Psychological assessments are useful for a variety of purposes, from discovering why a person chews her nails in class to how to break someone from smoking. In the field of forensics, psychologists apply the science and principles of psychology to issues concerning matters of law and the legal system, says the American Board of Forensic Psychology. Interviews are one tool they use to pry fact from fiction in legal cases.
Forensic vs. Clinical Interviews
Let's start by talking about the differences between forensic and clinical interviews, because forensics is a highly specialized area of psychology. A clinical interview is done by a psychologist who is researching the history of her client in an effort to improve her future. In forensics, however, the client is the court. The future of the person sitting in the interviewee's chair isn't the psychologist's priority. The questions she poses are designed to separate truth from fiction, sanity from insanity, and guilty from not guilty.
Unstructured interviews are free-flowing, much like regular conversations. The psychologist asks questions that prompt exchange, says PsychPage, such as, "tell me what that was like" or, "describe where this took place." Answers to these types of questions provide detail and background. The psychologist uses these to create a picture of the events surrounding the incident in question, as well as to evaluate the emotional state of the person when the events occurred.
Structured interviews involve asking guided questions that frequently have preset answers, says Saint Joseph's University. These are the kinds of questions you might find on a questionnaire with multiple-choice answers. You aren't asked to describe anything, merely to answer "yes" or "no" or something similar. Sometimes the goal of these questions is a straight answer, but a psychologist is also looking for clues that the person she's interviewing is unstable, insane or simply lying. Since you can't beat around the bushes "yes/no" types of questions, they shed a nice spotlight on liars who can't keep up with their own stories, as well as ill people who can't separate reality from fantasy.
Interviewing and Professionalism
As with any psychological interview, forensic psychologists must follow rules of etiquette and professionalism in their dealings with clients. Since forensic investigations are often the result of a crime, interviewees may feel vulnerable, defensive or threatened. It's important for the psychologist to word her questions without impartiality and to receive the answers she gets without any obvious judgment. She must be clear, concise and neutral. This is the only way she can receive answers that reveal the truth.
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