Criminology vs. Criminal Psychology – What’s the Difference?

What's the Difference Between Criminology and Criminal Psychology?

Many people use the terms criminology and criminal psychology interchangeably. However, they have different roles in the study of criminals. Criminology and criminal psychology are essential areas of study for figuring out why crimes are committed and how to prevent them, but do you know the difference between the two fields?

The difference between criminology and criminal psychology is; criminology is the study of criminal behavior from a sociological perspective, and criminal psychology is the study of a criminal’s mentality. Criminologists analyze external factors that can lead an individual to commit a crime, such as socioeconomic status, location, and relationships. On the other hand, criminal psychologists study the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings of a criminal and use those factors to determine what may have led them to commit a crime. 

Are you interested in pursuing a career in criminal justice but don’t know which field you want to pursue? Or maybe you heard the terms criminology and criminal psychology on a crime show and want to know the difference. Whatever the case may be, read on to find out what the difference is between criminology and criminal psychology.

What is Criminology?

Criminology is the study of the science behind crimes. The field looks at crimes from an external and social perspective, not only observing criminals but also the impact that crimes have on society. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field meaning that it pulls research from other social science fields, including sociology, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. Criminologists analyze the information they get from these fields and use it to determine what individuals commit crimes, why they commit them, their impact on society, and how to deter people from committing crimes. A criminologist’s primary concern is understanding why individuals commit criminal acts and how to prevent them.

The study of criminology is essential when it comes to policy and law-making. Criminologists can determine effective measures that will deter criminal acts because of their studies. For example, suppose a criminologist discovers that individuals with lower education are more likely to do recreational drugs. In that case, they can then push for programs educating them about the dangers of drugs. Criminologists can determine rehabilitation and education programs for criminals that are more effective than putting them behind bars.

What is Criminal Psychology?

Criminal psychology or forensic psychology is the study of the minds of criminals. The field observes the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions to determine why an individual committed a crime. Criminal psychologists can determine a criminal’s chance of recidivism (committing a criminal act again in the future). They can also guess what actions a criminal may have taken after committing a crime.

Criminal psychologists play an essential role in a criminal investigation by helping law enforcement solve crimes and analyze suspects’ behavioral patterns. Criminal psychologists are best known for their role in criminal profiling or offender profiling. Criminal profiling is an investigation strategy used to infer the characteristics of the individual who committed the crime at hand. This investigative strategy is seen on shows such as Criminal Minds, Law and Order, and CSI. Criminal profiling helps identify serial cases such as serial murders because they can compare the details from multiple cases.

Should You Major in Criminology or Forensic Psychology?

Now you know the difference between criminology and criminal psychology but, which field should you pursue a degree in? Which area you choose to major in depends on where your interests lie in the study of criminals. Are you interested in the societal perspective of crime? Criminologists analyze the external factors that lead an individual to commit a crime and the impact that criminal acts have on society. Or are you more interested in understanding what goes on inside the brain of a criminal? Criminal psychologists observe a criminal’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions to determine why they acted unlawfully. Both fields are essential to the criminal justice system, playing crucial roles in understanding and preventing criminal acts.

A major in criminology involves looking at crimes through the lenses of various fields. If you choose to study the field of criminology, you will learn about criminals through different study areas such as sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and even psychology. You may take classes about the philosophy of law, the impact of crime on society, criminal acts through history, and forensic psychology. All of these courses will build on your ability to understand criminals and why they commit unlawful acts. Allowing you to analyze the impact they have on society and determine effective deterrence measures.

Criminal psychology is not recognized as a specialization by the APA (American Psychological Association). Aspiring criminal psychologists should major in forensic, clinical, or counseling psychology. However, it is recommended to be a criminal psychologist that you study forensic psychology since it is very similar to criminal psychology.

You can also choose to get a psychology degree with a concentration or minor in criminal justice or criminology. The concentration will prepare you for the unique work that criminal psychologists do compared to the other psychological fields. Students studying forensic psychology or psychology with a concentration on criminal justice/criminology can expect to have courses on criminal profiling, substance addiction, the psychology of law, criminal behavior, and the relation between mental health and crime.

Unlike criminology, where it is relatively easy to get a job at the undergraduate level, if your goal is to be a criminal psychologist, you must obtain a doctorate in an area of psychology. Although there are positions available at the undergraduate and master’s level, there’s a lot of competition, and the salary is significantly lower.

What Careers Options Do You Have With a Criminology or Forensic Psychology Degree?

Both areas of study will land you a career within the criminal justice system, studying criminal behaviors. You can choose to work directly with law enforcement or do research and analysis of crimes. If you have a degree in criminology, your work and study will revolve around crime and society, looking at the societal factors that lead someone to commit a crime, society’s response to crime, and how to prevent criminal acts.

Alternatively, those with degrees in forensic psychology can expect their career to focus on criminals’ mentality, thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and mental health. Criminal psychologists take those aspects and attempt to determine their impact on someone acting unlawfully. Both professional fields play a crucial role in investigating, understanding, and deterring crimes.

Criminology Professions

  • Criminologist
  • Detective
  • Probation/corrections officer
  • Police officer
  • Criminal lawyer
  • Forensic scientist
  • Crime analyst
  • Private investigator

Criminal Psychology Professions

  • Criminal psychologist
  • Correctional counselor
  • Victim advocate
  • Jury consultant
  • Police consultant
  • Forensic research psychologist
  • Investigative journalist
  • Forensic social worker

Related: 8 Types of Different Jobs in Forensics

How Much is the Difference in Pay of a Criminologist and Criminal Psychologist?

Your potential earnings in the fields vary based on your education, experience, and location. Although, of the two areas, criminal psychologists tend to have a much higher salary. The reason being is that criminal psychologists typically have a higher degree compared to criminologists.

The average pay of a criminal psychologist in the United States is $80,610. The lowest reported income of a criminal psychologist is $22,000, and the highest is $159,500. Although, most of their salaries range between $45,000 and $100,500. A criminal psychologist’s average pay varies by quite a lot ($55,500), meaning that there are possibly many opportunities for advancement in the field based on skill, location, and experience.

Criminologists make an average of $51,826 per year, which is significantly lower than a criminal psychologist’s average income. Although, criminologists can make as much as $124,891 and as low as $17,914 per year. The average salary range is between $30,198 and $62,444 per year, making the average pay range vary by $32,246, which means that there are not as many opportunities for growth in criminology compared to criminal psychology.

Salary Figures: ZipRecruiter


Both criminology and criminal psychology play vital roles in the criminal justice system’s efforts to understand and deter criminal acts. The study of criminology seeks to understand crime from a sociological point of view, analyzing what external factors may have led someone to commit a crime, society’s reaction to criminal acts, and how to deter future crimes from being executed. On the flip side, criminal psychologists strive to understand the mentality of a criminal. They analyze the thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and mental health struggles that drive an individual to engage in criminal acts.

Although both fields focus on different crime areas, they are both essential in our efforts to effectively deter criminal behavior. If you choose to go into either field, your work will make the community a safer environment for everyone through your research and analysis of crime.

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