Cognitive distortions in child abusers
How can one explain the criminal conduct of a pedophile, the preservation of the self-image by the author of sexual violence against children, the minimization of criminal responsibility and the consequences for the victim?
Advertising message We recently came across a video of an investigation carried out by Fanpage concerning the cases of abuse of deaf and dumb children that took place at the Provolo Institute in Verona.
Watching the video, what surprised us most was not so much the denunciation of the victims about the atrocities suffered, but the tendency that the abusers showed in minimizing and justifying the incident. During the entire interview, the abuser never spoke of abuses, but referred to them as “hand jokes” because “male with male is a joke, a vice, while with a woman it is more serious”, it was also normal because “at that time (early 60s) everyone did it”. Another thing that surprised us is the tendency to discredit and blame the victims themselves, in fact the interviewee is keen to stress that “deaf-mutes are all corrupt and the only joke I made was with a boy who came to the my room and showed me his member on his own initiative … it was him! “.
These at first glance nonsensical statements for most people can be understood if read in the light of a model that explains the cognitive processes involved in the rationalization of behavior. There are many scholars in the literature who have questioned the mechanism that intervenes in the justification and minimization of sexual abuse and the majority agrees that cognitive distortions play a fundamental role in the rationalization of abuse (Pomilla, 2018).
The first to use the term cognitive distortions in crimes of a sexual nature were Abel et al. (1984; 1989) who used the term “cognitive” to refer to internal processes, including the justifications, perceptions and judgments used by the sex offender to rationalize his harassment behavior towards minors (Abel, Gore, Holland, Camp , Becker, Rathner, 1989). Referring to Bandura’s social learning theory, the authors explain how in some cases the “normal” path of development is disregarded by ensuring that subjects maintain, as adults, inappropriate ideals and sexual practices that usually die out. For Abel and coll. (1984;
In their study Abel, Becker and Cunningham-Rathner (1984) and Navathe Ward & Gannon (2008) indicated the following cognitive distortions:
Although Abel and colleagues are credited with having proposed a theoretical model that explains these behaviors, other authors have criticized the mechanisms responsible for developing cognitive distortions.
Advertising message In this regard, Ward (2000) conceptualized the model of implicit theories, which allow to understand the cognitive processes through which harassers read and interpret the information of their social world. Unfortunately, the theme of their interpretations is essentially oriented towards being offensive and since implicit theories are based on subjective experiences and have no empirical basis, they are relatively rooted and resistant to change (Ward and Keenan, 1999).
Ward and Keenan (1999) reviewed a series of studies which revealed five main implicit theories that can be found in child abusers:
Marziano and colleagues (2006) carried out a study to identify these five implicit theories in a sample of 22 adult males, convicted of sexual offenses against children. The subjects were subjected to an interview, in the first part demographic information was requested, while in the second part a semi-structured interview was carried out. The subjects were asked open questions relating to the crime committed and their living conditions before it. To these were then added questions drawn from the main themes that emerged in the five implicit theories, specifically they were asked the beliefs regarding the sexual knowledge of the victim; how they perceived the abuse report; their perception of adult relationships; their perception of the damage done; and the level of control they exercised during their crime. The questions were referred to three specific time points, the pre-crime phase, the moment of the crime and the post-crime phase. Subsequently, the answers and statements that emerged during the interview were codified in “unity of meaning”, that is, an idea capable of resisting by itself capable of communicating meaning in the context of the study. Finally, every single unit of meaning has been attributed to the category of the corresponding implicit theory. or an idea capable of resisting alone capable of communicating meaning in the context of the study. Finally, every single unit of meaning has been attributed to the category of the corresponding implicit theory. or an idea capable of resisting alone capable of communicating meaning in the context of the study. Finally, every single unit of meaning has been attributed to the category of the corresponding implicit theory.
The results of this study show that the cognitive distortions highlighted within the sample can be categorized within the five implicit theories described by Ward and Keenan (1999). The category most linked to the cognitive distortions presented by the subjects is that of “children as sexual beings”. Specifically, this implicit theory is more frequent in abusers of male children, this could reflect a framework of beliefs and desires that sees children able to enjoy and desire sex with adults.
Subsequently to the model of implicit theories, the concepts of beliefs and values were added to explain the conditions that lead the subject to commit violence and to find meaning and justifications for the action committed. So beliefs, values and actions are interconnected with each other and reflect the individual’s cultural, social and personal context.
Howitt and Sheldon (2007) propose a synthesis of the models exposed above, referring to the concepts of cognitive distortions, beliefs and values connected to the crime and to the phase that precedes and follows the latter. The following classification results:
Within this article we have seen how there are a series of cognitive distortions that characterize pedophilia and that allow to explain the criminal conduct, the preservation of the self-image by the author, the minimization of criminal responsibility and the consequences for the victim (Abel et al., 1984; Abel et al., 1989; Ward, Hudson et al., 1997). Understanding the mechanisms used to overcome inhibitions or manage the sense of guilt is a fundamental step in the treatment of these subjects, as it allows you to work on the processes that could lead to recidivism, given the relevant psychological consequences that these behaviors have on victims.