement, jurors, judges, and policy makers. During this media studies work, they:

  • Offer decision-makers relevant psychological insights about a defendant
  • Analyze the prevalence of implicit bias in the legal decision-making process
  • Evaluate and support the psychological fitness of law enforcement officers
  • Conduct psychological research about the impacts of the legal system on criminality

Forensic psychologists’ contributions help the legal system operate fairly and justly for all parties involved. Learn about a doctoral program in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law

Studying How Mass Media Coverage Impacts Legal Decision Making

These days, many crimes receive mass media coverage. This coverage is not limited to official news outlets. Anyone can film a crime on their smartphone and make it go viral within hours. As the video gets shared across social platforms and the comments roll in, a public narrative forms quickly. 

Forensic media psychologists study how this media influence can impact the sentencing decisions of a criminal case. They analyze how media coverage impacts juries and their trial decisions, as well as:

  • The impact of surveillance footage
  • The impact of police body camera and smartphone footage
  • The impact of priming and the halo effect
  • How media influence can manipulate memory
  • How interrogation techniques can alter responses
  • How jury selection techniques can impact court decisions

The court of public opinion is powerful. If jury members are aware of the public’s perception of a case, they may alter their own perception to fit the narrative. Forensic media psychologists study this phenomenon and suggest ways to maintain the integrity of the legal system while also reviewing the media effects. 

Study Psychology and Law at Alliant International University

If you’re interested in improving the legal justice system, you can explore the educational opportunities at Alliant International University. We offer a doctoral program in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law

This doctorate will prepare you for a fascinating career in the field of psychology and law. By strengthening your research skills and expanding your understanding, you'll be empowered to engage in thoughtful leadership within civil, criminal, and public policy frameworks to transform existing systems to make them more equitable, impactful, and humane.

Learn more about Alliant International University today.


American Psychological Association. What is forensic psychology?

Legal Information Institute. Mens Rea.

Psychology Today. Priming.

Healthline. Halo Effect: Definition and How it Affects Your Daily Life.

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