What makes a Forensic Psychology student tick?!

Student sitting on a tree stump

Through the Forensic Psychology Master’s programme, Joanna Ratsma has been researching Minor Physical Anomolies, an area that she finds captivating.

When I signed up to complete a Forensic Psychology MSc I knew it would be interesting. Having studied modules on forensic psychology in my first and third year of undergraduate psychology, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the sorts of things I would be exploring during this Master’s. However, the programme has exceeded my expectations – with more fascinating and challenging workshops emerging week-by-week; sexual murder, child molestation, fire setting and stalking representing just a small proportion of the topics covered so far. I’m learning from forensic psychologists who are experts in preventing crime, treating and rehabilitating people who offend and understanding victims of crime. With every essay I write I find a new interest; I been overwhelmed with the depth of knowledge I have gained during my time on this MSc.

One area that has particularly caught my attention and consequently become the basis for my dissertation project is Minor Physical Anomalies (MPAs).  MPAs are an area I first learnt about whilst writing an earlier essay on violent individuals who offend. I discovered that individuals who have offended with high levels of violence have certain physical features which differentiate them from non-violent individuals who offend (Raine, 2019). As I researched further, I soon found that these distinct markers are thought to be caused by maldevelopment in the womb (Ismail et al., 1998)– perhaps suggesting that their violent behaviour is innate, as opposed to learnt.

These physical anomalies, which include features such as multiple hair whorls, furrowed tongues and webbed toes, are common (Waldrop, 1989). Most people have a few different anomalies, however, individuals with disorders such as Autism, Schizophrenia, Tourette’s and Bipolar tend to possess more (Myers et al., 2017). Another population that too tend to have more of these anomalies, compared to the average individual, are those who are sexually attracted to children (Dyshniku et al., 2015). This particularly piqued my interest.

Within the lay population, there is a common belief that all pedophiles are evil and so are destined, and even choose to, hurt children. However, as with normal sexual attraction, people do not necessarily choose who they are attracted to. Some researchers suggest that this could be extended to those with deviant sexual attraction (i.e. attraction to children) – there are many pedophilic people out there who do not act upon their pedophilic urges and live non-offending lives (Cantor & McPhail, 2016). The research on the development of pedophilic tendencies is limited, however recently MPAs have been explored with the hope of evidencing this neurodevelopmental idea (Fazio, 2018). It is thought that people attracted to children do in fact have more anomalies, in turn implying that their prenatal development is different to that of someone attracted to adults. Although this does not prove that pedophilia is caused during gestation, it does provide us with some perhaps polarising information – could it be that sexual attraction to children is not a choice, but an affliction?

I hope that I will continue to further my knowledge on interesting topics such as this and I am sure that the Forensic Psychology MSc programme allow me to do just that.

Find out more about the MSc in Forensic Psychology and the Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology (CORE-FP) at Kent

Cantor, J. M., & McPhail, I. V. (2016). Non-offending pedophiles. Current Sexual Health Reports8(3), 121-128.

Dyshniku, F., Murray, M., Fazio, R., Lykins, A., & Cantor, J. (2015). Minor Physical Anomalies as a Window into the Prenatal Origins of Pedophilia. Archives Of Sexual Behavior44(8), 2151-2159. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0564-7

Fazio, R. (2018). Toward a Neurodevelopmental Understanding of Pedophilia. The Journal Of Sexual Medicine15(9), 1205-1207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2018.04.631

Ismail, B., Cantor-Graae, E., & McNei, T. (1998). Minor physical anomalies in schizophrenic patients and siblings: How effective is the waldropscale?. Schizophrenia Research29(1-2), 181-182. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0920-9964(97)88771-3

Myers, L., Anderlid, B., Nordgren, A., Willfors, C., Kuja-Halkola, R., Tammimies, K., & Bölte, S. (2017). Minor physical anomalies in neurodevelopmental disorders: a twin study. Child And Adolescent Psychiatry And Mental Health11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-017-0195-y

Raine, A. (2019). A neurodevelopmental perspective on male violence. Infant mental health journal, 40(1), 84-97.

Waldrop, M. F., Halverson, C. F., & Shetterly, K. (1989). Manual for assessing minor physical anomalies (1989 revision). Unpublished manuscript, University of Georgia.