PPE 4003 Theories of Personality

Psychological Autopsy

``The psychological autopsy is no less than a reconstruction of the motivations, philosophy, psychodynamics, and existential crises of the decedent."
- Edwin Shneidman -

Suggested prep readings:

In this assignment, we wish to:



What exactly is a psychological autopsy and how does it relate to the above case scenarios? First of all, reasons for dying fall into a few general categories: natural causes, suicide, homicide, and accidental. In addition, there are a few different types of death investigations according to Shneidman. First, a medical autopsy is a close examination and partial dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death, mode of death, and the type and extent of illness or disease. Second, a forensic investigation includes observations of the physical evidence at the death scene: fingerprints, bullet holes, personal possessions or notes, position the body is found in, messages found on answering machine, and many other details. Third, an investigation may be helped by knowing statistics or demographics related to the phenomenon in question. For instance, knowing the profile or general description of kidnappers or suicide victims may give investigators clues that guide their efforts in discovering what happened and who might be responsible. But this type of information doesn't necessarily help us with particular cases.

The fourth kind of death investigation is the psychological autopsy which seeks to clarify the mode of death (natural, suicide, homicide, accident) by figuring out the intention and mind-set of the decedent after the fact. This kind of autopsy was originally intended to provide an objective report to the medical examiner in cases where it was difficult to distinguish suicide from accidental death. It is now used (primarily by law enforcement and mental health professionals) in any situation where the cause of death is ambiguous or the manner of death is unexplained. A psychological autopsy was used in all of the above case scenarios except one. Which case did not require an autopsy of this nature?


Conducting a psychological autopsy is time-consuming because a thorough examination of a case entails interviews with potential witnesses to the death, co-workers, employers, family members and friends. Sifting through reports about the death scene (e.g., police and witness reports; autopsy and toxicology reports), and inspection of the actual scene or video/audio representations of it are also necessary procedures. Studying the victim's medical, psychiatric, drug, social, employment and school histories as well as related personal documents can provide tremendous insight into the motivations of the individual prior to death.

As in homicide investigations, unexplained death situations include examining questions related to possible motives, opportunity and method of death. Factors to evaluate in potential suicide cases also include presence of stressful and recent life events, discovery of terminal illness, history of suicidal threats (most who commit suicide threaten first and/or provide others around them with clues), history of depression or other psychological disorder, changes in one's will or life insurance policy, changes in behavior, giving possessions away etc. In general, a psychological autopsy attempts to paint a picture of the deceased prior to death; to put together an individual's history, lifestyle, inner conflicts, and way of perceiving the world in a cohesive way that sheds light on the person's state of mind and the nature and degree of their psychological pain.


We are often intrigued by the motivations, personalities and deaths of famous people. For instance, formal and informal psychological autopsies have been performed by professionals and the media (and by you) in the high profile lives and deaths of Princess Diana, Nicole Brown Simpson, Phil Hartman, Natalie Wood, Klaus von Bulow's wife, and Adolph Hitler. One psychologist even spent years interviewing folks and studying the death of Howard Hughes, the billionaire (Fowler, 1986). As mentioned above, a psychological autopsy is sometimes conducted by law enforcement and behavioral scientists when the circumstances surrounding a death are unexplained and ambiguous, or when responsibility or proximate cause for a death needs to be determined. There are many situations where psycho-autopsies may be utilized including:


Some argue that the use of psychological autopsies for legal purposes is misdirected and possibly dangerous because:


Place a check next to the statements below which are TRUE.

  1. Psychological autopsies have been employed in both civil and criminal proceedings.
  2. Like medical autopsies, psychological autopsies have a clearly defined set of procedures for investigators to follow.
  3. The criticisms of this technique are many and the applications few, so the risks of using psychological autopsy procedures outweigh the benefits.
  4. Coroners categorize death into the modalities of natural illness, suicide, natural disaster, accident, and homicide.
  5. The Frye test relates to the types of evidence and testimony allowed in court.
  6. A psychological autopsy could have been conducted in the death of comedian Chris Farley in order to determine whether it was accidental or intentional.


Personality psychology has much to offer in the way of real-world and forensic applications. The psychological autopsy is one general methodology that sheds light on what sometimes seems to be unknowable, that is, the mind-set and motivations of the deceased. However, cautions abound in regard to valid and reliable judgments based on these procedures, so sometimes unresolved issues of death need to remain just that.

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© Copyright 1998. Robert J. Rotunda, Ph.D. (rrotunda@uwf.edu) All rights reserved.
Department of Psychology, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL 32514