Researchers from the Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, published an article on April 24 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior entitled “Assessment of Implicit Sexual Associations in Non-Incarcerated Pedophiles.”
Researchers successfully discriminated, with over 90 percent accuracy, between 40 study participants, 20 males with pedophilic sexual associations who had never been incarcerated, 10 of whom had self-reported actual sexual contact (paedosexual) with minors, and 20 heteronormative males, all from similar educational and economic backgrounds.
While various other studies have looked at the implicit associations between sex and young children in pedophiles, these researchers “extended previous findings by examining whether a combination of two implicit tasks, the Implicit Association Task (IAT) and the Picture Association Task (PAT), were capable of differentiating pedophiles from non-pedophiles.”
IAT and PAT are methodological tools used by psychological researchers looking to tap into the unconscious associations that give rise to, or cause, certain preferences or beliefs.
These tasks are, according to the lead author of the paper Matthijs van Leeuwen, particularly well-suited to observing preferences that an individual might not otherwise admit to.
“In a sense these tasks are not designed to get at the conscious responses, but the uncontrollable responses,” he said.
Participants in the study were given a mix of neutral (box, car, theater) and sexual words (nude, sex, caress) along with images of adults (men and women) and children (boys and girls). They were asked to categorize the combination of words and images as either neutral-child, sexual-child, neutral-adult, or sexual-adult.
By measuring the speed with which participants categorized the words and images, researchers were able to measure the association between the concepts in the participants’ minds. Even if they did not want to admit to it, their brains revealed their unconscious preferences or beliefs.
Because the task required the men to quickly label the image/word combinations, autonomic, non-conscious processes dominated over conscious ones, i.e. you can’t fake it without extensive training. As a consequence, response times are correlated with the congruity of the given word/image combination.
The more congruent the image/word combination is with the preexisting conceptions of the participant, the faster the response and thus the stronger the link between the concepts in their mind. Conversely, longer response times denote an incongruity and thus a weak association.
Traditional methods for determining why an individual feels or acts a certain way rely on self-reporting, which is sensitive to faking and cultural norms and taboos. Few people who act in an ostensibly racist manner openly state that they are racist.
By measuring implicit associations, researchers are able to indirectly observe the inner workings of the mind without having to control for faking or social pressure to not admit to taboo preferences or beliefs.
The study also observed, for the first time, a negative association between adult women and sex in pedophilic and paedosexual individuals. This association may represent a potential avenue for future treatment.
While the test results did allow for differentiating between individuals who had pedophilic preferences and those who did not, it could not, according to van Leeuwen, “differentiate between those who said they had sex with minors and those who said they wanted to, but had not.”
This combination of tests seems to show that distinguishing between individuals who have normative associations and pedophilic associations is possible, but that simply having implicit associations of children and sex doesn’t necessarily mean that one will act paedosexually.
However, according to van Leeuwen, “This test is potentially one of the best methods for detecting pedophilia,” which raises the question, should societies use these tests to determine who does and doesn’t have implicit pedophilic preferences?
If so, should individuals who unconsciously associate sex with children be forced to go through therapy or be barred from working in contact with children or at-risk youth?
More research is needed, not least in political science, but this study and the hundreds done using similar methods point toward a future where knowing who is a danger and who isn’t will be as simple as clicking a few boxes on a screen.
By William Tatum