Thinking differently about cognitive distortions
Robert McGrath and colleagues’ review of the core treatment targets of sexual offender treatment programmes (McGrath, Cumming, & Burchard, 2003) suggests that most treatment programmes
We have argued that, if responsibility is understood as making internal, stable and intentional attributions for one’s crimes (‘I did it because I wanted to), then taking full responsibility for one’s crimes is also overrated as a treatment goal – and may even be counterproductive in some instances.
This does not mean that we advocate that offenders be taught or encouraged to make excuses in treatment (as this seems to be a natural process for most anyway), only that those working with offenders rethink their assumptions about excuse-making.
[... ... ...]
It is important to note that, unlike with recidivism, there is a
clear, empirical link
This finding is sometimes interpreted as a rationale for denying treatment to offenders who will not take responsibility for their crimes. As getting offenders to accept responsibility better for their crimes is typically considered a treatment goal, however, this would be
Instead, the finding that minimization is linked to programme attrition could more usefully be reinterpreted as a rationale for changing the accepted styles of dealing with minimization in treatment
For instance, it is already generally accepted in the field of
Most notable in this regard is the ‘good lives’ model developed by Tony Ward and his colleagues (see e.g. Ward & Brown, 2004) that expands the rehabilitative focus from targeting deficits to building strengths.
In this final section, we set out some additional alternatives to working with issues of personal responsibility in research and practice.
Consider different ways of taking responsibility
A probable reaction to what we have written is the question: ‘How
One response is that taking responsibility for one’s actions is about more than attributions for past behavior.
Bovens (1998) differentiates between passive and active responsibility.
Research on ex-prisoners who have been able successfully to desist from crime finds these active responsibility themes to be far more prevalent than internal, stable and intentional attributions for one’s past crimes (Maruna, 2001; Stefanakis, 1998).
Brickman and colleagues (1982) suggested a third way
in regard to the vexing
Brickman et al. (1982, p. 372) quoted the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s various slogans as being representative of this model of responsibility
Maruna’s (2001) desistance research suggested that this
compensatory model characterizes the self-narratives of successfully
Dividing the concept of responsibility into ‘blame for the past’ and ‘control over the future’ then, might be a valuable therapeutic tool (...].
Consider account dimensions besides internality
As explanatory style research has progressed in other areas, the
In particular, future neutralization research needs to transcend the
overly simplistic and long passé (...) notion that an internal locus of
control is always better than an
One suggestion from the psychological literature is to focus more on
These other dimensions have been found to be better predictors of a variety of other outcomes (...).
For instance, excuses and justifications that rely upon
may be most likely to be associated with persistent criminality (see Maruna, 2004).
Excuses that separate past offending behaviour from the individual’s core self (e.g. ‘It was a complete accident’) may be more commonly associated with maintaining desistance from crime.
These remain important, lingering questions, not just for their value
in working with
Treat excuses as the identification of risk factors
Process evaluations of the dynamics of therapeutic encounters (e.g.
Honouring accounts in this way not only builds trust and promotes cooperation, it also generates more valuable material for therapeutic work. That is, statements of cause that may typically have been categorized as excuses may actually point helpfully towards criminogenic needs and dynamic risk factors.
When untreated sexual offenders are asked to explain their offending,
Confronting and eradicating these explanations leaves both therapist
and client with
Consider the excerpt from Salter (1988), cited above. Many of the
have now been empirically established as factors that raise the risk of recidivism (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005).
To eliminate such factors from an offender’s account of his crimes could dangerously affect his ability to understand, recognize and manage acute changes in risk in the future.
After all, the self-statement ‘I did it because I wanted to’
meets the standards of being an internal, stable, attribution of cause,
but is futile as a basis for awareness of how to avoid
Probe cognitive style beyond offence accounts
Schneider and Wright (2004, p. 15) argued that
Very much on the contrary, Hanson and Morton-Bourgon (2005, p. 1159) concluded from their recent meta-analysis that it is possible that evaluators and treatment providers looking for risk factors
Of these two assessments, we are persuaded that the latter is probably the safer conclusion.
Of all the cognitions available to treatment professionals, offence
accounts appear to be the most ‘loaded’ – for legal reasons and
purposes of self-definition and identity
In the last 15 years, there have been three major reviews of
cognitive factors in
All three reviews concluded that studies of sexual offenders’
cognition have focused far
[... ... ...]
Ward suggests that instead of focusing on the symptoms of distorted thinking, correctional counsellors should look to the source or the cognitive schemata underlying these patterns of belief.
Likewise, Beech and Mann (2002, p. 268) describe a schema-based treatment programme that focuses not just on offence-justifying attitudes, but also on underlying self-understandings, motivations and implicit beliefs.
A shift in focus from rationalizations to [a new] schema would require more of an attempt to tease out the broad views individuals have of the self, others and the social world and the way these are embedded in practices and ways of living [...].
Instead of aiming to eliminate neutralizations, it is suggested that rehabilitative interventions should primarily seek to assist the offender in understanding his characteristic thinking patterns where they may have contributed to his eventual selection of antisocial behaviour as his response in a given situation. By focusing solely on post-offence cognitive products such as excuses, treatment providers risk ignoring the stable underlying cognitive structures such as schemas and leave clients open to future processing errors.
Separate offence-supportive attitudes from rationalizations
An attitude is defined as an orientation towards an object or concept, that comprises
Offence-supportive attitudes and beliefs are defined as enduring, non-situation-specific (Blumenthal et al., 1999) attitudes which justify or support sexual offending.
Offenders’ attitudes have been extensively studied, usually under
Unlike excuses and rationalizations, considerable evidence exists for the relevance of such attitudes to habitual offending.
For instance, considerable research suggests that attitudes such as the belief that children enjoy sexual contact with adults, are linked to sexual offending (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005).
Furthermore, it appears that such enduring attitudes promote the
likelihood that an offender will attribute provocation to their victims
(Mann, et al., 2006). These beliefs have been categorized as cognitive
distortions along with excuses, but they are probably a very
Differentiate between ‘good’ accounts and ‘bad’ excuses
Some work in the cognitive distortion tradition suggests that all
offender accounts are
For instance, in their influential study of the thinking errors of convicted rapists, Scully and Marolla (1984) appear to categorize every causal attribution that their subjects made as either an excuse or a justification – the coding scheme being utilized apparently had no other categories.
This blanket treatment is unfortunate, and might be one reason why neutralization theory has failed to gain a great deal of empirical support.
It would make sense for future research to try to identify the
elements that make some
Some contenders for the worst of the worst explanations might be
[...] There is considerable support for the relationship between
On the other hand, excuses such as ‘blaming one’s upbringing’ or ‘alcohol blame’ may be useful insights into a person’s risk factors and limitations.
It is an open question that would require more sensitive and sophisticated research methodologies.