What students should know about forensic psychology from a specialist in the field

With a surge of awareness from many mainstream media outlets and a newfound push to teach the importance of mental health, psychology has never been more popular and readily accessible to the public. Although there has been an increase in awareness, there are still many fields and subjects of psychology that are not as commonly popular or are simply unknown. 

After having graduated university, I felt a sense of confusion with the ever-present question of “what will I now do with my life?” My entire life until now had been structurally planned and now my training wheels have been removed and I am now on my own to veer and steer. As many psychology undergrad graduates, there is an eventual plan of continuing school, but exactly which subject in the wide spectrum of psychology? And exactly how many fields of psychology are there, apart from the commonly known?

Hence, the introduction of this interview. This blog post highlights a particular field: forensic psychology. Apart from its research and publications, the APA also encompasses the many fields of psychology through various divisions. Each division or interest group is regulated and organized by a wide range of members, specialists, and psychologists nationwide. One such popular group, is Division 41- Law Society and due to its high viewing volume, I decided to interview a specialist in the field to answer questions you may have as a student interested in the field of forensic psychology.

About Dr. DeMatteo

David DeMatteo, JD, PhD, ABPP (Forensic), is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Law at Drexel University, and Director of Drexel’s JD/PhD Program in Law and Psychology.  He received a BA in psychology from Rutgers University, an MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from MCP Hahnemann University, and a JD from Villanova Law School.

Dr. DeMatteo’s research interests include psychopathic personality, forensic mental health assessment, offender diversion, and drug-involved criminal offenders.  His research has been funded by several federal agencies, state agencies, and private foundations, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the American Psychology-Law Society.  Dr. DeMatteo received the 2013 Pennsylvania Forensic Rights and Treatment Conference Recognition Award in recognition of his research on diversion programs for drug-involved and mentally ill offenders.

Dr. DeMatteo has published more than 90 articles and book chapters and 7 books in his areas of interest.  He is an Associate Editor for Law and Human Behavior, on the Editorial Boards of more than 10 journals, and a reviewer for more than 30 scientific journals.  He has also given more than 150 conference presentations.

In addition to serving two terms as an American Psychological Association (APA) Council Representative for the American Psychology-Law Society (APA Division 41), Dr. DeMatteo was Chair of the APA’s Committee on Legal Issues (2011).  He is a Fellow of APA, a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, and board certified in forensic psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.  Dr. DeMatteo is currently President of the American Psychology-Law Society (APA Division 41).

Dr. DeMatteo is a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania, where he conducts forensic mental health assessments of juveniles and adults on a variety of legal issues.

Isabelle: What do you do?

I’m an Associate Professor of Psychology and Law at Drexel University, where I direct the JD/PhD Program in Law & Psychology.  I teach courses in the Department of Psychology and at the law school, conduct research, and operate a private forensic psychology practice.  In my forensic practice, I evaluate offenders on a number of psycholegal isues, including competence to stand trial, competence to waive Miranda rights, state and federal sentencing, mental state at the time of the offense (e.g., insanity), and capital sentencing.  I’m also the current President of the American Psychology-Law Society, which is Division 41 of APA.

What advice would you give to those who are interested but confused?

My first piece of advice would be to become informed about the nature of forensic psychology  —  i.e., what it is, what we do, career prospects, etc.  The website for APA Division 41 is a good place to start: http://www.apadivisions.org/division-41/.  Beyond that, I’d advise students to ask themselves about what they find rewarding about psychology to see if it overlaps with the forensic field.

Tell me about a project or accomplishment you consider to be the most significant in your career. 

I can’t point to one project or accomplishment.  Rather, I believe my body of work as a whole – both research and clinical – has contributed to better decision-making in legislative and judicial areas.

Who is your role model, and why? 

I have several role models, and all of them illustrated how research can be used to influence policy and practice.  For me, the litmus test of research is whether it changes the way we think about things or do things, and my mentors are examples of how we can “move the needle” in various policy-relevant areas.

How do you use psychology in your job?

I use psychology in my teaching, research, and forensic work.  I teach several psychology classes, engage in psychology-law relevant research, and conduct forensic assessments with juvenile and adult offenders.  In all of these endeavors, an understanding of psychology is paramount.

In your opinion, why is it important to study forensic psychology? 

Forensic psychology encompasses both research and clinical practice.   In terms of research, forensic psychological research examines several important areas (e.g., eyewitness testimony, jury decision-making, false confessions).  On the clinical-forensic side, forensic practitioners are helping attorneys and courts to make better-informed decisions about offenders.  Given the overlap between mental illness and offend, helping to inform judicial decision-making has clear importance.

What did you want to be when you “grew up?” 

I initially wanted to be an attorney, but I realized that my interests fell more in the area of social science and how social science could be used to influence law and policy.

If you could meet anyone from the past or present, for an hour, who would it be?

Julius Caesar.  He was an outstanding leader and visionary who thought outside of the box and created a paradigm shift in how things were done in numerous political, social, and religious areas.


About the Author

Isabelle Orozco
Isabelle is a recent graduate of Penn State University with her degree in neuropsychology and French. During her years at university, she worked in research ranging from PTSD studies to code-switching in bilingualism. Presently and imperatively, her hobbies include: reading dystopic novels, watching Bollywood films, dancing classical ballet, and photojournalism.