Psychological disorders are serious health concerns in America, whose diverse effects has hit the justice system, particularly the forensic psychology field. Forensic psychologists, common as criminal profilers, work with agencies of law enforcement in developing brief criminal profiles, according to general psychological characteristics. Forensic psychology greatly impacts criminal justice, as it covers both criminal justice and clinical psychology (Davies & Beech, 2018). Some critical functions of a forensic psychologist entail assessing prisoners, screening witnesses, examining psychological disorders among court plaintiffs and criminals, and screening the mental states of the witnesses to deem if they can provide useful information for making a judgment (Brewer & Wells, 2017). As such, the psychology of case witnesses is within the scope of a forensic psychologist. In this line, this paper proposes psychological disorders as a critical study problem in forensic psychology among the eyewitness population.
Introduction/Statement Of The Problem
Psychological, mental, or behavior disorders are unique mental conditions, primarily resulting from the failure of an individuals’ mind to control the level of thinking. A psychological disorder represents some of the critical elements, which interfere with an individual’s thinking ability (Bartol & Bartol, 2017).
Background to this study, from a wide perspective, statistics show that the psychological illness in the U.S. is alarming. Bipolar and Depression Support Alliance report as of 2018, showed that 3.8 percent of the adults in the country suffered from bipolar disorders, while four out of every five victims of the disease are undiagnosed. Reports from NIMH, National Institute of Mental Health for 2018, claimed that almost 22 percent of the American adults, which translates to one among every five Americans experience a diagnosable psychological disorder (Locker, Poulton, & Thomson, 2018). The same report revealed that approximately 1% of the Americans aged 18 and above develop bipolar disorder each year.
However, the numbers may vary widely according to the diagnostic criteria, which different researchers use. Many scholars tend to agree that bipolar disorder is a catastrophic issue in the country. These individuals may include those with critical signs and symptoms, those diagnosed, and those with mild conditions that are yet to be diagnosed. Examining all ages, nearly 15 percent of the Americans are suffering from at least one psychological disorder.
While there exists literature on psychological disorders, previous research on psychological disorders among secondary and eyewitnesses is very scarce. This notion makes a study on psychological disorders among this population worth studying, mostly given that may court cases involve eyewitnesses as the largest source of investigative information.
Why it is Important to Study the Problem
Research on psychological disorders, mostly among court case witnesses, is worthwhile due to multiple reasons. First, the alarming issue of psychological disorders lies squarely in the field and the role of forensic psychologists. A forensic psychologist has an exclusive role in assessing a witness or defendant, whereby they provide one-on-one sessions, mainly during a court order. Such sessions are important for study and research, as well as for the patient’s therapeutic reasons. Other than this, it is important to assess and ensure the psychological well-being of eyewitnesses, as well as the secondary witnesses before or in the duration they testify in court. Achieving this step is the bottom line to protecting the rights of the defendant, plaintiff, and the witness himself/herself.
Second, there is increasing evidence that witnesses are increasingly changing their views in subsequent appearances after presenting their testimony for the first time (Bartol & Bartol, 2017). Multiple factors may lead to this habit, including bribery of the witness, threats directed to the witness, witness not being in a stable psychological state before or when giving testimony, and psychological change leading to withdrawal. Murder of the witnesses is another commonly reported issue that leads to the unavailability of the witness for successive court cases and possible withdrawal of other witnesses.
Additionally, the degree at which secondary witnesses and eyewitnesses are withdrawing from the court cases at some point is high. Mostly, threats and dangers alter the psychology of members of this population/group, forcing them to withdraw from the case (Dodier et al., 2019). While this interferes with the legal process, withdrawal also comes with great life fear, which further compromises the psychological wellness of the witnesses. While some people may live in a society with dread, others suffer from mental stress and anxiety, as they are unsure of the safety of their lives and that of their families. A security guarantee is the best solution for these individuals.
