Increasing Honest Responding on Cognitive Distortions in Child Molesters: The Bogus Pipeline Revisited

science and machinesAn article in the March 2007 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment presents the results of an experimental comparison between child molesters’ responses on a questionnaire and their responses when attached to a fake lie detector known as a ‘bogus pipeline’. Here’s the abstract:

Questionnaires are relied upon by forensic psychologists, clinicians, researchers, and social services to assess child molesters’ (CMs’) offense-supportive beliefs (or cognitive distortions). In this study, we used an experimental procedure to evaluate whether extrafamilial CMs underreported their questionnaire-assessed beliefs. At time one, 41 CMs were questionnaire-assessed under standard conditions (i.e., they were free to impression manage). At time two, CMs were questionnaire-assessed again; 18 were randomly attached to a convincing fake lie detector (a bogus pipeline), the others were free to impression manage. The results showed that bogus pipeline CMs significantly increased cognitive distortion endorsements compared to their own previous endorsements, and their control counterparts’ endorsements. The findings are the first experimental evidence showing that CMs consciously depress their scores on transparent questionnaires.

The article is interesting on many levels: let’s unpack it a little.

Forensic psychologists who try to understand paedophiles, or, as the authors here describe them, ‘child molesters’ (abbreviated to ‘CMs’), are interested in cognitive disortions (distorted thought patterns) because it has been suggested that distorted thinking allows CMs to justify their behaviour to themselves. The sort of distorted thinking we’re talking about involves endorsement of statements such as “if an adult has sex with a child who enjoys it and seems to want it, it should not be considered a crime” or “children are not as innocent as most people think” (taken from Gannon, 2006, p.364). One of the ‘treatments’ for CMs, cognitive behavioural therapy, involves helping CMs to identify cognitive distortions and to recognise them as distortions, in the hope that this will help them control their offending in future (Gannon, 2006).

Let’s assume that CMs do indeed hold cognitive disortions about child-adult relationships, and that making CMs accept that these are not normal or healthy beliefs is key to useful treatment (note that this assumption is fairly controversial, but we haven’t the space to go into that debate here). The first step in treatment is, therefore, eliciting a CM’s beliefs about sex with children, but this is not as easy as you might think. It can often be difficult to measure true cognitive distortions in CMs. Why? Well, when any of us are asked about our attitudes or thoughts about something embarrassing or socially undesirable we have a tendency to massage the truth a little to make ourselves look better. Gannon et al. (2007) hypothesised that CMs do the same when asked about their thoughts about children.

So how can you persuade someone to reveal socially undesirable attitudes or beliefs? Enter the bogus pipeline (BPL), devised in 1971 by Edward Jones and Harold Sigall (‘pipeline’ as in ‘pipeline to your innermost thoughts’; ‘bogus’ as in fake). These researchers were initially somewhat tentative about how the BPL procedure worked and concluded that “for whatever reason or reasons, subjects attached to the bogus device appear much more ready to express negative affect in experimental settings where one might normally expect the inhibition of such feelings” (p.349). However, in their meta-analytic review of BPL research, published in 1993, Neal Roese and David Jamieson concluded that, despite criticisms, “the BPL effect reflects the valid operation of the procedure to reduce socially desirable responding” (p. 372).

This seems to have been what happened with Gannon et al.’s study. Their results indicated that when CMs were attached to a fake lie detector, they responded with increased endorsements of cognitive disortion items (such as those I mentioned earlier) compared to when they were not subjected to the BPL procedure. Thus, Gannon et al. argue:

Our results suggest that CMs consciously minimize both the extent to which they hold offense-justifying beliefs and the extent to which they engage in socially disapproved of behaviors (p.18).

This has particular contemporary resonance because sex offenders are now being polygraphed as part of their treatment in the UK. However, as we’ve pointed out before in the Deception Blog, the effectiveness of polygraphy with sex offenders is probably more about ‘truth facilitation’ than ‘lie detection’. One possibility is that the polygraph acts as a kind of ‘bogus pipeline’, facilitating the disclosure of socially undesirable responses…


Photo credit: Josh Bancroft, Creative Commons License