Examining the term 'cognitive distortions'


The term ‘cognitive distortion’ seems to have been adopted from the cognitive therapy literature on depression. In this field, the term was originally used to describe

  • ‘Idiosyncratic thought content indicative of distorted or unrealistic conceptualizations’ (Beck, 1963, p. 324).
    Beck uses the term cognition to refer to
    ‘a specific thought, such as an interpretation, a self-command or self-criticism’ (p. 326), adding that the term is ‘also applied to wishes : : : which have a verbal content’ (p. 326).

In the offender treatment literature, the concept of the cognitive distortion differs from Beck’s definition (and has changed over time).

Abel et al. (1989) defined cognitive distortions in sex offenders as

  • An individual’s internal processes, including the justifications, perceptions and judgments used by the sex offender to rationalize his child molestation behaviour : : : [which] appear to allow the offender to justify his ongoing sexual abuse of children without the anxiety, guilt and loss of self-esteem that would usually result from an individual committing behaviours contrary to the norms of society.(p. 137)

One year later, Murphy (1990) defined the term as

  • ‘Self-statements made by offenders that allow them to deny, minimize, rationalize and justify their behaviour’ (p. 332).

[... ... ...] 

It can be seen from these definitions that Abel et al. (1989) and Murphy (1990) conceptualized cognitive distortions in offenders as self-serving biases [...], an implication that is not present in Beck’s work. In fact, Beck emphasized in his writing the negative personal consequences of cognitive distortions in depression cases (Beck, 1963).

There are two main differences between Murphy’s definition and that of Abel et al. (1989).

First, Murphy also included denial and minimization as an aspect of cognitive distortions (as did Blumenthal et al., 1999), but Abel et al. (1989) did not.

Second, Abel et al. included in their definition a reference to ‘perceptions and judgements’. This aspect of their definition suggests that, in their view, not every cognitive distortion is conscious or deliberate. Neither Murphy nor Abel et al. were explicit about the relationship between cognitive distortions and offending and, contrary to their definitions, in practice they both viewed attitudes as examples of cognitive distortions.

For example, Abel et al.(1989) reported the development of a ‘Cognitive Distortions’ scale which is, in fact, an attitude scale, consisting of items reflecting general beliefs about the acceptability of sex with children.


However, it is not at all obvious that attitudes – definitions of which usually imply enduring and evaluative properties – can be grouped together as a similar entity to justifications and minimizations.

Neidigh and Kropp(1992) drew attention to this problem, noting that

  • Idiosyncratic rationalizations may represent the offender’s automatic thoughts or conscious self-talk [but] they are not necessarily representative of the offender’s deeper attitudes and beliefs : : : It may be inappropriate to attempt to assess offenders’ surface level distortions by utilizing instruments that present cognitive statements as general rules or beliefs.(p. 211)

Neidigh and Kropp (1992) cited the Abel Cognitive Distortions scale as an example of a scale that does not measure what it purports to measure.

Despite their criticisms, new cognitive distortion scales have been reported which are actually attitude scales (e.g. Bumby, 1995).

Consequently, the use of the term to refer to attitudes and beliefs, as well as excuses and justifications, has become more common.



The other lingering issue regarding cognitive distortions is when these thought patterns occur in the chronology of offending.

Abel and colleagues (1989) emphasized the maintenance function of cognitive distortions. They saw distortions as resulting from attempts to reduce subjective discomfort about engaging in behaviour which is unacceptable in the eyes of others. It is implied within both Abel et al.’s and Murphy’s definitions that distortions are engaged by the offender after an offence (or after disclosure of an offence) to reduce subjective shame and guilt, and allow the behaviour to be repeated.

Thus, in this view, cognitive distortions have a maintenance role, not a causal role [...]. This view is not universally held.

For instance, Hartley (1998) argued that

  • ‘Offenders do not just use these rationalizations to excuse their behaviour after disclosure. Rather offenders reported using these rationalizations as a way of overcoming their internal inhibitions against offending throughout the history of sexual contact’ (Hartley, 1998, p. 36; author’s emphasis).

Finkelhor (1984) also held this position, describing four stages that precede sexual offending, the second of which is to ‘overcome internal inhibitions’ by excusing or justifying one’s intended actions. Finkelhor’s ‘Four Preconditions’ model has strongly influenced clinical work with offenders.

Likewise, Sykes and Matza (1957) argued that neutralization techniques

  • precede deviant behavior and make deviant behavior possible’ (p. 666).


However, the argument that excuses precede and lead to offending (as opposed to just following it) has almost no empirical support [...] and it is difficult to imagine a research design that could conclusively demonstrate this link. [...]

Certainly, some of the more innovative attempts to establish this chronology retrospectively and longitudinally have been unable to identify any strong link between the acceptance of rationalizations at Time One and criminal behaviour measured at Time Two [...].

In recent years, there have been numerous reviews of the research on cognitive distortion theory in the sex offender literature [...] and on neutralization theory in criminology [...].

These reviews all reach the same conclusion: research on cognition and crime to date has failed

  • ‘to distinguish between post-offence cognitions and those that predispose men tooffend’ [...]. 

In the most recent systematic review, Gannon and Polaschek (in press) argue that clinical practice has

  • ‘run ahead of scientific knowledge’ (p. 1) and
  • that there is ‘little or no longitudinal evidence to support’ (p. 14) the theory behind the idea of cognitive disortions:
  • ‘So where has support for the cognitive distortion hypothesis come from? We can only conclude that the popularity of the cognitive distortion hypothesis is due to factors other than its empirical validity’ (p. 16).

In short,

the concept of cognitive distortion has suffered both from an absence of empirical support and also from a lack of clarity in definition.

Over time, this lack of clarity has become increasingly problematic. Authors have broadened the concept of cognitive distortion in different ways; for example, using the term to describe general antisocial thinking (Ward, 2000).

In clinical practice, the term cognitive distortion has become confused with any causal explanation for offending given by offenders, no matter how valid the explanation might be (Mann & Webster, 2001).

Moreover, the cognitive distortion label is used to group together far different phenomena such as attitudes, cognitive products and post hoc excuses.

Hence, we will avoid the slippery term cognitive distortions altogether in our review below, and concentrate only on excuse making [...] We explicitly exclude attitude swhich are supportive of offending, such as pro-violence attitudes or (in the case of sex offending) beliefs that child victims enjoy sex with adults or are not harmed by it.