Social Psychology and its Application in Legal System

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Social Psychology in Legal System


“If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.”

                                                                                                             ― Philip G. Zimbardo

Human beings are essentially social beings. We stay with other and our actions, thoughts, and feelings are affected by the presence of others. At the same time, we influence the behaviour of other individuals. This consists of large amount of human behaviour. Social psychology is a discipline that tries to understand the human social behaviour.

In the early years of the development of psychology, the emphasis was on the individual. Most psychologists simply isolated the individual from others to use for tests and experiments and concluded generally that any character attributes the person displayed in the laboratory was a fair indication of how people would generally behave under any circumstances. The assumption therefore was that human personality patterns were stable and consistent. If a person felt light- hearted and could easily crack jokes in one situation, for instance, that person would remain as humorous in any other situation. If a student performed well in one examination he was expected to perform well in other examinations, and so on.

A few decades into the development of psychology, however, the influence of the social environment became apparent. Psychologists started observing that there could be considerable differences between the way people performed on tests taken in privacy in the laboratory and during other people or under different social circumstances. It then became obvious that human behavior and human personality were not necessarily consistent[1].

Social psychologists consider that much of human behaviour is both a response and a stimulus to the behaviour of others. What a person does is at least determined in part- and often to a great extent – by what other people are doing or what he thinks they expect him to do. At the same time what he does helps to determine what others do. Therefore, the discipline of social psychology essentially studies how people influence and are influenced by other people.

The social psychologist, therefore, only contributes to the utilization of authority, techniques, and resources of these others as they seek solution to social problems.


Social Psychology refers to the branch of psychology that deals with analysing the human behaviours based on the interactions with others in society as well as the social contexts of the conduct. Simply, it deals with how people act or behave according to their social interactions.

Social psychology has nonetheless had a significant impact not only on the academic worlds of psychology, sociology, and the social sciences in general, but has also influenced public understanding and expectation of human social behavior by studying how people behave under extreme social influences, or lack thereof, great advances have been made in understanding human nature.

Criminal justice system plays a critical role in every society. It identifies the offenders, arrest them prosecute them and adjudge them either guilty or innocent for conviction. Nonetheless, it entails a very delicate process to avoid convicting innocent parties. The judge of the bench or jury has the mandate to ensure that the offenders are punished accordingly to the law and their offenses without disregarding their inherent fundamental rights and freedoms as human beings.

Consequently, the criminal justice system entails a rigorous process. In India, the judge usually one or two in a bench decide a case very clearly and judiciously and give their judgement. In the United States, the role of determining whether an individual is guilty or innocent of a crime lies with the jury. The jury selection entails a very rigorous process of selecting persons of utmost integrity and irrevocable rationale for rendering independent and sober determinations.

The social psychologists assert the process of judges or jury decision-making is one that is significantly affected by the social interactions of the judges with either themselves or the society or mostly they are burdened due to media trials and common public ideas.

According to various commentators and psychologist like Solomon Asch (American-Polish psychologist), the size of the bench of judges or jury greatly influences the outcome of their decision.

Indeed, he asserts that the less the number of judges in a bench or jurors the more the likelihood of an outcome against the defendant. In contrast, where the number of judges or jurors is high the defendant stands a position of getting some favours from the jurors. As Asch opines a jury of six or a single judge has a high probability of entering a vote of guilty to a person even if he or she is not guilty (Asch). Indeed, he asserts that the jurors seem to enter a unanimous decision with no one dissenting. On the other hand, a jury of 12 jurors or a bench in which more judges are to give judgement, has significantly high possibility of multiple dissent from the other members.

One of the reasoning behind the occurrence is that in a small-sized jury, a person will be afraid of going against the majority and thus conforming to their decisions (Asch). However, where a jury comprises of 12 jurors, the probability of two or three persons exercising their independence of mind is very high. Furthermore, quite often the jury outcomes are highly determined by the type of case.

According to commentators, certain types of crimes such as murder and sexual offenses result to the offender being held guilty even if it is imprudent to do so (Fiedler and Joseph ). One of the principal arguments for the position is the fact that such cases generate some generic prejudice against the accused persons (Fiedler and Joseph ). Consequently, the jurors acquire some form of bias against the individual. Subsequently, their minds tend to lean more to the nature of the crime as opposed to the facts of the case and the applicable law. They simply do not exercise any form of mental independence. Besides, the situation is explained based on the cognitive theory, which proposes that a human mind under stress tends to have a reduced rational decision-making.

Frequently, these types of cases tend to elicit a lot of publicity and following and hence, the resulting pressures the jurors or judges. In summary, the interactions of the social psychology are very evident in the jury decision-making as discussed above. In particular, the interplay occurs in relationship to the size of the jury and the nature of the case under determination.


Legal psychology involves empirical, psychological research of the law, legal institutions, and people who come into contact with the law. Legal psychologists typically take basic social and cognitive principles and apply them to issues in the legal system such as eyewitness memory, jury decision-making, investigations, and interviewing. The term “legal psychology” has only recently come into usage, primarily as a way to differentiate the experimental focus of legal psychology from the clinically-oriented forensic psychology.

Together, legal psychology and forensic psychology form the field more generally recognized as “psychology and law”. Following earlier efforts by psychologists to address legal issues, psychology and law became a field of study in the 1960s as part of an effort to enhance justice, though that originating concern has lessened over time.[2]

The multidisciplinary American Psychological Association’s Division , the American Psychology-Law Society, is active with the goal of promoting the contributions of psychology to the understanding of law and legal systems through research, as well as providing education to psychologists in legal issues and providing education to legal personnel on psychological issues. Further, its mandate is to inform the psychological and legal communities and the public at large of current research, educational, and service around psychology and law.[3] There are similar societies in Britain and Europe.

Generally, any research that combines psychological principles with legal applications or contexts could be considered legal psychology (although research involving clinical psychology, e.g., mental illness, competency, insanity defence, offender profiling, etc., is typically categorized as forensic psychology, and not legal psychology). For a time, legal psychology researchers were primarily focused on issues related to eyewitness testimony and jury decision-making; so much so, that the editor of Law and Human Behaviour, the premier legal psychology journal, implored researchers to expand the scope of their research and move on to other areas.[4]

There are several legal psychology journals, including Law and Human Behavior, Psychology, Public Policy and Law, Psychology, Crime, and Law, and Journal of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law that focus on general topics of criminology, and the criminal justice system. In addition, research by legal psychologists is regularly published in more general journals that cover both basic and applied research areas.

In March 1893 J. McKeen Cattell (James McKeen Cattell, American psychologist, was the first professor of psychology in the United States, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania) posted questions to fifty-six of his students at Columbia University, the questions he asked his students were comparable to those asked in a court of justice. What he found was that it was reasonable to conclude eyewitness accounts of events were unreliable. His students were all sure they were mostly correct, even when they were not, and some were hesitant when they were in fact correct. He could not figure out specifically why each student had inaccurate testimonies. Cattell suggested that “an unscrupulous attorney” could discredit a witness who is being truthful by asking “cunningly selected questions”.

Although a jury, or the judge, should know how normal errors are in eyewitness testimonies given different conditions. However, even Cattell was shocked by the level of incorrectness displayed by his students. Cattell’s research has been depicted as the foundation of forensic psychology in the United States. His research is still widely considered a prevailing research interest in legal psychology.[5]


  • Academics and research

Many legal psychologists work as professors in university psychology departments, criminal justice departments or law schools. Like other professors, legal psychologists generally conduct and publish empirical research, teach various classes, and mentor graduate and undergraduate students. Many legal psychologists also conduct research in a more general area of psychology (e.g., social, clinical, cognitive) with only a tangential legal focus. Those legal psychologists who work in law schools almost always hold a JD in addition to a PhD.

  • Expert witnesses

Psychologists specifically trained in legal issues, as well as those with no formal training, are often called by legal parties to testify as expert witnesses. In criminal trials, an expert witness may be called to testify about eyewitness memory, mistaken identity, competence to stand trial, the propensity of a death-qualified jury to also be “pro-guilt”, etc. Psychologists who focus on clinical issues often testify specifically about a defendant’s competence, intelligence, etc.

  • Policy making and legislative guidance

Psychologists employed at public policy centres may attempt to influence legislative policy or may be called upon by state (or national) lawmakers to address some policy issue through empirical research. A psychologist working in public policy might suggest laws or help to evaluate a new legal practice (e.g., eyewitness line-ups).[6]

  • Advisory roles

Legal psychologists may hold advisory roles in court systems. They may advise legal decision makers, particularly judges, on psychological findings pertaining to issues in a case. The psychologist who acts as a court adviser provides similar input to one acting as an expert witness but acts out of the domain of an adversarial system[7].

  • Amicus briefs: An impartial adviser to a court of law

Psychologists can provide an amicus brief to the court. The American Psychological Association has provided briefs concerning mental illness, retardation and other factors. The amicus brief usually contains an opinion backed by scientific citations and statistics. The impact of an amicus brief by a psychological association is questionable. For instance, Justice Powell[8] once called a reliance on statistics “numerology” and discounted results of several empirical studies. Judges who have no formal scientific training also may critique experimental methods, and some feel that judges only cite an amicus brief when the brief supports the judge’s personal beliefs.

  • Trial consulting

Some legal psychologists work in trial consulting. No special training nor certification is needed to be a trial consultant, though an advanced degree is generally welcomed by those who would hire the trial consultant. In India, we have not any code of ethics for members, but there are no legally binding ethical rules for consultants.

Some psychologists who work in academics are hired as trial consultants when their expertise can be useful to a particular case. Other psychologists/consultants work for or with established trial consultant firms.

The practice of law firms hiring “in-house” trial consultants is becoming more popular, but these consultants usually can also be used by the firms as practicing attorneys. Trial consultants perform a variety of services for lawyers, Trial consultants work on all stages of a case from helping to organize testimony, preparing witnesses to testify, picking juries, and even arranging “shadow jurors” to watch the trial unfold and provide input on the trial. There is some debate on whether the work of a trial consultant is protected under attorney-client privilege, especially when the consultant is hired by a party in the case and not by an attorney.

CONCLUSION: Social Psychology

Virtually every aspect of legal rules and procedures relies on assumptions about human psychology—about how individuals think, feel, and make decisions. Economics focuses on how people behave and interact as economic agents; psychology also focuses on human behaviour and interaction, with specific attention to the influence of social and mental processes. Sometimes the law implicitly or explicitly incorporates findings from psychological science. For example, the law of negligence accounts for some of the limitations of human judgment or human can do error without intention.

Legal instinct and common sense supply only part of what is needed for understanding how the law operates in the world. But, in particular, the scientific study of the thinking and behavior of people in the social world, rather than the thinking and behavior of “rational” or “ideal” actors, can help us create more effective laws and procedures for enforcing those laws. The scientific study of social thinking, social influence, and social relations has brought into relief the many ways in which legal processes and rules must operate within the social world. Traditionally, research in law and psychology focused on a relatively narrow domain of topics, and the work engaged to a very limited extent with the substance of legal doctrine. In the last few decades, enormous strides have been made in the use of psychological science to examine a much broader array of legal questions.


[2] Dennis R. Fox (1999). Psycholegal Scholarship’s Contribution to False Consciousness About Injustice.Law and Human Behavior, 23, 9-30. Application of Social Psychology to the Legal System

[3] “American Psychology and the Law Society”. Retrieved 2007-09-12. Application of Social Psychology to the Legal System

[4] Michael J. Saks (1986). The Law Does Not Live on Eyewitness Testimony Alone. Law and Human Behavior, 10, 279-280. Application of Social Psychology to the Legal System

[5]  Irving Weiner; Randy Otto (2013). The Handbook of Forensic Psychology, 4th Edition. Application of Social Psychology to the Legal System

[6] Irving Weiner; Randy Otto (2013). The Handbook of Forensic Psychology, 4th Edition.

[7] Examples of legal psychologists in these positions can be found at the American Bar Foundation (Website) and Federal Judicial Center (Website), among others.

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