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Forensic Psychology Analysis: Ethical Dilemmas and Principles


Forensic psychology occupies a medium place between psychology and criminal justice. Psychologists working in this sphere assess defendants’ ability to stand trial, evaluate credibility of witness testimonies, provide recommendations for the defendants’ treatment, and deal with the like issues. Like anybody working with human health and life, forensic psychologists face different ethical dilemmas the most widespread of which are “do no harm”, malingering, boundaries of competence, and informed consent; a more thorough consideration of these dilemmas will reveal the implications they may involve if they are ignored.

“Do No Harm”

This ethical dilemma is, perhaps, the most widespread for it imposes additional responsibility on the forensic psychologists whose decision influences the outcome of a particular case. According to the General Principles of the American Psychological Association Ethics Code, psychologists are expected to “strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally…” (Hall, 2007, p. 48). This is why the assessment process in which the forensic psychologist is involved presents an ethical dilemma for him/her personally. The primary objective of the psychologist in the course of this assessment should be objectivity and, desirably, indifference to the accused person. An objective assessment can be fulfilled only when a psychologist does not think about the assessment results and their further influence on the client’s destiny. Carrying out an assessment for the cases related to capital punishment adds even more implications to this ethical dilemma. This is difficult since the credibility of the assessment results is the ethical responsibility of a psychologist, which places him/her “in the unenviable position of having to take full responsibility for the life-and-death consequences of his or her assessment while simultaneously remaining deliberately ignorant of what his or her assessment may yield” (Hall, 2007, p. 48). Therefore, “do no harm” is the first principle by which a forensic psychologist should be guided.


Malingering is another ethical dilemma which forensic psychologists may encounter. It can be described as “a response style in which the individual consciously fabricates or grossly exaggerates his or her symptoms” (Bartol, 2004, p. 285). Faking mental illnesses is common among the defendants. It becomes more and more difficult for the psychologists to detect malingering in the course of a forensic evaluation because, unfortunately, “sorting real pathology and mental retardation from simulated pathology and mental retardation is one of the most challenging tasks in forensic assessment” (Hall, 2007, p. 56). This being the reason, every forensic evaluation should include assessment of malingering which is possible in case with every defendant. To carry out such an appraisal, forensic psychologists use a number of tests and methods which help to detect deception. Some of the most commonly used instruments and psychological tests are The Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Test of Memory Malingering, the Million Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, the Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales, etc (Bartol, 2004). Of all these methods the latter proved to be highly efficient for it allows classifying sane and insane defendants quite accurately. Nevertheless, none of them gives absolutely accurate results this is why the combination of several methods is, as a rule, used by the forensic psychologists. Thus, malingering presents one more ethical dilemma for forensic psychologists due to its being difficult to detect.

Boundaries of Competence

Professional competence is not the last issue which a forensic psychologist should be preoccupied with. One of the principles of APA Ethics Code (specified in Section 2.01(a)) does not allow a psychologist to engage “in any specific form of independent assessment unless the psychologist first acquires supervised experience assessing that particular type of referral question and has received appropriate, up-to-date training in the instruments used in the course of this assessment” (Hall, 2007, p. 49). If a psychologist does not have necessary training or instruments to carry out an assessment, he/she is obliged to refer the defendant’s case to another psychologist who might be more competent in dealing with such cases; the only exception from this rule is the absence of a more competent psychologist to consider the case (Hall, 2007). Psychologists can attain competence through education and training constantly maintaining their knowledge and developing professionally. In general, competence for a forensic psychologist in the course of the assessments includes “a reasonable level of understanding of differences of age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socio-economic status” (Condie, 2003, p. 20). Extra competence can be gained by the psychologists through learning to understand human differences and their influence on the assessment outcomes. This may give the psychologists a possibility to identify limitations to their forensic assessments and evaluate the influence of these limitations on the assessment results.

Obtaining informed consent is critically important for forensic psychologists since APA Ethics Code specifically mentions this issue in the professional guidelines. The informed consent should be necessarily obtained because forensic work often involves serious issues, such as losing children or guardianship, disclosing information which may jeopardize other individuals’ life or freedom, etc. Generally, informed consent “consists of describing the procedures and the processes as they are likely to happen and obtaining the client’s legal consent to proceed” (Huss, 2003, p. 65). The ethical dilemma with respect to this issue consists in the presence of certain coercion on a person from who the consent is demanded due to the procedure being mandated by a legal authority (for instance, a person may be reluctant to give a consent, but since the case has legal value, he/she may agree to do this due to the fear of facing serious consequences in the opposite case). Anyways, the consent is expected to be voluntary with the person who gives it being aware of the essence of the assessment (or another procedure he/she is agreeing to), as well as this person should be mentally capable of realizing what exactly he/she is giving consent to.


Therefore, forensic psychologists face numerous ethical dilemmas in their work because they are responsible for human life, health, and freedom. One of such dilemmas is “do no harm”, or a situation in which a psychologist has to bear responsibility for the outcome of the assessment. Another dilemma is malingering which is difficult to detect and which may mislead a psychologist, thus changing the forensic evaluation results. Apart from these, forensic psychologists should be professionally competent and should avoid considering cases for which they lack special training. Finally, before carrying out any assessments, forensic psychologists should obtain consent from the defendant or another individual with this consent being given voluntarily.

Reference List

Bartol, A.M. (2004). Introduction to Forensic Psychology. London: SAGE.

Condie, L.O. (2003). Parenting Evaluations for the Court: Care and Protection Matters. London: Springer.

Hall, H.V. (2007). Forensic Psychology and Neuropsychology for Criminal and Civil Cases. London: CRC Press.

Huss, M.T. (2008). Forensic Psychology: Research, Clinical Practice, and Applications. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.


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