Evaluation of the Influence of Social Psychology

by Kristen FescoeMarch 20, 2006



Running Head: Influence of Social Psychology on Forensic Psychology




Evaluation of the Influence of Social Psychology

On the Practice of Forensic Psychology

Kristen Fescoe

Drexel University


Social Psychology can be defined as the branch of human psychology that deals with the behavior of groups and the influence of social factors on the individual. A second definition of social psychology states that it is a field of psychology that examines the way thought, feeling and behavior are influenced by the presence of others (Westen, 1996). This branch of psychological study has been influential on many other branches of psychology. One of these fields is Forensic Psychology. The entire basis of forensic psychology practice is to aid the justice system in those matters which have a psychological basis. Often these forensic evaluations consider the individual as they relate to the community, their family and many other social groups. Therefore, forensic psychology and forensic assessments are presently based on social psychological principles. For instance, an assessment of an incarcerated person with the purpose of deciding whether they should receive parole would involve a decision on whether this individual is fit to interact with the rest of society. Not only would the individual be assessed, but also the individual in terms of his or her group interactions. Where traditional psychotherapy and clinical psychology look only at the individual’s functioning, forensic psychology evaluates the individual in a number of contexts.

This paper specifically evaluates research involving the juvenile justice system and how the field of social psychology has influenced the field of juvenile justice. Five studies on juvenile justice are appraised for the influence of social psychology within that particular study. Juvenile forensic assessments evaluate the individual juvenile in the context of their various social groups even more than does the adult justice system. During the process of maturation, social factors have a great deal of influence over the individual, making it of great concern for forensic psychologists. An incarcerated or accused young person is most often assessed in terms of their family, peers, community, school and many other social groups. The decision of punishment may be made with those aspects in mind. Consequently, the juvenile justice system has been greatly influenced by social psychology and its research.

The first research study of interest was conducted by Salekin, et al. in 2002, this study researches the complicated issue of juvenile transfers to adult court. Many juvenile crimes that are considered particularly severe by the justice system may be tried in an adult court. Opinions vary as to whether juveniles should be transferred to and tried in adult court, but research continues to support both sides. This particular study evaluated three factors that a judge may use when making a decision whether to try the juvenile as an adult. They are 1) the level of danger the juvenile poses to the community, 2) the level of sophistication / maturity of the juvenile, and 3) the extent to which the juvenile is seen as treatable. Using a survey of judges from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges it was found that these three categories encompassed a large number of characteristics and aspects that a judge may consider when making decisions on whether or not to transfer. Some of these aspects include how stable the juvenile’s family situation is, the relationship between the juvenile and his peers as well as how the juvenile functions within his or her community. All of these involve the influence of social factors on the individual juvenile.

This study is an accurate example of how social psychology has influenced the juvenile justice system. Rather than simply assessing the individual juvenile, researchers have gone to great lengths in order to appraise the juvenile in terms of their larger social group. This study not only evaluates those tools that a judge may use to make a decision about juvenile transfer, but also about the way in which the juvenile justice system functions.

The next study, conducted by McCabe, et al., looks at some of the differences between female and male juvenile delinquents (2002). A sample of 625 adjudicated delinquents obtained from a San Diego County database were interviewed in order to appraise psychological symptoms, DSM-IV diagnoses, and familial risks factors. The interviews yielded information which supported the hypothesis that female juvenile delinquents have a higher rate of psychological symptoms, DSM-IV mental disorders, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical neglect and family history of mental illness. This study carries with it many implications for policy. For instance, female juvenile delinquents are in greater need of mental health services and should be given increased attention, than male juvenile delinquents. 

This study evaluated individual juvenile delinquents in terms of several social epidemics, including drug use, psychiatric symptoms, abuse, physical neglect, and the lack of familial support. Obviously this study is concerned with the impact of social influence over juveniles. The study spends some time discussing the interaction between the juveniles, while they are incarcerated and what effect this has. The researchers are taking into account that the mere presence of others has some effect on these individuals.

The next study, conducted by Stouthamer-Loeber, et al. in 2002, was a longitudinal study done in order to determine what the risk and promotive factors are for young men and to what degree they are predictive of serious juvenile delinquency. ‘Serious delinquency’ was determined by those tenets determined by the research of Wolfgang, Figlio, Tracy and Singer (1985). The chosen sample was males aged 7-19 living in various neighborhoods in Pittsburg, PA. Six domains were specifically assessed; child behavior, child attitudes, school and leisure activities, peer behaviors, family functioning and demographics. While the first two domains deal only with the individual child, the remaining four are areas where the child was appraised in terms of greater social groups. Some of the specific factors that were evaluated were relationships with peers, family relationships, substance abuse, school motivation and achievement, and a number of others. Again, the researchers are acknowledging the impact that the social group has on the individual.

