ATSA Update: Are Denial and Minimization Always Bad?

Guest Blog by Patti Hoyt LPC CAADC CSAT

Have you ever minimized your actions or even denied all or part of them?

 Denial is like a small child saying “I didn’t do it” when a parent walks into a room filled with a mess. Maybe, you say you completed a task, but in reality, you haven’t started it. Minimization is like a small child saying “it isn’t that bad” when they get a poor grade or you saying “it isn’t that big of a deal” when you forget to bring something you said you would. These are examples of denial and minimization, which are both types of cognitive distortions. We all deny or minimize behaviors at some point in our lives to one degree or another.

Yet, in the forensic world, denial and minimization are viewed as a negative behaviors and cause for concern. They are often seen as barriers to people taking accountability for their actions, to a person’s response to treatment, and thought to be a predictor that the person will reoffend. Treatment often focuses on denial and minimization as a means to reduce risk of reoffending.  The research on denial and minimization has yielded inconsistent results over the years. Some studies have shown addressing denial for certain populations reduces risk of reoffending for a few, but not necessarily all. Multiple researchers have been exploring the question “what is the function of denial?” Why do people deny all or part of an event?

Current research by Gabrielle B. Lucente and Kevin L. Nunes of Carleton University explores the function of denial. They note that denial is an adaptive response to a person being charged with a crime. They propose that denial should be addressed as a barrier to treatment rather than a deficit to be addressed or focused upon. The researchers have indicated multiple possibilities for the use of these cognitive distortions by people who have been charged with a crime.  Through their research, they have identified what they call the Adaptational Model.

People deny or minimize their actions for some of the following reasons:

  • To continue offending behavior or continue to manipulate situations (psychopathy)
    • If I don’t tell, I can keep doing it, and no one will ever know.
  • Protect self-esteem
    • If I don’t tell, people will continue to like me. I will still have friends and family.
  • Avoid consequences of action
    • If I don’t tell, I will still have a job or people will continue to talk to me.
  • Distance self from negative label like sexual offender
    • If I don’t tell, I won’t have the shame of being labeled negatively.
  • Protect identity
    • This behavior is completely out of character and something I would never do it, thus I cannot tell.
  • Avoid negative evaluations from others
    • If I don’t tell, I won’t be judged.

The more a person has at stake, such as losing friends, family, employment, sense of self, or increasing self-loathing, the more likely it is that they will minimize or deny their actions. The role of shame often plays a huge part in denial and minimization.

This research does not give permission or recommend that a person deny or minimize any legal or illegal behavior. What it does do is give insight to why these thinking patterns can occur. 

Changing how we look at denial and minimization allows treatment providers to explore the barriers to a person’s responsiveness to treatment.  If a treatment provider starts to ask about the “Why” behind denial or minimization, they can help the client begin to work through the underlying mechanisms for the distorted thinking.

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