Psychological contributions to investigations

Critically discuss and evaluate research studies that have analysed the psychological contributions to the investigative processes.

Psychology made great contributions in the past years to the justice system. Many of them helping the system understand crime, criminals and victims. Many fields of psychology have been created since, e.g. forensic psychology, criminal psychology, legal psychology and so on. Psychology has been of great importance in the field of investigation process. The investigation process is understood as a process which investigate a crime that has been reported (“Metropolitan Police,” 2014). The investigation process in the UK consists of several steps of the investigation; an initial investigation (e.g. involves a review of witness, search evidences), an investigative assessment (investigative assessment by the Crime Assessment Unit), which leads to closing the investigation or it is sent for further investigation (“Metropolitan Police,” 2014). Some of these contributions are: offender profiling, cognitive interviewing and facial composites. Studies that have analysed these contributions are going to be discussed in this essay.

Offender profiling is a technique that identifies the major personality and behavioural traits of an offender based on the crime that he or she committed (Douglas et al. 1986 as cited in Dowden, Bennell, & Bloomfield, 2007). The first offender profiling was made in 1888 by Dr Thomas Bond. He suggested some of the possible characteristics (e.g. physical strength, great coolness and solitary and eccentric in his habits) of a man who attacked and killed at least five women in London, as known as Jack the Ripper (Canter, 2004). By the early of 1970, psychological advice about offenders was still rare (Canter, 2004). In the beginning, the offender profiling was consisted of a list of characteristics, as age, gender and previous convictions (Eastwood, Cullen, Kavanagh, & Snook, 2006). Additionally, in the recent years the profiler also gives recommendations about prioritizing resources, managing cases and the media, geoprofiling, and statement analysis (Ainsworth, 2001 as cited in Eastwood et al., 2006). Two types of offender profiling are the mostly used by the police, the FBI offender profiling developed and used by the North American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US and the offender profiling used in the UK, which has a field in psychology, to investigate this method; Investigative Psychology. Offender profiling only became commonly known as the agents of FBI started to publish reports of their procedures which was based on their criminal investigations (Canter, 2004). The FBI Behavioural Science Unit conducted a study in 1979 with thirty six serial killers and rapists, and results suggested that the offenders can be classified into different types according to the intention, levels of violence, and chances of repeated offences and so on (Putwain & Sammon, 2013). The FBI profiling is known as a crime scene analysis, a top-down approach, which analyse the crime scene and search for patterns that can be compared to other crime scenes (Putwain & Sammon, 2013). This approach is highly criticised by Professor David Canter, as his approach to offender profiling or investigative psychology, is a bottom-up approach, which he believed that people tend to act consistently in different circumstances, consequently it can tell how the offender act in other areas of their life by looking how the crime was committed (Putwain & Sammon, 2013). Some of his critiques of the FBI profiling is that it is not based on psychological principles, the material collect in the crime scene is not collected under laboratory conditions and the information are strict (Putwain & Sammon, 2013). Despite of Canter’s critiques, Ainsworth (2000, as cited in Putwain & Sammon, 2013) stated that crime scene analysis has been successfully used by other countries (e.g. Canada and Netherlands). Although both of the approaches do not always make an accurate prediction about the offender’s characteristics, being only 51% in the study of Pinizzotto and Finkel (1990, as cited in Eastwood et al., 2006) and 46% in the study of Kocsis, Irwin, Hayes, and Nunn (2000 as cited in Eastwood et al., 2006). Another issue with offender profiling is that few cases accepted it as evidence in the court initially, however, they have been excluded on appeals (Youngs, 2009). The lack of accuracy can also mislead the investigation or lead to wrongful convictions (Snook, Cullen, Bennell, Taylor, & Gendreau, 2008). The investigation process can also be lead to wrongful convictions if the method of interviewing is not appropriate (Huff et al., 1996 as cited in Maras & Bowler, 2010). One of the most widely accepted methods to accurately report is the cognitive interviewing.

