Attribution Error

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155

Legal and Criminological Psychology (2006), 11, 155–177 q 2006 The British Psychological Society

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Invited article

A fundamental attribution error? Rethinking cognitive distortions† Shadd Maruna1* and Ruth E. Mann2
1 2

Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK HM Prison Service, London, UK 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.

When people are asked why they did a certain thing, their answer usually involves a causal attribution: they attribute a cause to their behaviour by describing what they believe brought about the behaviour, or they give a reason for their behaviour by describing what they were trying to achieve through that behaviour (Buss, 1978). These attributions have numerous dimensions on which they can be differentiated (internal/external; intentional/unintentional; specific/global; stable/unstable; controllability/uncontrollability). Weiner and colleagues (1987) define excuses as those 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). DOI:10.1348/135532506X114608



Copyright © The British Psychological Society
Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society

156 Shadd Maruna and Ruth E. Mann

explanations that involve dimensions of externality (cause outside the person), uncontrollability (cause beyond the person’s control) and unintentionality (the person did not mean to enact the behaviour). In other words, excuse making is ‘the process of shifting causal attributions for negative personal outcomes from sources that are relatively more central to the person’s sense of self to sources that are relatively less central’ (Snyder & Higgins, 1988, p. 23). A wide variety of research studies, ranging from laboratory-based experiments to field-based ethnographies, indicate that modern Western individuals tend to formulate post hoc excuses and justifications when they do something that is perceived to be offensive (Snyder & Higgins, 1988; Zuckerman, 1979). Unsurprisingly, then, a...
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