Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Denial, Minimization, and Polygraphy

This blog comes to you jointly authored by David Prescott and your resident blogger.

There has been much talk of late about polygraphy and sexual offender risk management in a number of forums. Recent issues of The Forum of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers have included both articles and reviews of books about the polygraph. Similarly, the list-serve of the same organization has seen a number of recent threads on this topic, with heated debate from both sides. Further, at a couple of recent trainings conducted in New York State (by RJW), the topic also came up, with equally spirited discussion. From our observations (and, perhaps, participations in those discussions), it is pretty clear that this topic includes a significant degree of passion and has the potential to polarize (alienate?) persons who, by our estimation, are all similarly inclined towards public safety.

Overall, the debate seems to progress along a number of lines:

  1. How do denial and minimization affect recidivism?

  2. How much “truth” is necessary in order to provide effective treatment or risk management?

  3. Do we need to “honor” the victims of sexual abuse by making sure that offenders take full responsibility for their actions?

  4. What does the research tell us about the overall utility of the polygraph itself as a tool for use in sexual offender risk management?
First, many of us appreciate that the polygraph can produce disclosure/confession very quickly, but there is a very real question of whether short-term confession equates to someone who can be honest with others in the long term. How much is our thinking influenced by a moral judgment rather than opinions based on science? As the fathers of former and current teenagers, we are very aware that they lie to us every so often. All teenagers do. However, we are more concerned that they learn to live a balanced and self-determined life than we are in accounting for each time they’re not completely honest with us. Indeed, we are sometimes caused to consider whether there isn’t a certain degree of denial or minimization that adaptively functions as legitimate ego defense.

The meta-analytic data suggest that neither denial nor minimization are particularly fruitful as indicators of reoffense risk, but we are aware that other data seek to clarify that global perspective. As clinicians, we find it interesting that full disclosure is a prerequisite for treatment entry or continued participation for sexual offenders, and sexual offenders only. In no other aspect of mental health or impulse control do we compel clients to enunciate in painstaking detail the particulars of every instance in which they either did or might experience the negative symptoms or manifestations of their difficulties. Think what might happen if we held schizophrenics or drug addicts to the same standard? Would anyone ever get better?

Third, while many of us feel that the rapid accountability that polygraphy provides is part of a victim-centered approach, we are unfamiliar with any research showing that survivors of sexual abuse want compelled disclosure. If it were us, we would prefer that someone who hurt us had demonstrated meaningful change rather than confess merely because he/she was compelled to do so by representatives of the legal system. Admission does not equal understanding. Most of the survivors with whom we’ve worked have simply said they just wanted the behavior to stop. It is clear that sexual offender treatment can be of assistance to victims; however, we question by what authority we presume to speak for survivors.

Last, there seems to be no research showing that the polygraph is directly beneficial to clients’ treatment progress in the long term. The available data (from McGrath and crew in Vermont), scant as they are, would seem to suggest either the opposite or simply no effect. Nonetheless, many of us believe that the polygraph is an important part of the equation for various reasons, such as the fact that it produces more information. What is less clear is that more information is necessarily better information. How much of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is required for offenders to appreciate the harm caused by their behavior and to make genuine and real efforts to stop? Similar to our questions above, if we were providing treatment for other kinds of crime, would it be necessary to account for every instance of criminal behavior? Or, is it that we feel compelled to account for every hurtful sexual behavior because of the high stakes?

As noted above, the current data underscoring the reliability and validity of polygraphy as used with sexual offenders are scant or questionable. That is not to say that polygraph assessment doesn’t assist some clients some of the time, and we get that. Rather, we believe that, as a field of inquiry and practice, we owe it to our clients, victims, and the community-at-large to employ methods supported by sound science. Perhaps, this is the reason why many courts have qualms about accepting polygraph results? For us, we’re all about the data. Show us the data and we’re good to go. Otherwise, we likely ought to be more circumspect.

We also wonder why a tool used so extensively in common practice has not been the subject of more research? Other technologies—actuarial risk assessment scales, PPG, and VRT measures—all routinely used in sexual offender risk management have been subject to extensive inquiry as to their relative utility in our cause. Why not polygraphy? As one ATSA list-serve poster noted, we don’t need extensive research to accept that parachutes are an important preventive measure when jumping out of a plane. However, is this degree of face validity appropriate regarding the polygraph? In this regard, we are very mindful of Marshall’s research on the deleterious effects of confrontation in treatment and means by which to offer effective treatment to “deniers”. Perhaps, the issue is more about how we use polygraph and for what purpose. This brings us back to our questions about how much “truth” is required and what methods of eliciting those truths are most likely to get us what we want—increased public safety?

