Implicit Cognitions, Beyond the "Gates of Change"


Tiger By The Tail, Part 5

By Richard Althouse, Ph.D., Immediate Past President, International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology


Photo from week, I wrote about how our approach to criminal justice is based on socially collective responses to crime. I also noted that, for the criminal offender, the brain functions the way it is programmed. We are and do what our brains compel us to do. In the instance of criminal offending, the brain’s neural networks activate behaviors that are not adequately inhibited by other neural networks.


"Wait a minute!” you exclaim. "Doesn’t this really smack of a sort of biological determinism? What about ‘me,’ ‘free will,’ ‘moral responsibility’ and ‘freedom of choice’ that makes us individually responsible for our behavior choices? These are concepts upon which our criminal justice system is based.”


Well, these are useful social notions, to be sure, but the best answer is that even those concepts are the byproducts of survival-oriented neural networks.


Unfortunately, what often fundamentally drives our behaviors (including our thoughts) is frequently outsideour conscious awareness, lurking elsewhere in our neural networks in the form of "implicit cognitions.” Which is why we have a difficult time explaining, not "why” we did what we did, but "how” we gave ourselves permission to do it in the first place! Enter the influences of "implicit cognitions.”


How implicit cognitions are formed seems easy to explain and understand. They are created as neural networks by first sensory experiences, perhaps prior to birth, and reinforced by subsequent experiences. By the time we are old enough to have developed critical evaluation networks, our brains have already absorbed and organized an almost incomprehensible amount of information from our environments about how things work, what we should believe, and what behaviors are necessarily activated for survival as we experience and understand it. While their development may be easy to understand, they are not so easy to reconfigure, in part because they are outside our field of immediate awareness.


Why is knowing about subconscious implicit cognitions important? Because in their evolution, they eventually influence the behind-the-scenes formation of our attitudes, biases, even our personalities, and we are especially vulnerable to their influence in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, choice options, and stressful emotional states like fear and anger that are often reflected in tribalistic stereotypes ("once a criminal always a criminal”) and behaviors ("lock’em up and throw away the key,” and "Whatever you do, don’t hire one! Ya just can’t trust’em!”). As Daniel Coleman suggested in his book Social Intelligence, "Us-and-them comes in many forms, from rabid hatred to unflattering stereotypes so subtle they elude even those who hold them. Such ultra-subtle prejudices hide in the low road, in the form of "implicit” biases, automatic and unconscious stereotypes. These quiet biases seem capable of driving responses—such as the decision of who to hire from a pool of equally qualified applicants—even when they do not fit our consciously held beliefs” (2006, p. 300).


If the crime rate, incarceration rate, and recidivism data over the past three to four decades are any indication of our criminal justice system’s success in modifying implicit cognition networks that influence criminal behavior, by way of increasing levels of legislated punishment and fear-based approaches to behavior change,…. Well, I’ll leave that for you, the reader, to ponder. However, I propose that our socially implicit cognitions about offenders are what emotionally and cognitively compel us to be tough and then tougher - as opposed to smart and then wiser - on crime, and to launch dynamic "shifting the burden” and "escalation” systems that have actually worked against our goals of crime reduction and successful re-entry, by making it more difficult to recognize, let alone implement, smarter or wiser interventions.


Consequently, undesirable and dysfunctional behaviors (e.g., gambling, alcoholism, criminal behaviors, racially or gender biased sentencing) and their conscious criminogenic cognitions are more resistant to pro-social change if the neural networks of implicit cognitions that support them are not also modified. Implicit cognitions help keep criminals going even when confronted with external feedback that they are making decisions that, from a socio-moral point of view, are counterproductive to their well-being and not tribally or socially OK. We respond accordingly because our implicit cognitions keep us too fearful and angry to do anything else. Consequently, we all keep dancing through evolving "gates of change” together, wondering why, despite all our efforts, things don’t seem to really get better, and often get worse.


Fortunately, all is not lost, because implicit cognitions are modifiable provided one knows how to do it. At the moment, that is an emerging area of research in which those working in the field of correctional rehabilitation and treatment should take a very active interest. Based on this research, it is easily argued that judgmentally neutral pro-social programs that utilize experiential and cognitive-based interventions (as opposed to punishment and deterrence programs grounded in fear, guilt, shame, or anxiety-based interventions) are more likely to be successful in accessing and modifying criminogenic implicit cognitions. Therefore, understanding the development and influence of implicit cognitions may well change the way we evolve systemic criminal justice policies as well as manage and treat offenders. As a start on that journey, one might explore Wiers and Stacy’s bookHandbook of Implicit Cognition and Addiction (SAGE, 2006) and TheNeuroscience of Psychotherapy by Louis Cozolino (2010, Second Edition).


Albert Einstein has reportedly said that a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it. That’s because, as Anais Nin observed, "We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” (Cozolino, p. 134). My hope is that by this little series of articles and my presentation at the conference, a small shift in our level of consciousness will occur as we explore the challenges ahead from these different perspectives before passing through the "gateways of change.” Otherwise, we will all be stuck in the recycling of the same ol’, same ol’ approach to criminal justice described in Larry Sullivan’s book The Prison Reform Movement that he aptly subtitles, Forlorn Hope (1990).


Now, about that question of "free” will…..

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