January 2006
Volume 19, Number 1

Integrating Psychology and Law Into Undergraduate Instruction

Undergraduate interest in psychological applications to the law has perhaps never been greater. Recent real cases that have involved aspects of psychology and law include the Central Park jogger case, in which four teenaged boys gave videotaped confessions that now appear to have been false (see Kassin, 2002). Due in part to both fictional (Silence of the Lambs, Profiler, CSI) and nonfictional (e.g., Court TV, Dateline, 48 Hours, Forensic Files) representations in the media, undergraduates are increasingly interested in learning about how psychology may be utilized in and by the legal system and about associated educational and career opportunities (Fulero, Greene, Hans, Nietzel, Small, & Wrightsman, 1999). For example, students invariably mention wanting to learn about being a “profiler.” Faculty can take advantage of student interest in the popular media's portrayal of forensic psychology to teach psychological concepts that have a place in the legal process (e.g., memory, perception, psychopathology, cognition, group processes) in a wide variety of subdisciplinary areas — clinical, cognitive, community developmental, industrial/ organizational, physiological, and social psychology.

In this column we identify a variety of ways that faculty can enhance student learning and interest by using forensic psychology in the undergraduate curriculum. Although there is not universal agreement about exactly what is encompassed by “law and psychology” or “forensic psychology,” we define these terms broadly to include any application of psychological research, theory, or practice to the legal system or legal issues (see Wrightsman & Fulero, in press).

Curriculum Options
Integrate Legal Applications Into Existing Courses
Instructors can simply integrate legal applications of psychological principles into standard psychology courses already in existence. This is easy, as one is hard pressed to identify a psychology specialty area that is not relevant to, or cannot be applied to, some legal issue (see Table 1). This approach has several advantages:

Develop Specialized Courses and Seminars
A second way to increase undergraduates' exposure to law and psychology is by offering focused courses. There are two primary types, each of which has its own advantages and limitations.

Survey courses in psychology and law. Survey courses are challenging insofar as they require instructors to lecture about aspects of psychology in which they may not be expert. For example, a clinical psychologist may feel uncomfortable lecturing about the group psychology and decision-making research relevant to jury behavior, while a social psychologist may consider it a stretch to discuss authoritatively the specific physiology underlying development and use of the polygraph, or the use or misuse of psychological tests in forensic evaluations. In reality, however, such challenges are not that different from those posed to the many psychology professors who teach introductory psychology and must become “expert” in areas they may not have covered since their own undergraduate days.

Developing and offering an introductory course in law and psychology is made easier by the relative large number of texts in the area. These texts are typically organized around legal issues (e.g., jury decision making, the insanity defense, corrections, abuse and neglect) that involve matters of psychology. Instructors should review competing texts carefully, since there is considerable variability in the substantive areas covered. For example, the undergraduate texts by Walker and Shapiro (2003), and Ackerman and Otto (in press) are more narrow and focus primarily on applications of clinical psychology to the law, while the texts by Wrightsman and Fulero (in press) and Bartol and Bartol (2004) are more diverse, and include applications of clinical, social, cognitive, and developmental psychology.

Integrating Legal Applications
into Existing Psychology Courses
Courses Topics
Clinical Psychology
  • Forensic assessment
  • Treatment of special populations (e.g., offenders, victims)
  • Important legal cases defining patient rights
Cognitive Psychology
  • Accuracy of eyewitness identification
  • Repressed memory debate
  • Ability of persons to understand the law (e.g., impact and comprehensibility of jury instructions)
  • Efficacy of specialized interview techniques employed in the legal system (e.g., cognitive interviewing, hypnosis)
Community Psychology
  • Behavior of prison and jail inmates
  • Efficacy of various interventions in reducing delinquent and criminal behavior (e.g., prevention programs, boot camps, substance abuse treatment in drug courts and correctional settings
  • Community attitudes and knowledge about specific crimes and change of venue surveys
  • Assessing impact of changes in the legal system
Developmental Psychology
  • Impact of abuse and neglect on children or older persons
  • Impact of divorce on children and families
  • Accuracy of children's accounts of legally significant events
  • Legally relevant decision-making capacities of children, adolescents, adults, and older persons
Organizational Psychology
  • Issues related to selection of high risk occupations applicants (police, etc.)
  • Discrimination in employment selection and identification of selection techniques with disparate impact
Physiological Psychology
  • Utility of the polygraph
  • Sex offender assessment
Social Psychology
  • Persuasion, coercion, and false confessions
  • Jury behavior and decision making
  • Jury selection and trial consultation
  • Sex differences in perception of sexual harassment
  • Effects of discrimination and prejudice in the legal system (e.g., arrest and criminal charging, transfer of minors to adult court, sentencing, imposition of the death penalty)
  • Testing legal assumptions (e.g., evaluating, deterrent effects of criminal sanctions, identifying “legal fictions”)
  • Efficacy and errors associated with various types of profiling approaches (e.g., terrorist profiles, hijacker profiles, drug courier profiles)
  • Utility of various methods (e.g., Receiver Operating Characteristics, (classification rates) to assess accuracy of predictions (e.g., reoffense risk, violence risk potential)

