The Beginning of the Problem
Decision making is the heart of the institutions, professions, processes,
procedures, and practices that make up the way we respond to allegations
of child sexual abuse. Decisions are made at varying levels of complexity
and structure throughout the process, ranging from the first decisions made
in responding to initial information that may suggest the possibility of
abuse to the final adjudication where a person is found guilty or not guilty,
or it is determined that abuse happened or didn't happen. Decisions are
made about seeking help, whom to blame, calling authorities, what information
to pursue in investigation, whom and what to charge or allege, the weight
and importance to be given to hints, cues, or actions, and whether to accept
a plea bargain, hire an attorney, or seek a different judge. These judgments
are difficult, complex, and have far-reaching consequences.
The judgment tasks include descriptions of people, situations, possible
events, decisions about what causes what and thus generates problems, and
making predictions about possible outcomes. A psychologist may make a decision
to accept or not accept a mother's claim that, when she was bathing her
daughter after her return from an overnight visit with the father, who she
knows was abused as a child, she noticed redness in the vaginal area, asked
a simple, non leading question, and the daughter said to her, "Daddy
did it!" She may then recommend sexual abuse play therapy for the child.
She may make a prediction as to outcomes and advise the mother on whether
to send the daughter on the weekly Wednesday evening visitation.
Errors may occur at any place in the chain. They may include:
· Error in description (redness was present when it was
· Error in assessing covariation (redness means abuse when it does
· Error in assuming causal relationships (being abused as a child causes
adults to abuse their own children).
· Error in prediction (insight-oriented, feeling-expressive play therapy
benefits a sexually abused child. Given the abuse is true, such therapy
has no demonstrated efficacy. If not true, it likely causes harm to the
It is the quality of thinking that leads to accuracy or error. It is
the very nature of the decision-making process that there are many sources
of error. There may be a lack of information or mistaken information. There
may be ignorance or information that is not used. There may be lack of understanding
of social influence and interpersonal context. