Monday, September 10, 2012

Forensic Psychologists in Fiction

Guest post by Stacy Green

Forensic psychologists aren’t profilers.                     

According to the forensic psychologist I recently interviewed, forensic psychologists as profilers is the biggest misconception the general public has of their profession.

These people are essential to our legal system. They make crucial decisions about offenders every day, but are usually grossly misrepresented in both fiction and television. I’ve spent several weeks researching forensic psychology for a trilogy I’m working on, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned with the readers of Crime Fiction Collective.

Forensic psychologists don’t visit crime scenes or consult with detectives in search of a serial killer. They work within the court system, and in most states, they have two primary functions: to ascertain if a defendant was insane when he/she committed the crime, and if the offender is competent to stand trial. Their testimony is vital in deciding how a criminal will be tried, and if deemed incompetent to stand trial, they will advise a course of treatment so the offender can recover to competency. 

So what’s the process? Once a forensic psychologist is contacted by the judge or an attorney, they collect all collateral data pertaining to the case: previous interviews, crime scene photos, police video and reports, etc. In other words, a pile of paperwork big enough to make the eyes bleed. But it’s a key part of their process. 

Then it’s time to talk to the offender. Depending on the age and type of crime, the interview consists of risk assessment and various psychological tests. One of the biggest problems forensic psychologists have is defendants who malinger – the psychological term for faking insanity. 

The McNaughton Rule is the highest standard for determining the insanity plea, and the vast majority of defendants don’t qualify. An individual must be so deeply psychotic they truly don’t know what they did was wrong, and that’s rare. 

The three types of most skilled malingers are those who have taken hallucinogens in the past, ex-cons who’ve been to prison and observed mental illness first-hand, and individuals with genuine mental illness, such as schizophrenics taking their meds. 

Experts know true mentally disturbed people don’t jump in and share information about their psychoses. It’s often hard to get them to engage and even more difficult to get them to discuss what’s going on in their heads. Fakers, on the other hand, love to talk about the voices in their heads and the various conspiracy theories they “believe” in. 

Fortunately, a forensic psychologist can rely on more than just gut instinct and observation to figure out who’s malingering. They can turn to the offender’s prior records. Is there a history of mental problems? Have other professionals suspected malingering? By combing through the paperwork, a forensic psychologist can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on. 

Structured testing also helps. There are questions designed to trick the fakers, and my favorite is: We only hear voices in one ear – do you hear voices in your left or right ear? Of course this isn’t true, but the malingerer doesn’t know that. The ones who are faking pick an ear and give themselves away.

So what can we take from this? Forensic psychologists aren’t profilers. They are soldiers, working diligently in the trenches to sort out the bad from the worse and making sure the offender gets the treatment and/or punishment they need. 

As Indie writers, we’re under a microscope, and creating realistic portrayals of popular professions will go a long way in gaining credibility. 

Writers, what do you think? Are mental health professionals and law enforcement often misrepresented in fiction? What are the biggest misconceptions you see?

Stacy Green has degrees in sociology and journalism and uses her fascination of the criminal mind to explore true crime on her popular Thriller Thursday posts at her blog, Turning the Page. When she's not writing, she spends her time with her precocious daughter and supportive husband.

Stacy's debut suspense novel, INTO THE DARK, releases from MuseItUp Publishing on November 30th.


He sees her when she's sleeping. He knows when she's awake. Her life he’s determined to take. Featuring a heroine on the edge of disaster, a tormented villain, and Las Vegas’s infamous storm drains, Into the Dark mixes suspense with a dash of romance.

Stacy's blog,
Twitter: @StacyGreen26
Facebook: Stacy Green, Author


  1. Welcome to Crime Fiction Collective, Stacy! You run a great blog yourself, and I especially enjoy your Thriller Thursdays. Hope to see you back here again as a guest blogger.

  2. Thank you so much Jodie! I'm very excited to be here and would love to come back:)

  3. Interesting post, Stacy. Thanks for sharing and looking forward to your book in November. :)

  4. Great information. And I see how a writer could build some stories around this type of character.

    My biggest complaint about how law enforcement is portrayed on TV is how quickly everything happens. And how easily everyone confesses. :)

    Thanks for blogging with us.