Cognitive interviewing is one of the great psychological contributions for investigative process, it is widely known for enhancing information obtained by interviewing witnesses (Towl & Crighton, 2010). It was first developed in 1984 by Geiselman et al. (as cited in Towl & Crighton, 2010), and years later some refinement was made, which is referred as enhanced cognitive interview. It contains four retrieval components; mental context reinstatement, report everything, recall in a variety of temporal orders, and change perspective, and the aspects of social and communication is also considered in the investigative interview (Towl & Crighton, 2010). The effectiveness of cognitive interview has been proven by several studies by comparing to the interview typically used by investigators, and it also showed the effectiveness with different types of witness (e.g. adults, children, older persons and people with learning disabilities) (Brunel & Py, 2013). Because of its effectiveness, cognitive interviewing has been taught to all police officers in the UK, excluding Scotland, however, there are some problems associated with how the police officers apply it on the investigation processes (Maras & Bowler, 2010; Towl & Crighton, 2010). One of the issues is the time constraints, as police officers reported that cognitive interviewing takes more time than the standard police interview, which prevented some interviewers to use cognitive interviewing entirely (Brunel & Py, 2013). Another issue reported is that cognitive interviewing obliges more concentration and more cognitive demands from the interviewers (Fisher & Geiselman, 1992 as cited in Dando, Wilcock, & Milne, 2008), as they need to be flexible and make decisions at the time of the interview (Clarke & Milne, 2001 as cited in Dando et al., 2008). The understanding of police officers about cognitive interviewing is also a major issue, as they find it unsuitable in some situations, particularly when the interview is about a less serious crime (Towl & Crighton, 2010). Despite the fact of some issues, cognitive interviewing also contributes to retrieval memory of the face of the offender (Frowd, Bruce, Smith, & Hancock, 2008), another psychological contribution in the investigation process; facial composites.

To facilitate the investigation process, the eyewitness is often asked to describe the offender and to produce a facial composite of his or her (Towl & Crighton, 2010). The facial composite used to be produced by a sketch artist, however new technologies brought some software packages that helps with facial composite (e.g. E-FIT and PRO-fit) (Frowd, Bruce, & Hancock, 2008; Towl & Crighton, 2010). Although studies had shown that the quality of composites still slightly poor, and with a slight resemblance of the look of the actual offender, even with the aid of software packages; these poor qualities facial composites can lead to wrongful identification of the offender (Towl & Crighton, 2010). A number of factors can influence on the quality of the composite, for instance, practice constructing composites and witness/situational effects, and furthermore, it can impair the ability of the witness identify the offender (McQuiston-Surrett, Douglass, & Burkhardt, 2008). In another study, the results showed that people produce poor quality composites not only for faces that they do not remember, but also for faces that they know very well and can recognise without difficulty (Frowd et al., 2005 as cited in Wells & Hasel, 2007). Furthermore, the poor quality of facial composites might be because of the cross-race effect. Cross-race effect or own-race bias refers to the ability of an individual to recognise better another individual of the same race (Brigham, Bennett, Meissner, & Mitchell, 2013). Another study also analysed the cross-race effect in facial composite and the results had shown that same race faces are perceived more holistically than other race faces (Michel, Rossion, Han, Chung, & Caldara, 2006). Although, facial composite is still in use for the investigative process if there is no suspect (Towl & Crighton, 2010). Research suggested that facial composite can be improved by the use of composites morphed together or caricatured (Frowd, Bruce, & Hancock, 2008).

