Approved by Faculty Senate


University Studies Course Proposal

Department: Psychology
Course number: 330
Number of credits: 3
Frequency: yearly
Course title: Psychology and the Law

Catalog description: Psychological analysis of the legal system, focusing on perception,
memory, and decision-making processes by individuals in the system. Topics include eyewitnesses,
the identification and evaluation of suspects, jury trials, capital punishment, and current topics.
Prerequisite: Psy 210.

Existing course approved by A2C2? yes

New proposal? no

Requested approval: Unity and Diversity: Science and Social Policy

Contact person: Peter Miene,


Description of requirements and learning activities that promote students' abilities to:


1. understand the scientific foundation of the topic

Psychology and the Law is an overview of the legal system from a psychological point of view. Laws and the legal system designed to uphold them are, of course, human creations. Laws reflect human values, and the legal system reflects beliefs about human behavior. Psychology, as the science of human behavior, offers an avenue for studying the legal system, and the individuals involved in it, from a scientific point of view. The legal system is filled with assumptions about human behavior: harsh sentences will deter crime, eyewitnesses can accurately perceive and remember events, people only confess to crimes if they are guilty, jurors are dispassionate and unbiased information processors, etc. Where the legal system sees reasonable assumptions regarding human behavior, psychologists see hypotheses for research. As a subdiscipline of psychology, the field of psychology and law has accumulated a tremendous data base over the past four decades relevant to human behavior as it intersects with the law. The course provides an overview of the system from the creation of laws to the administration of punishment through an examination of the relevant research.


2. understand the social, ethical, historical, and/or political implications

One can view the legal system as a mirror of our society. The laws we pass, the court decisions that are made, the powers granted to law enforcement officers, the sentences handed down to the convicted all reflect the values held at any given time by society at large. The textbook I use in Psychology and Law identifies a number of dilemmas we face because of competing values we cherish in our society. For example, on the one hand our society values individual rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and this value is reflected in laws protecting defendant's rights. On the other hand, as members of a collective, we also value the common good, a value reflected in our desire to be safe from dangerous others. Both values are appealing in isolation, but they cannot be achieved simultaneously. Looking at Supreme Court decisions, we tend to see one value being emphasized at a particular point in time largely to the exclusion of the other, but over time the pendulum swings back and produces decisions emphasizing the other value. For example, the Warren court of the 1960s greatly strengthened the rights of suspects, but over the past two decades, concern for crime control by the Rehnquist court has eroded many of these protections for the individual. Clearly no reasonable discussion of the law can be held without considering the social, ethical, historical, and political implications.



3. understand and articulate the need to integrate issues of science with social policy

As psychologists have accumulated data, they have discovered ways in which the legal system can be improved. Research on eyewitnesses illustrates this point. The large number of DNA exonerations in the past few years points to a major weakness in the current system: eyewitnesses are almost always believed by jurors but are frequently wrong. Research indicates that eyewitness memory can be fallible and that perception can be affected by a number of predictable factors. Certain factors, such as the presence of a weapon, are known to dramatically decrease accuracy of eyewitness descriptions, but they fall outside the control of anyone in the system. Other factors known to affect the accuracy of eyewitness identifications, however can be controlled by law enforcement officers or others in the system (e.g., how witnesses are interviewed, the manner in which line-ups are conducted). A national panel convened by Attorney General Reno just produced the first research-based guidebook for establishing procedures designed to reduce the number of mistaken identification cases in the United States. Many other examples where the research has failed to have any impact on social policy are also discussed (e.g., the courts have steadfastly refused to acknowledge problems raised by the vast research literature on jury decision-making).


4. evaluate the various policy options relevant to the social dilemmas posed by the science

As indicated in point three, the number of DNA exoneration cases in the past few years has made it increasingly difficult to assert that we have a criminal justice system that does not make mistakes. Many of those now known to have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated were minorities, raising a host of social policy questions. More alarming still is the fact that many of those wrongfully convicted were sentenced to death before being released from death row. Death penalty cases reveal a clear conflict between the scientific evidence and current social policy. Questions regarding whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent, the types of cases in which death is sought, and the unique way in which juries are chosen for death penalty cases are all discussed.


5. articulate, choose among, and defend various policy and/or scientific options to cope with the challenges created

Students are encouraged to clarify their own value system, evaluate the research available, and to understand the implications of the positions they adopt regarding the legal system. For example, students are explicitly asked to think through their position regarding the death penalty, both in theory and as it is currently administered in the United States. In reaching their conclusions, students are asked to articulate their values, the goal(s) of punishment in our criminal justice system, and the relevant research that leads to their position.