  5. Thank you, Stacey. I was lucky enough to speak with a great forensic psychologist willing to answer a lot of questions.

    L.J., thanks for having me. Completely agree about television. I actually did a blog post on the CSI effect a while ago. My favorite is how quickly DNA comes back when the minimum is usually 3 months.

  6. That is so interesting! The fate of so many is in their hands.

  7. Stacy, thanks for blogging with us today.

    I've often wondered what a forensic psychologist did. Thanks for the information!

    I can forgive the time element in a book as long as it's addressed in some manner—given priority or some such thing. What I get a little tired of is the older detective who is an alcoholic and a loner. Whose wife left him and he fell into a deep depression from which he's never recovered. I'm sure you've met him at least four or five times.

  8. Excellent information, Stacy! Thanks for sharing. :)

  9. Fantastic post Stacy. I had no idea and definitely thought they were more profilers. Interesting and I agree, as a writer it's imperative to "get it right" when portraying a profession of some kind to maintain credibility. And isn't all that research FUN!

  10. Good post. I'm curious, though, that people with schizophrenia are considered malingerers. Aren't they mentally ill? If they were not on their meds during a crime, do they still know it was wrong?

  11. Gayle - they are considered mentally ill. But according to the FP I spoke with, when they are ON their meds (and remember, schizophrenia is often misunderstood), they make great malingers because they know what it's like to be out of control. They know how to fake mental illness because they have experienced the real thing. So if a schizophrenic on his meds commits murder, it doesn't always mean he was legally insane. The key question is: did he know what he was doing was wrong? And when they are on their meds, the answer is usually yes. But they know how to malinger (if they choose to). Hope that makes sense!

    Peggy - you're welcome, and I'm glad you enjoyed. Yes, I've met that detective a few times. He is getting borderline cliché:)

    Susie and Jessica - thanks so much!

    Natalie - yep. That is a big misconception. Forensic means law, so they are really qualified to testify in court, etc. Actually, I've enjoyed this bit of research because I got to have a lengthly phone conversation with the FP and learned a lot. Then again, I am a nerd, lol. Thanks!

  12. So voices can only be heard in one ear, eh? Hee hee hee! Mine are all in my head!

    Kidding! Great info here!

  13. Cheryl - I loved that trick by the FP. If I recall correctly, that's actually in one of the tests they perform to draw out malingerers. Thanks!

    Tamara - glad you enjoyed. Thanks for stopping by:)

  14. Hi Stacy,

    I can't speak for mental health professionals, but I can speak in regards to law enforcement.

    I think my biggest pet peeve when watching police stories is that every cop is an expert shot all the time. Often the officer will be in a foot pursuit, then catch up to the bad guy and they go a few rounds throwing punches.

    The bad guy gets away again, and gets to his gun. Then there is this big shoot-out with more running and chasing involved. At the very last second, the bad guy takes a female as a shield/hostage. Our hero cop is able to shoot the bad guy in the head utilizing the two inches of forehead he has exposed.

    Cops are human and while the scenario above is exciting on film, it's highly unlikely it would play out that way in real life.

    Interesting blog post.

  15. Hi Kathy

    Yes, that always makes me roll my eyes. I've always heard a lot of cops are bad shots, and that people don't realize how hard it is to shoot accurately. I've also watched a lot of true crime shows, etc., and no, it never pans out that way. I love how TV always has the good guys making the right decision at the right moments.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  17. what a fascinating interview, Stacy. I don't write thrillers or crime books, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during your conversation. Can't wait to read you book.

    by the way, DNA takes 6 weeks to you, but no cop show knows.

  18. Thanks Louise! We talked for over an hour, and she answered all sorts of questions. I've been able to shape up my character quite a bit from her advice, and I can't wait until this book is out next fall. Must write it first.

    True on the DNA, but in the States, it also depends on the crime lab location and the back log. I also interviewed a lawyer for the Minnesota Innocence Project, and it's nothing for DNA to take 6 months to a year in some of their cases! Crazy.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  19. Excellent post, Stacy. Thanks for sharing your research with us. :-)

  20. You're very welcome, Rhonda. Glad you enjoyed!


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