The outcome of this study showed that lower Socio-economic status was predictive of juvenile delinquency, as well as a higher number of risk effects and a lower number of promotive effects. This study shows that juvenile delinquency is not solely predicted by personality or other internal factors, rather a child’s social system may play a large role. In other words, the groups’ with which a juvenile affiliates may be extremely predictive of future delinquency.

The fourth study was an evaluation of a newly designed tool that is designed to be used as a screening tool in juvenile justice facilities (Grisso, et al, 2001). The Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument – Second Version (MAYSI-II, 2000), was developed as a brief screening which would be administered to juvenile offenders in order to assess any potential mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. The tool is comprised of 52 self report items relevant to common mental health problems commonly experienced by juveniles in the justice system. In this study, 1,279 male and female youths in Massachusetts juvenile facilities, between the ages of 12 and 17 were administered the MAYSI. Some of the participants were also administered the Millon Adolescent Clinical Inventory (MACI) and the Youth Self-Report (YSR) for the purposes of evaluating the reliability and validity of the new measure. The instrument was also administered to 3,804 male and female juveniles in California Youth Authority custody in order to both gather data on reliability and validity as well as further generalize the findings.

The tool proved to be a reliable and valid measure which can be used as an initial screening tool for juvenile justice facilities to assess for mental or emotional difficulties. The MAYSI received a significant score for internal consistency, test-retest reliability, and concurrent validity. The purpose of this tool is to allow staff at juvenile facilities to gauge the emotional and psychological state of a juvenile from the time they are admitted to a facility. These are gauged by evaluation of the following seven categories: alcohol and drug use, anger or irritability, depression or anxiety, somatic complaints, suicide ideation, thought disturbance and traumatic experiences.

While the tool itself does not specifically measure any sociological phenomena, it does seek to address a sociological issue. It has been estimated that juvenile’s in the justice system may be experiencing emotional or psychological symptoms at a rate of anywhere between 40% and 80% (Teplin et al., 1998). Within this large group of adolescents, very few are receiving the appropriate care. This study works towards developing a tool that can assist individuals within this larger community and address their specific needs.

The final study, conducted by Hecker & Steinberg (2002) evaluated psychological / forensic evaluations completed prior to dispositional placement. The study sought to determine whether these evaluations have any influence over judge’s ultimate decisions. Researchers reviewed 172 predispositional forensic evaluations from the Philadelphia Juvenile Court System and evaluated the association between report quality and judges recommendation acceptance. The reports were assessed according to the following content areas: family history, educational history, criminal history, mental health history, cognitive functioning and personality functioning. The reports were all reviewed and it was noted whether or not each content area was present. A report was deemed a quality report when all content areas were sufficiently evaluated and included in the report. The outcome of the study shows that judges do not fully take advantage of well written forensic assessments; furthermore they do not fully appreciate what constitutes a good report. However, the judges were more likely to accept recommendations from those reports in which the recommendation section was rated as being sufficient or better by the researchers.

There are several ways in which this study is sociologically significant. First, the study included information on how crucial it is to include information related to the juvenile’s functioning within a family unit, in a peer group and in society at large. Second, this study looked into the complicated relationship between judges and forensic assessors. The researchers noted the fact that these relationships have many implications on judge’s decisions. More broadly, this study evaluated the fact that there are numerous ‘players’ in the juvenile justice system and they all have some effect on one another.

While forensic psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology, the effects of social psychology have made their marks in numerous ways. The above studies, while very different in content, show the degree to which social psychology has left its mark. Each of the research studies was influenced in some way by social psychology and related research. While early forensic psychological research focused specifically on individual offenders and the mental processes of these offenders, current research has taken a step towards evaluating offenders, both adult and juvenile in the larger context. This includes the individual and their own traits, the way the individual has interacted in society and also how the individual is predicted to interact in society in the future. Forensic psychology on the whole is now interested in the effect that the actual or implied presence of others has on the functioning of the individual.











Works Cited

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McCabe, K., Lansing, A., Garland, A. & Hough, R. (2002). Gender differences in psychopathology, functional impairment, and familial risk factors among adjudicated delinquents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 41, 860-867.

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