Cognitive style of incestuous fathers



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Texas Tech University


Over the past thirty years, incest, defined as sexual interaction between family members, has become one of the most frequently reported and discussed social problems. When an adult is involved with a minor child, incest is a crime which can result in a lengthy prison sentence. Many communities now offer treatment to incestuous families in addition to or in lieu of incarceration. However, little research with offenders has focused on specific characteristics amenable to change in treatment.

This study compares incestuous fathers with non-incestuous fathers on childhood and adolescent experience of sexual abuse and on five aspects of cognitive style: thinking process, paranoid content, behavioral repertoire, externalizing responsibility, and empathy. All of these are factors which can be worked with specifically in treatment.

Each aspect of cognitive style was measured by codings of written responses to open-ended questions about difficult marital situations and by responses to Likert-scaie items about the same situations. Childhood and adolescent sexual abuse experience was determined by answers to direct questions about victimization or knowledge of familial sexual abuse.

Subgroups of incestuous fathers formed according to the following variables were also compared on the cognitive style measures: progress in treatment, time in treatment, extent of sexual abuse, rainiraizing, coercion, relationship to victim, and age of victim when sexual abuse began.

Incestuous fathers were found to be significantly different from non-incestuous fathers in thinking process, attributions of responsibility, breadth of behavioral repertoire, willingness to express negative feelings, attitudes toward the wife, and history of sexual abuse.

Progress in treatment was found to be related to thinking process, willingness to express negative feelings, and attitudes toward the wife. Other subgroups of incestuous fathers were found to differ on few of the cognitive style variables.

The findings in this study support a treatment focus on changing cognitive style and working through feelings associated with early experience of sexual abuse.