Investigative Psychology – Origins

While some areas of Investigative Psychology research, such as the detection of deception and the evaluation of eyewitness testimony, have a much longer history and knew a rather different development, Investigative Psychology as a coherent discipline is surprisingly young.

Professor David Canter coined the term in discussion with Detective Constable Rupert Heritage, some time in early 1990, at the University of Surrey (United Kingdom). It grew out of the recognition that there were many ways in which psychology could contribute to criminal and other investigations.

The earliest studies in this area focused upon sexual assault (such as D. Canter and R. Heritage, ‘A multivariate model of sexual behaviour: developments in offender profiling‘, The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 1.2 (1990), 185-212 – PDF of article as revised book chapter) and geographical offender profiling partly as a response to David and Rupert’s collaboration on the now frequently cited “Railway Rapist” case. A potted overview of this collaboration can be found on the Open University’s International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice’s webpages here, and in David’s own 1994 publication Mapping Murder (also available as an audiobook here). Very soon after this case many varied forms of criminality began to be considered by Investigative Psychologists. The spirit of co-operation between practitioner and academic remains as crucial, if not more so, today, over a decade later but the field has grown very significantly since those early studies.

In deliberating on these matters it became clear that a new field of applied psychology was emerging. This field posed many challenges to conventional research methodology, demanding a special approach able to cope with the muddiness and patchiness of its central data. Investigative Psychology would also involve those who work with the problems at the “coal face” in the academic questions.

Whilst early studies tended to focus on what the offender did, increasingly it has become apparent that attention to what the police do is also of great academic and practical interest. Thus, increased attention has, in recent years, begun to explore the significance of police decision-making, problem solving, evaluating legal testimony and investigative interviewing alongside exploring the psychological significance of how offenders operate.