Insight into the Criminal Mind

The lecture hall buzzes with the busy sound of keyboards tapping as Professor Patti Coffey paces up front, discussing the attributes of primary and secondary psychopathy, a mental disorder characterized primarily by lack of empathy. She turns down the lights and introduces a video clip of an interview with a prison inmate, asking students to pay attention to how and what he shares. When the lights come back on, Coffey asks what attributes of primary or secondary psychopathy they witnessed. There’s no hesitation as students throw out what they’ve seen. Before moving on, she says, “One of the reasons I like to show him is that he’s not a creepy, serial murderer which is what we often think of high psychopathy offenders.”

More than 100 students in Coffey’s Psychology 526 depth course, Criminal Mind, are regularly exposed to this type of myth-busting, stereotype-confronting material. “Every once in a while, I get a comment from a student who thought the class was going to be more like [the television show] CSI. They thought we were just going to watch interesting clips, but one of my pushes with this class is to show that there’s a science behind this. Psychology has a lot to offer in terms of what we’re doing with the criminal justice system and how we can understand how people end up there.”

The topic, as Coffey predicted when she suggested the course in 2008, is highly engaging. “There’s an increase in public awareness and concern about the criminal justice system,” Coffey says. “The more people think about what the research shows us, what the data is, why we have these policies, why someone with darker skin is more likely to be sentenced to death than someone with lighter skin, why someone would make a false confession … I want people to have an understanding of all those things.”

Coffey’s interest in the content stems from her background as a forensic psychologist psychological evaluations and treatment in both community and institution settings, such as Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. When the opportunity arose for Coffey to teach a class at the UW, she jumped at it. “It was a fun way to develop a course. If you get a criminal psychology textbook, they don’t pick up what’s most interesting about the field.”

So Coffey developed a course around the topics she found most fascinating: psychopathy, sexual offenders, risk assessment, domestic violence interventions, effective interventions with juveniles, among others.

In one section of the course, Coffey shows students a video of UW–Madison psychologists (who teach in the department) testifying in the Waukesha, Wisconsin, Slender Man case. “[The things] they’re saying are things students know or things they’ve just learned. They’re explaining brain development, adolescent maturity issues, peer influences.” The class helps students understand the role psychology plays in the court and how it affects public policy.

One of the most important takeaways from the course, says Kagan McCarty ’19, is that “it isn’t just all about typologies and risk assessments, but that we need to consider everyone as an individual. As advocates in our current system, we need to understand that the ‘one size fits all’ approach has its limits.” For McCarty, the class fueled his passion for learning. He is currently pursuing his master’s in criminal justice–behavioral studies at Saint Leo University. After graduation, he hopes to be working in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit on cases similar to what is taught in Coffey’s class.

Naturally, students pursuing a career in law or police work will make the connections between what they’re learning in class and how they’ll use that information professionally. But there are plenty of students who won’t be pursuing careers related to justice, and Coffey is thrilled they’re in the classroom. “Students will say, ‘I never want to do any of this work, but I’m a more informed citizen and I’m glad I know all of this because it makes me think differently about what I’m seeing in the media and how I can respond.’”

It’s a benefit that is not immediately evident (like a jobs training program) but revealed over time by giving students/citizens the tools necessary to approach issues in a multifaceted and more nuanced way. It’s the value of a liberal arts education, and Patti Coffey is leading the way.