History of Forensic Psychology
Criminal Psychology Profiling History

Want a forensic psychology career? Start here & learn the history of forensic psychology & how criminal psychology and profiling has evolved through history.

The history of forensic psychology is a fascinating study. Like many other divisions of the medical and science worlds, it took a great many years of study, experimentation, research, trial and error, and analysis for the practice to become accepted by the community at large.

Forensic psychology is the relationship between psychology and the law.

People employed in this field are often called upon to provide evaluations, assessments, tests, expert testimony, and advice about anybody involved in the criminal justice system.

It had its origins in the mid-eighteenth century, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that forensic psychology was recognized by national and worldwide organizations for the professional respect it deserves.

Some of the most important figures in the history of forensic psychology include:

  • Wilhelm Wundt
  • Hugo Munsterberg
  • James McKeen Cattell
  • William Marston

Below, we’ll discuss their roles in the creation of modern criminal psychology and how the field developed to the point that you can now obtain forensic psychology degrees.

History of Criminal Profiling and Psychology
19th Century

wilhelm wundt

Many people may think that criminal forensic psychology is something that came into being in just the last couple of decades, but this isn’t true. For well over 100 years, doctors, scientists, and professors have been working to find the links between psychology and the law.

In 1873, German scientist Wilhelm Wundt created the first psychology lab.

His creation of psychology experiments, relating the mind to witness testimony and criminal behavior, provided the groundwork for the next hundred years. Some of his experiments, in fact, are still relevant and in use today.

Twenty years later, one of Wundt’s students, Hugo Munsterberg, relocated to the United States and set up shop at Harvard University, where he began his own experimentation lab.

Munsterberg’s study of false testimony and hypnosis took his teacher’s work to a whole new level and introduced forensic psychology to America.

Two years later, in 1895, a man by the name of James McKeen Cattell, who was the Department Head of Psychology at Columbia University, began his own set of experiments. And while Wundt and Munsterberg may have laid the groundwork for modern forensic psychology, it was Cattell’s work that built the foundation.

History of Criminal Psychology: 20th Century

hugo musterberg

In 1908, Hugo Munsterberg published one of the very first books on the subject of criminal psychology, entitled "On the Witness Stand." This book enabled the practice and evolution of forensic psychology to spread its growth around the world.

Other doctors, scientists, and professors could read about the studies and test them using their own experiments or theories.

It was the global birth of forensic psychology.

Nine years later, in 1917, one of Munsterberg’s students, William Marston, discovered a link between change in blood pressure and the act of lying. This was the first step in the future creation of polygraph machines.

In the 1920’s, psychologists were first called to the stand as expert witnesses, but it wasn’t until after World War II that they were used with any kind of real credibility.

The rest of the twentieth century saw the rapid evolution of forensic psychology as it progressed with the advent of newfound technologies. Studies became sounder, arguments became more legitimate, and forensic psychology became a highly respected profession.

History of Forensic Psychology
21st Century and Tomorrow

In 2001, forensic psychology was finally recognized as a field specialization by the American Psychological Association.

So, what happens tomorrow?

Forensic psychology is an ever-changing, ever-growing field. As the times change, as people change, as crime changes, forensic psychologists will change with them.

The links between law and the mind are undeniable—we learned that almost 150 years ago—and it is up to the forensic psychologist to analyze and interpret those links for the rest of us. This is a job that won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

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