A fundamental attribution error? Rethinking cognitive distortions

Authors


  • The views expressed here are the authors' own and do not necessarily represent those of HM Prison Service or any other group.

Correspondence should be addressed to Shadd Maruna, School of Law, Queen's University Belfast, 28 University Square, Belfast BT7 1NN, Northern Ireland, UK (e-mail: s.maruna@qub.ac.uk).

Abstract

The notion of ‘cognitive distortion’ has become enshrined in the offender treatment literature over the last 20 years, yet the concept still suffers from a lack of definitional clarity. In particular, the umbrella term is often used to refer to offence-supportive attitudes, cognitive processing during an offence sequence, as well as post-hoc neutralisations or excuses for offending. Of these very different processes, the last one might be the most popular and problematic. Treatment programmes for offenders often aim to eliminate excuse-making as a primary aim, and decision-makers place great weight on the degree to which an offender “takes responsibility” for his or her offending. Yet, the relationship between these after-the-fact explanations and future crime is not at all clear. Indeed, the designation of post hoc excuses as criminogenic may itself be an example of fallacious thinking. After all, outside of the criminal context, post hoc excuse-making is widely viewed as normal, healthy, and socially rewarded behaviour. We argue that the open exploration of contextual risk factors leading to offending can help in the identification of criminogenic factors as well as strengthen the therapeutic experience. Rather than insist that offenders take “responsibility” for the past, we suggest that efforts should focus on helping them take responsibility for the future, shifting the therapeutic focus from post hoc excuses to offence-supportive attitudes and underlying cognitive schemas that are empirically linked to re-offending.

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