Blending psychology and criminal justice for public service

Published by Emile Creel on

By Bethany Deuel

Matthew Dean of rural Possumneck, MS, never thought he would still be living in Mississippi while working towards his Ph.D. However, the impactful work that he does in the SSRC’s Social Relations Collaborative (SRC) has made his time well-worth it.

As an undergraduate criminal justice student at the University of Mississippi, Dean took a cognitive psychology course to fill an honors credit and immediately became interested in studying psychology further. After choosing to add psychology as a second degree, he spent two years volunteering at the Memphis Crisis Center in Memphis, Tenn., fielding calls from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Dean was initially apprehensive about the position, but soon found he had a real skill and appreciation for helping people in crisis situations.

“It’s just the reward from feeling like you accomplished something. I discovered that I really enjoy that feeling of helping someone in a serious situation,” Dean said.

Once he received his dual degree in criminal justice and psychology and a minor in Russian, Dean began looking for doctoral programs where he could apply his interests and Mississippi State University stood out.

“I felt like I was a good fit, and I could really see myself bringing something of value to the direction that the lab was wanting to go in,” Dean said. “I never thought I’d want to go to a grad school where I was closer to home than I ever was before, but I’ve been here a year, and it’s definitely been a good decision. I really like Mississippi State.”

Dean, a clinical psychology student, works with Colleen Sinclair, director of the SRC, to apply his interests of radicalization and threat assessment. Primarily, his work involves looking at political conversations online to understand the red flags of threatening speech. This also includes tracking the radicalization of individuals posting to these online forums.

From a psychological perspective, radical messages online can reveal more than simply the opinions of individuals.

“We have these cognitive processes that people, when they write, reveal a bit about what they’re thinking about other people. Sometimes people talking about bad things talk about wanting to do bad things,” Dean said. “That’s what I’m interested in, looking at these posts online as informing what you could look at as red flags for threatening and dangerous speech.”

“Threat Assessment” are the keywords in Dean’s thesis research. Building off the work being done with Sinclair, Dean uses extremist communications collected from online sources to test two models of threat assessment and find the best method. With these theoretical models, he predicts the level of threat in a given post from the red flags he studies.

Dean is also involved with mentoring and training undergraduate students on coding and open-source data analysis. Coming from a rural part of Mississippi, Dean said he understands how graduate school can seem unattainable to many of his students, so he loves to see them succeed in that way.

“That’s been really exciting for me because I know how hard the process of applying for grad school, especially with COVID, and I’m just really happy to see that a student that I got to work with is going on to get their PhD.”

Dean’s future plans involve applying many of these ideas of psychology in tactical ways. He spent time as an undergrad working with Mississippi’s Cold Case Task Force, searching for information online that could point to information on people involved in homicides or missing persons cases. Because of that rich experience, Dean sees himself working in a similar position in the future.

“I’m interested in applications of clinical psychology to the public service. I’ve considered military psychology or police psychology, or maybe forensics,” Dean said. “I’m just really attached to the idea of researching clinical practice that can be applied in an immediate way with an immediate benefit.”