Psychology 330

Psychology and the Law

Example Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Peter Miene

Office: Phelps 231 I

Office Phone: 457-5668



Office Hours: MTWRF

and by appointment

Required Text: Wrightsman, Nietzel, & Fortune (1998). Psychology and the Legal System (4th Ed).

Other short readings will also be assigned.




Psychology 330: Psychology and the Law has been approved by the University Studies Program as a Unity and Diversity: Science and Social Policy course. As a Science and Social Policy course, Psychology and the Law is designed to promote students' abilities to:

1. understand the scientific foundation of the topic


2. understand the social, ethical, historical, and/or political implications


3. understand and articulate the need to integrate issues of science with social policy

4. evaluate the various policy options relevant to the social dilemmas posed by the science, and

5. articulate, choose among, and defend various policy and/or scientific options to cope with the challenges created


This course is designed for either psychology students with career or intellectual interests in our legal system, or for students majoring/minoring in a discipline related to the law who are interested in a psychological perspective on the law. Our legal system is based on a system of values and beliefs about justice, and class participants will be encouraged to learn about their own values and beliefs through discussion. But psychology as a discipline has empirical methods and findings relevant to many of the concerns of the criminal justice system, and we will be attempting to integrate these values and empirical findings. As such, this course will provide an overview of the legal system from a psychological perspective and will emphasize the empirical approach.





Class sessions will consist of lectures, videos, and discussion. Lectures will clarify and elaborate on material presented in the text as well as introduce new material not covered in the text.

Class discussion will be a formal part of the course structure, and students' participation in discussion will impact their course grade. We will spend some course time in discussion each week. In order to have meaningful discussion, it is CRITICAL that students have COMPLETED THE ASSIGNED READINGS for each class. Students will be evaluated in terms of the quality (not quantity!) of their discussion and on their understanding of the material.

The purpose for discussion in this course is to share your knowledge and experience with others. You must be present and you must participate in the discussion to receive participation credit.




Exams. There will be three exams in this course on material covered in that unit. Exams will be a combination of multiple choice and short essay questions, and they will test on material presented in the book only, in class only, and material covered in both.


Discussion/Class Participation. To promote a quality, topic-oriented discussion, I will be giving students brief assignments to prepare a particular topic. I may ask students to prepare discussion questions for class, complete short writing assignments in preparation for discussion, etc.

As part of the discussion/participation requirement, each student is required to find and present to the class ONE newspaper article relevant to any topic in psychology and law. Students will be asked to write and turn in a one page summary of the article (along with a copy of the article) that also explains the article's relevance to the course, and to give a brief (5 minute) presentation to the class. I strongly encourage students to use the internet to find relevant articles (e.g., The New York Times may be found at or The Los Angeles Times at



Grades are determined by the number of points earned by the student using the following scale:

A (90% and above) C (70 - 79.9%)

B (80 - 89.9%) D (60 - 69.9%)



Course Schedule

Day Date Topic Readings Outcomes

T 8/29 Course Overview and Introduction

R 8/31 Four dilemmas in Psych & Law Chp. 1 1, 2, 4, 5

T 9/5 Legality, Morality, Justice Chp. 3 2

R 9/7 Theories of Crime Chp. 5 1

T 9/12 The Police Chp. 6 1, 2

R 9/14 Rape Chp. 16 1, 2

T 9/19 EXAM 1

R 9/21 Eyewitness Issues: Chp. 7 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

T 9/26 Memory processes, errors Chp. 7 (for unit)

R 9/28 Hypnosis Chp. 7

T 10/3 Line-ups Wells (2000)

R 10/5 Eyewitnesses in the courtroom Wells (2000)

T 10/10 Expert witnesses Wells (2000)

R 10/12 EXAM 2

T 10/17 Identification/Evaluation of suspects: Chp. 8 1, 2, 3

R 10/19 Profiles Chp. 8 1

T 10/24 Polygraphs Chp. 8 1, 3, 4, 5

R 10/26 Confessions, entrapment Kassin (1997) 1, 3, 4

T 10/31 Rights of victims vs. rights of accused Chp. 9 2

R 11/2 Between arrest and trial Chp. 10

T 11/7 EXAM 3

R 11/9 The Trial Process Chp. 13

T 11/14 Jury Trials: Representation Chp. 14 1, 2

R 11/16 Jury Trials: Selection Chp. 14 1, 2

T 11/21 Jury Trials: Decision Making Chp. 15 1, 2, 3


T 11/28 Jury Trials: Assumptions & Reforms Chp. 15 1, 3, 4, 5

R 11/30 Punishment and Sentencing Chp. 18 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

T 12/5 Capital Punishment Chp. 18 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

R 12/7 Capital Punishment Chp. 18 1, 2, 3, 4, 5