Moreover, empirical evidence holds that the legal systems rely largely on eyewitness relative to other forms of evidence, mostly in criminal cases. To this end, although the eyewitness evidence might be greatly beneficial, the psychology of the person giving testimony is a significant determiner of the accuracy of the information that he/she gives, hence the accuracy of the verdict.
Locker, Poulton, and Thomson (2018) found that the psychological condition of an eyewitness affects his or her ability. Mainly, preoccupation and anxiety, among other mental conditions, lead to low-performance efficiency. The anxiety witness might not be vigilant to critical task-associated duties, which may limit the witness from the important information necessary for eyewitness performance. Therefore, although findings on how the psychological state of a witness controls how the court integrates the eyewitness information, a few studies show that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is largely affected by the psychology of the witness.
Albeit, eyewitness error remains among the leading causes of wrongful convictions in America. For instance, 75 percent of 312 cases of DNA exonerations in the U.S. eyewitness was engaged. According to a study by Yarmey (2017), which involved an examination of 872 cases in Exonerations National Registry, eyewitness misidentification was evident in 76 percent of the cases (667). The same finding was consistent with another study that showed that it was exploring possible factors that lead to wrongful convictions (Brewer & Wells, 2017). These results illustrated that more than half of the cases entailed identity mistake, whereby most of them were errors by an eyewitness with one among every three eyewitnesses, making an identification error.
These identification errors relate to the psychological condition of the eyewitness, including fear, anxiety, and other mental problems. Although other factors, such as noticing that a different suspect identified that particular suspect, repeated questioning, and feedback confirmation might increase the witness’s confidence, the psychological state of an eyewitness contributes to a greater extent to the accuracy of the information (Brewer & Wells, 2017). Fear and anxiety reduce the accuracy of the patient information, if not the withdrawal of a participant.
Diagrammatic Representation of the Increase in Witnesses Forensic Psychology
Various recent scholars have studied and revealed the findings of forensic psychology, which witnesses undergo as they give testimonies on different cases in a court of law (Dodier et al., 2019). Figure 1 below is a diagrammatic reorientation illustrating forensic psychology research.
Figure 1: Graphical Representation of the Forensic Psychology Workforce
Finally, the study on forensic psychology, specifically psychological disorders among witnesses be significant in multiple ways. Firstly, the results will help to increase an understanding of eyewitness psychology and the resultant effect on case investigation and testimonies. This knowledge will be important in formulating strategies to safeguard the psychological wellness of eyewitnesses and other secondary witnesses. Secondly, the findings will shed light on both the criminal justice and psychology field in the country by educating forensic psychologists on how to increase the accuracy and confidence of witnesses. Lastly, the study offers useful insights to subsequent forensic psychologist scholars who may have an interest in eliminating conviction errors arising from eyewitness psychological issues.
The prevalence of psychological disorders in the country is high, and the trend is not exceptional among court witnesses. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, and ADHA are common problems that lead to mental ill-health among Americans. While different risk factors for psychological conditions exist among witnesses, the risks may be further accelerated by threats and dangers. Specifically, the rate of witnesses’ withdrawal or change of their position after the initial testimonies is reportedly high. Additionally, although evidence from eyewitness information is integrated with other pieces of evidence during the investigation process, courts tend to rely substantially on eyewitness. With eyewitness reported as the leading cause of erroneous conviction, the psychology of the witness could be a potential driver. These factors make the investigation of psychological disorders in eyewitnesses particularly imperative.
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Brewer, N., & Wells, G. L. (2017). Eyewitness identification. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(1), 24-27.
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Dodier, O., Melinder, A., Otgaar, H., Payoux, M., & Magnussen, S. (2019). Psychologists and psychiatrists in court: What do they know about eyewitness memory? A comparison of experts in inquisitorial and adversarial legal systems. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 34(3), 254-262.
Locker, D., Poulton, R., & Thomson, W. M. (2018). Psychological disorders and dental anxiety in a young adult population. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 29(6), 456-463.
Yarmey, A. D. (2017). The psychology of eyewitness testimony (pp. 204-05). New York: Free Press.