How do you decide how dangerous a sex-offender is? Certainly all cases of sexual assault are appalling, but clearly some incidents are worse than others. In some places, teenagers who photograph themselves naked and send the pictures to their friends can be prosecuted as purveyors of child-pornography. While we may want to intervene in these cases, surely the action shouldn’t be as drastic as when we’re dealing with an adult who’s a serial child rapist.
There are miles of gray area between these two extremes, and psychologists are often called on to make the tough judgment of how dangerous a individual might be. One common test is to attach a monitor to the offender’s penis and then show them images of children and adults. In principle, true pedophiles will be more aroused by the children’s pictures. But a convict applying for parole has a good reason to try to fake his response, and some people are inevitably misclassified, with potentially disastrous results.
Other methods, such as the Implicit Association Test, have also been tried, but these are also potentially subject to manipulation. So a team led by Anthony Beech decided to see if a different test could be used: The Rapid Serial Visual Presentation test, or RSVP. As we discussed on Monday, in an RSVP test, a distracting word or image is presented in a series of similar displays. If the viewer’s attention is attracted by the distractor, he or she is more likely to miss a later image. As an example I’ve modified Monday’s task. Can you spot the words naming a color (like blue, red, or green)? Ignore all the other words.
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Instead of words, Beech’s team used photographs. They recruited convicted child molesters and other non-sex-related felons (from British prisons) to volunteer for their test. The volunteers were looking for four types of pictures: children or animals (the distractors), and chairs or trains (the targets). The rest of the pictures were neutral scenes or objects. The photos flashed by at a rate of ten per second, in sets of 11. At a random point one of the distractors would appear, just like in the example above. Two to three images later, the target appeared. Then respondents had to say what the distractor was, what the target was, and which direction the target was facing (left or right).
There’s one other key to the study. Two types of child molesters were used in the study: intrafamilial, those who had attacked children in their own families; and extrafamilial, who had attacked children outside of their family. Extrafamilial molesters are considered more dangerous, generally preferring children to adults, while intrafamilial offenders prefer adults or have no preference. In this study, the extrafamilial group had attacked significantly more children compared to the intrafamilial group. How did they do on the test? Here are the results:
The child molesters did significantly worse when the distractors were children than when the distractors were animals. For the non-sex-offenders, there was no significant difference. So this test might actually be useful in identifying potentially dangerous criminals.
On the other hand, the researchers point out that there are some potential problems. Others who are interested in kids, like teachers, new parents, and grandparents, might also be distracted by pictures of kids. They’ve done some preliminary research suggesting this is not the case, but perhaps other non-dangerous populations would be mistakenly identified using this test.
Also, while the test might work for identifying groups of dangerous offenders, it’s possible that it’s still not reliable for determining whether a single individual is dangerous. It doesn’t distinguish between intra- and extra-familial child molesters.
Finally, it seems to me that it would be possible to fake the results of this test — all you’d have to do is deliberately mess up some of your responses to the animal distractors, and you’d appear to be just as accurate when the distractors were children.
Still, it’s interesting to see that the attentional blink affects people differently depending on their interests (or deviancies, as the case may be). While it might be difficult or even impossible to use this test as a means of accurately figuring out which individuals are most dangerous, the test does offer some insight into how the mind works — even when that mind is behaving in a way that is repulsive to (nearly) all of us.
Anthony R. Beech, Ellis Kalmus, Steven P. Tipper, Jean-Yves Baudouin, Vanja Flak, Glyn W. Humphreys (2008). Children induce an enhanced attentional blink in child molesters. Psychological Assessment, 20 (4), 397-402 DOI: 10.1037/a0013587