Perhaps, we need to be more honest with ourselves: Our field uses the polygraph to meet our needs more than those of our clients. Whether that is good or bad depends on one’s orientation and definition of what sexual offender treatment actually is. However, it might also be time to address an irony in this discussion: An essential part of the polygraph examinations involves being certain of the technology and the results. When our field is as uncertain as it is, where does our own credibility start to come into question?


  1. In the arguments considered, there is a rather glaring omission. So I shall quote from the APA and NASW's codes of ethics, as it sounds like your entire listserv has either forgotten about it or considers it taboo to even bring up.
    Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
    Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons, and the welfare of animal subjects of research. When conflicts occur among psychologists' obligations or concerns, they attempt to resolve these conflicts in a responsible fashion that avoids or minimizes harm. Because psychologists' scientific and professional judgments and actions may affect the lives of others, they are alert to and guard against personal, financial, social, organizational, or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence. Psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work.

    Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well­being of clients. In general, clients’ interests are primary. However, social workers’ responsibility to the larger society or specific legal obligations may on limited occasions supersede the loyalty owed clients, and clients should be so advised. (Examples include when a social worker is required by law to report that a client has abused a child or has threatened to harm self or others.)

  2. As I seem to remember, you are also a member of the ATSA list-serve. In this blog, we have attempted to provide a balanced commentary on a contentious issue. I don't remember seeing anything from you on the subject during the recent ATSA list-serve debate regarding polygraph evaluations. The list-serve is open to perspective from all participants and, as you've likely noticed, "taboo" is not typically an issue. If you have something to say, I wholeheartedly encourage you to say it. RJW

  3. I'm not on the listserv, as it is my understanding that it is for members, and I am not a member. This is why I made the point here, rather than there. So everything I know about the debates there are based on the summary given in your blog post.

  4. Fair enough, my mistake. However, given that you seem to have an interest in the sorts of things raised in this blog, I would encourage you to consider membership in ATSA. That would give you access to the list-serve where you could spur discussion of such things as ethics, good practice, and attention to research findings. RJW

  5. Yes, I believe the "how" the polygraph is implemented is crucial. I remember realizing this in 1982 when I saw how some of the leaders in the field at that time were implementing theirs. I would imagine that even the research you cite does not separate out whether the introduction and implementation approach is humanistic or not.
    On another note, I would like to be more blunt towards an aspect of the problem with sex offenders. MANY people that are in the Justice system (in the various roles) have been sexually offended, and NOT dealt with the complete impact, and MANY more have cared deeply about someone that has.
    At the same time, we live in cultures that refuse to acknowledge that with the exception of a electively small number of genetically predisposed people who suffer from impulse disorders (those genetic conditions that preclude learning, and therefore make the only effective treatment plan = complete, or close to completely external controls).
    This culture at large has yet to take responsibility for their own sexual and physical violence towards the less powerful, and therefore, continues to "blame the victim" in a variety of areas where social policy is based on values of aggression and revenge – the same ethic that often creates – or in a major way contributes to – the sexual acting out that we then have trouble seeing as a symptom of non-processed wounds in the overwhelming majority of our sex offender clients.
    Maybe it's not as bad in Canada, and from comments I've observed from many of my Canadian colleagues, I think that is probably true, however, it has always appeared to me that the justice system in the United States is certainly based, to a large part, on the aggressive/avoidant values and thinking and feeling processes that the very untreated generations of family systems that contribute to the "birthing" many sex offenders in the first place.
    So, when I view the picture in that way, it does not surprise that the way this limbic (behaviors and beliefs based on aggression or avoidance, fueled by anger and emotional reasoning) policy is implemented creates another obstacle to a sex offender's recovery.
    The Silver lining beauty of this dark cloud is that in spite of that, the desire to not harm children any longer is still the primary motivation for most sex offenders in recovery, and since it is based on the very foundation of being human – our connections with each other (when safe). (To be fair, this is true only after alternatives to acting out are identified, while simultaneously educating about the defenses that when dropped, kept the client from acting out – often the same defenses they used to tell themselves that THEIR abuse really didn't matter, or wasn't that bad…)
    Secure attachments – at first with one person, then extended to a support group that can give what we all originally wanted from our original "power people" (parents) are more powerful than the aggressive/avoidant sequilae of good intended but evil in impact social policy– with its emotional reasoning, aggressive and avoidant thinking/justifications, and the marginalization of the objects (scapegoats) of its revenge and punishment.
    I sometimes wonder whether sex offenders have become the projection of our cultures' "shadows", and is even partly so, care and research, evaluation, and therapy practice needs to "tease out" the specifics around how any treatment technique is implemented.
    Not to be too extreme: I also find hope in the proliferation of circles of support and restorative justice techniques that you have, as I understand it, had an important role in promoting. Thanks very much for your work and guidance in that regard.