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Predicting pedophilia: researchers hope to prevent individuals who are oriented toward children from acting on their impulses.

When schools, day-care centers, and other institutions that cater to children are hiring, they commonly consult sex-offender registries and police files to make sure that the job candidates have not been arrested for pedophilia-related crimes. But it may be possible to screen out a potential pedophile before a sex crime ever takes place. A group of researchers in the Netherlands devised a pair of tests that they say distinguished with 90% accuracy men who were pedophiles from men who were not.

Led by Matthijs van Leeuwen, assistant professor of psychology and communication sciences at Radboud University Nijmegen, the study consisted of 40 participants: 10 men who admitted to having attractions toward children; another 10 who admitted to not only having attractions toward children, but also acting them out on children; and a control group of 20 men who had only typical heterosexual attractions toward adult women.

The men in both of the first two groups only identified themselves to the researchers under conditions of strict anonymity. In a rare exception for studies of pedophiles, none of the identified pedophiles had yet been convicted of any crimes.

In the first task, the subjects listened to sequences of words, some of which were neutral, such as "earth," "theory," and "store," and some of which were sex-relevant, such as "nude," "love," and "caressing." As they listened, they would see pairs of categories appear on the right and left sides of a computer screen: "Sex-relevant" and "neutral" were the first pair; "child" and "adult" were the second. Each subject would click one button to designate each word as belonging to one category or another. This would go on for a few rounds, with the two pairs of categories first appearing one at a time, then simultaneously, and then switching back and forth from their respective sides of the screen.

Each round, the researchers measured each subject's reaction times for each image and button click. A subject who was not a pedophile, they theorized, would take less time to associate and click a sex-relevant word to an adult image.

"It's about to what extent you can categorize two concepts together," van Leeuwen says. "You're faster to categorize two concepts together if they are more strongly associated in your mind."

In the second task, the subjects were shown pictures of swimwear-clad adult women, men, boys, and girls, with various neutral or sex-relevant words on top of every picture. Again, the subjects were to click buttons for each word association as quickly as possible.

As expected, the pedophile subjects made strong associations between sex-relevant words and children. By contrast, the non-pedophile subjects associated sex-relevant words with adult women.

The study was an example of "implicit association" testing, which shows test subjects words and pictures and presents them with options of words and concepts to associate with them. Social scientists have used implicit-association tests since the late 1990s to test for socially undesirable attitudes such as racial prejudice and sexism, according to van Leeuwen.

The tests have worked very well in these situations, he adds, which is why he and his colleagues decided to apply it to screening for pedophilia. The findings could guide the development of diagnostic screenings of men who are applying for jobs that involve working with children, the researchers suggest.

"The basis is having the association. If you don't have this, you won't have the impulse to act on it," he says.

The tests are also extremely difficult to cheat on, he adds. Even a pedophile who knows how the test works and consciously tries to categorize the words as he thinks a non-pedophile would answer them could still be exposed as attempting to fake the task, since he will still inevitably take slightly longer to complete the exercises than the non-pedophile.

"In principle, it's very hard to fake because if you start thinking about it you're going to get slower at responding," van Leeuwen says.

This test could not find any differences between the two pedophile groups, however. In other words, it doesn't appear able to predict whether an individual who had pedophilic impulses will be more likely to act on them.

"This comparison showed no clear link between having these associations and actual offending," according to van Leeuwen.

It is possible for some adult pedophiles to control their impulses and never molest children, according to researchers. But identifying a given pedophile's likelihood of acting on the impulses is a challenge, and research has yet to devise a reliable method for it. This could, arguably, amount to labeling individuals as criminals when they have not committed any crimes, van Leeuwen acknowledges, and he notes that this fact could make the use of these tests for hiring purposes somewhat controversial.

"If you screen out people, of course you screen out risks. But you're screening them out for a behavior before they do it. You really are not sure if the people that you screen out were actually going to do it," he says.

At the same time, he notes, employers today use many forms of testing, such as polygraph tests and the Myers-Briggs personality type test, which have all encountered some criticism over their methodologies and yet still prove generally reliable. All studies of implicit-association testing indicate that it is as accurate as any of them, if not more so, and that it at least merits further study.

"I have no serious doubt that if it were used it would be a very efficient tool to help screen out pedophiles. This tool is quite valid," Leeuwen says. "It's certainly ready to be implemented very soon."

Source: Matthijs van Leeuwen, Radboud University Nijmegen,

For additional information, see Project Implicit, (includes background on implicit association tests and allows you to take sample implicit association tests on a variety of subject areas).
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Title Annotation:Psychology / HUMANITY
Author:Docksai, Rick
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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