More focused undergraduate courses. An alternative approach is to develop and offer more focused undergraduate courses, typically revolving around a particular psychological specialty and its application and relevance to legal issues, such as eyewitness identification, the psychology of the jury, or law and mental illness. These courses typically have smaller enrollments, adopt a seminar format, and have one or more prerequisites such as completion of a forensic psychology overview course as well as an advanced course in the area of interest (e.g., developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, social psychology, cognition). Although these courses allow instructors to structure the semester or quarter around psycholegal topics of most relevance to their specialty area, they typically require compilation of a reading list or use of books developed primarily for graduate and professional audiences (e.g., Barthel, 1976, is a good supplemental reading for both eyewitness identification and false confessions; Finkel, 1988, for the insanity defense; Lykken, 1998, for polygraphy).

Use the Opportunity to Instruct Students About Larger Issues
Teaching undergraduates about psychology and law can be about more than introducing them to psychological applications in the legal system. In a course syllabus listed on her Web site (, Valerie Hans, professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, identifies three general course goals, including (a) increasing the student's understanding of the different perspectives and assumptions held by law and psychology about human behavior and the creative tension between the two, (b) demonstrating how psychological research can provide insight into the legal system and its operation, and (c) improving the student's ability to think critically and to evaluate the use of psychology within the legal system. Professor Mark Small of Clemson University suggested that such courses can, at the broadest level, help students understand the diverse contributions psychologists can make in legal settings as (a) “pure scientists” (by conducting research that shapes legal policy), (b) “problem solvers” (by conducting program evaluation and applied research in legal settings), and (c) “technicians” (by delivering psychological services in legal contexts or to persons involved in the legal system; 1993). Taking his suggestion a bit further, instructors can use psychology-and-law offerings as an opportunity to demonstrate the connection between research and practice and the scientist-practitioner approach most useful in clinical pursuits.

Take Advantage of the Applied Nature of the Interface Area
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of instruction in psychology and law is its ability to make clear to undergraduates the value of psychology in real-world settings and applications. This may serve not only to stimulate undergraduates' interest in psychology and law specifically, but in psychology more generally. As a way of further stimulating that interest, instructors should take advantage of numerous teaching aids that will make the course work more interesting and its relevance all the more obvious.

There are a large number of readily available video resources (see Fulero, 2000). For example, the documentary The Interrogation of Michael Crowe does a good job of demonstrating adolescents' vulnerability to false confessions, while the Oscar-winning documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning makes clear the problems associated with false confessions as well as the limitations of eyewitness testimony (as does, in a more humorous way, the movie My Cousin Vinny). The classic movie Twelve Angry Men provides a starting point for discussion of persuasion and jury behavior and deliberations, while the more contemporary suspense movie, The Bedroom Window, shows the problems with eyewitness testimony, perjury, and litigation strategies employed by attorneys, as do the movies My Cousin Vinny and the older The Wrong Man. In addition to the above, a week rarely goes by without some TV news magazine (i.e., 60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline, 48 Hours) focusing on some interesting psycholegal issue (e.g., eyewitness testimony, repressed memory, vulnerability of child witnesses to suggestion, the insanity defense). Court TV is also a valuable resource for trial-related material, and often offers transcripts or tapes for sale.

At least two recent books have focused in whole or in part on psychology-and-law–related films. Bergman and Asimow (1996), in their book Reel Justice, review 69 lawrelated movies, some of which have psychological content. In addition, Wedding and Boyd (1999), in their recent book Movies and Mental Illness: Using Film to Understand Psychopathology, discuss films that are relevant to particular DSM-IV disorders and may be relevant to particular cases involving psychological disorders.

Guest lecturers who work in the legal system can also do much to make clear the real-work relevance of what students are studying in the class. After reading about jury behavior and jury selection, students will be fascinated to hear a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney offer their jury-selection and case-presentation strategies. The potential role that psychologists can play in change-of-venue decisions can be demonstrated by having students actually develop and administer change-of-venue questionnaires revolving around criminal cases in the community. Other possible active-learning techniques are the use of focus groups and mock trials (see Berman, 2000; 2004; Perry, Huss, McAuliff, & Galas, 1996).

How much students are learning can be demonstrated by regularly polling them about issues before they are introduced in class readings and lectures. For example, polling students about how frequently they believe the insanity defense is employed by criminal defendants and, when used, how successful it is, is a compelling way of demonstrating the public's misperception of this psycholegal area (see Borum & Fulero, 1999). The instructor can also provide students with a list of well-known, notorious offenders, and ask them to identify those that employed the insanity defense and how many were successful (students typically overestimate its use and success). Students also can be directed to review case materials of an insanity defense (either via text or video summary), deliberate as juries, and offer verdicts, with the “juries” being provided with different insanity standards.

Querying students about child witnesses and their susceptibility to persuasion, what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, behaviors common and uncommon to children who have and have not been sexually abused, and behaviors frequently and infrequently observed among adult victims of sexual assault may serve as a way of introducing them to commonly held misperceptions and identifying roles that psychologists may play in litigation revolving around such issues. Starting the first class of the semester with a mock theft (making sure to stage it in a way that does not risk the safety of class members) and then asking students to complete descriptions of the suspects is an invaluable device to gain students' attention and make clear the real-world impact of the application of psychology to legal issues. Inviting a detective to class to discuss interrogation techniques employed with suspects will help students put the research regarding false confessions in perspective (see Lassiter, 2004). Inviting a polygrapher into class to demonstrate the technique with a live demonstration of its effectiveness with a class volunteer may make consideration of this investigative technique more interesting.

Available Resources
The American Psychology-Law Society (APA Division 41) is an excellent resource for instructors and students interested in psychological applications to the law. Posted on the organization's Web site ( are a number of syllabi from undergraduate and graduate courses taught by college and university faculty around the country, as well as an excellent summary of teaching and demonstration materials compiled by professor Edie Greene of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The Web site also provides a list of graduate programs offering specialty training in law and psychology, and an e-booklet that introduces interested undergraduates to different career opportunities in forensic psychology. The organization also allows student memberships at a reduced price that includes receipt of its newsletter and its bimonthly journal, Law and Human Behavior.

The section of APA's Web site devoted to law and psychology issues ( also provides some helpful resources including access to amicus curiae briefs submitted on behalf of the organization, access to guidelines and other position statements of the organization that are relevant to matters of law and psychology, a listing of journals and books devoted to law and psychology, and links to other organizations examining the interchange between law and psychology.

Instructors who wish to provide undergraduate students with material relevant to psychology and law have a wealth of available options. Books, movies, Internet or Web materials, as well as classroom activities and demonstrations can give students an appreciation for the complex application of psychology to legal questions. As psychology and law becomes a more popular undergraduate topic, such applications can both increase student interest and provide an introduction to more focused courses offered later in the undergraduate curriculum.

Editor's Note: This paper is based, in part, on an invited presentation delivered by Randy Otto at the 2003 meeting of the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP). Direct all correspondence to Randy K. Otto, Department of Mental Health Law & Policy, Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida, 13301 N. 30th St., Tampa, fl33612,


RANDY OTTO is an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law & Policy, Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida. He is president of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, and is a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and the American Psychology-Law Society.

SOLOMON FULERO is professor and past chair of the psychology department at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He is both a psychologist and an attorney; he received his PhD and his JD from the University of Oregon in 1979.

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