What goes on in the head of a criminal mastermind?

Understanding Psychology and Crime - Forensic Psychology
December 2, 2005

The rise of forensic psychology as a scientific discipline shows no sign of abating. At the last count, there were some 20 postgraduate courses being offered by British universities, and most undergraduate psychology courses now offer some coverage of the topic.

Accompanying this surge in interest have come textbooks, intent on showing there is more to the subject than Cracker -style offender profiling.

The two books reviewed here have very different aims and audiences in mind.

Much of Understanding Psychology and Crime , by James McGuire, professor of forensic clinical psychology at Liverpool University, is devoted to explaining the nature of modern psychological thought and method and undermining the simplistic view that criminal behaviour can be explained solely by reference to social events and political forces.

All of a group may be affected by such factors, but only a minority may indulge in criminality.

And what a minority. One UK survey calculated that 1 per cent of 17-year-olds were responsible for 60 per cent of all recorded crime for this age group.

In contrast to criminological approaches, McGuire emphasises the role of family dynamics and peer pressure as determinants of criminality.

McGuire is known as a leading figure in the "what works" movement, a reaction to the "nothing works" pessimism of the 1970s and 1980s concerning deterrence and crime.

Much the most powerful sections of the book are devoted to an elegant review of the ineffectiveness of incarceration as a cure for crime and of different types of intervention, demolishing in passing the claims of such once-fashionable nostrums as "boot camps" and "shocking straight".

McGuire has an unapologetic focus on the role of the forensic psychologist in understanding crime and deterrence. By contrast, Lawrence Wrightsman and Solomon Fulero in Forensic Psychology demonstrate that forensic psychologists can play multiple roles, including forensic consultant and expert witness. As a textbook, their book is determinedly Americo-centric.

Most British students will hurry past sections devoted to death penalty trials and appeals, trial consultation and jury selection, in a vain search for the sorts of issues discussed by McGuire.

The same cultural bias also extends to the literature: Gisli Gudjonsson is commended for his work on interrogations and confessions, but major figures such as David Farrington and David Canter are not mentioned. Non-US contributions to interviewing techniques for children and facial composite production by witnesses are ignored. Where common issues are discussed, such as the insanity defence or rape prosecution, legal and procedural differences between the two legislatures obscure the debate.

Unlike McGuire's book, there is a total absence of either diagrams or pictures (beyond photographs of the two authors) in more than 400 pages of text. What it does contain, reflecting perhaps the extensive trial experience of the second author, are many fascinating anecdotes concerning the US trial process that will both entertain and appal.

For those wishing to learn more about the role of forensic psychologists in the US, Forensic Psychology provides an excellent introduction, but it falls well short as a general text for British students.

Graham Davies is professor of psychology, Leicester University.

Understanding Psychology and Crime: Perspectives on Theory and Action. First edition

Author - James McGuire
Publisher - Open University Press
Pages - 280
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 335 211120 8 and 21119 4

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