In conclusion, psychology has made great contributions to the investigative process, especially on the offender profiling, the cognitive interviewing and the facial composites. Even though, these contributions still need improvements. The investigative process needs to be precise as some errors can lead to wrongful outcome, for instance, the prison of an innocent. As psychology is a field which improvements is a continuum, it is certain that more research will improve the existing methods. Offender profiling is one of these methods that has made great progress in the past decades (Youngs & Canter, 2005). Moreover, researchers showed that cognitive interviewing is a great tool of interview not only on the investigative interview, but also on surveys (Beatty & Willis, 2007). However, cognitive interviewing is still not applied in full by the investigators. Finally, despite the fact that facial composite in most of the cases has been of poor quality, there are some researches that suggest the use of morphed composites help enhancing the quality of the composite (Frowd, Bruce, & Hancock, 2008), also a cognitive interview helps the witness recall the information during the facial composite.


Beatty, P. C., & Willis, G. B. (2007). Research Synthesis: The Practice of Cognitive Interviewing. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71(2), 287–311. doi:10.1093/poq/nfm006

Brigham, J., Bennett, L. B., Meissner, C. A., & Mitchell, T. L. (2013). The influence of race on eyewitness memory. In R. C. L. Lindsay, D. F. Ross, J. D. Read, & M. P. Toglia (Eds.), The Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology: Volume II: Memory for People (pp. 257–281). Psychology Press.

Brunel, M., & Py, J. (2013). Questioning the acceptability of the Cognitive Interview to improve its use. L’Année Psychologique, 113(03), 427–458. doi:10.4074/S0003503313003059

Canter, D. (2004). Offender profiling and investigative psychology. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 1(1), 1–15. doi:10.1002/jip.7

Dando, C., Wilcock, R., & Milne, R. (2008). The cognitive interview: Inexperienced police officers’ perceptions of their witness/victim interviewing practices. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 13(1), 59–70. doi:10.1348/135532506X162498

Dowden, C., Bennell, C., & Bloomfield, S. (2007). Advances in Offender Profiling: A Systematic Review of the Profiling Literature Published Over the Past Three Decades. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 22(1), 44–56. doi:10.1007/s11896-007-9000-9

Eastwood, J., Cullen, R. M., Kavanagh, J. M., & Snook, B. (2006). A review of the validity of criminal profiling. Canadian Journal of Police and …, 4(2/3), 118–124.

Frowd, C., Bruce, V., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2008). Changing the face of criminal identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, 21(8), 668–672. Retrieved from

Frowd, C., Bruce, V., Smith, A. J., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2008). Improving the quality of facial composites using a holistic cognitive interview. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 14(3), 276–87. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.14.3.276

Maras, K. L., & Bowler, D. M. (2010). The cognitive interview for eyewitnesses with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(11), 1350–60. doi:10.1007/s10803-010-0997-8

McQuiston-Surrett, D., Douglass, A. B., & Burkhardt, S. G. (2008). Evaluation of facial composite evidence depends on the presence of other case factors. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 13(2), 279–298. doi:10.1348/135532507X214192

Metropolitan Police. (2014). Retrieved December 09, 2014, from

Michel, C., Rossion, B., Han, J., Chung, C.-S., & Caldara, R. (2006). Holistic processing is finely tuned for faces of one’s own race. Psychological Science, 17(7), 608–15. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01752.x

Putwain, D., & Sammon, A. (2013). Psychology and Crime (p. 216). Routledge.

Snook, B., Cullen, R. M., Bennell, C., Taylor, P. J., & Gendreau, P. (2008). The Criminal Profiling Illusion: What’s Behind the Smoke and Mirrors? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(10), 1257–1276. doi:10.1177/0093854808321528

Towl, G. J., & Crighton, D. A. (2010). Forensic psychology (p. 480). John Wiley & Sons.

Wells, G. L., & Hasel, L. E. (2007). Facial Composite Production by Eyewitnesses. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(1), 6–10. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00465.x

Youngs, D. (2009). Introduction to a Special Issue of the Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 6(1), 1–9. doi:10.1002/jip.98

Youngs, D., & Canter, D. (2005). Introducing Investigative Psychology. In C. Tredoux (Ed.), Psychology and Law (pp. 322–343). Juta and Company Ltd.


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