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What’s the difference between criminal and forensic psychology?


  • Criminal psychology focuses on understanding why criminals commit crimes
  • Forensic psychologists assist in solving a crime or hunting down a criminal
  •  WARNING: There are only 50 forensic psychologists actually practicing in Australia, and the demand the job isn’t growing 

The differences

Before we tell you the difference between Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology we want to clarify that you’ll need to be pretty mathematically minded to enter either of these fields.

To land a role you’ll need to study psychology; and keeping in mind that you will need to do at least Honours to become an accredited psychologist (adding one or more year(s) to your degree) this is in total a 7 year course.

Criminal Psychology vs. Forensic Psychology

Criminal psychology focuses on criminals and criminal behaviour with the aim of understanding why criminals commit crimes.

The role of a criminal psychologist extends to assessing offenders and their risk of reoffending (this will affect their sentencing in court) and so, they will commonly be used to provide expert testimonies in court.

But what does this mean?

Well, for example if someone starts a bushfire, a criminal psychologist will look to determine the motivation, intention and likelihood of them doing it again.

Another important part of the job is their ability to help a police investigation narrow down the search for the perpetrator of a crime. A profile which can provide an age range, type of employment, marital status and education and behavioural information can be of great benefit to police in their hunt. But a criminal profile can go further into detail than this, an understanding of the psychology of an offender can also bring insights into how they may have behaved at the crime scene. For example, whether they have taken items from the scene or from the victim directly, why they may have done this and what they may have done with them.

Ok… so to be clear, the label of ‘criminal psychology‘ is often used interchangeably with ‘forensic psychology’ and while there is some overlap there are also some clear differences in the two disciplines.

See Also

Forensic psychologists primarily provide their expertise within the criminal justice system where they apply their knowledge to criminal investigation and law.

While this can involve aspects of profiling and developing a criminal profile within an investigation, forensic psychologists spend most of their time in the judicial system and are not often directly involved in assisting law enforcement in solving a crime or hunting down a criminal. They are employed in a variety of areas, including:

  • Courts and other tribunals.
  • Mental health (both general services and forensic mental health services).
  • Corrections (adult and juvenile, prisons and community).
  • Child protection.
  • Family services (e.g., family violence counselling services, parent training programs).
  • Alcohol and other drug services.
  • Rehabilitation services (e.g., pain clinics, head injury services).
  • Academia, research and policy organisations.

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  • Thank you soooooo much for posting this article! I’ve be assigned to do a capstone career project and I chose criminal psychology. Like you said, MANY people interchangeably use criminal psychologist and forensic psychologist. The same articles (aside from you) that say both fields are used interchangeably will use both words in the same paragraph when talking about one specific field. For example, someone will talk about the responsibilities of a criminal psychologist but when ending the paragraph they will say a “forensics psychologist” when talking about a criminal psychologist. Anyways, I would like to thank you all once again because now I have an abundance of confidence and am ready to present my project.

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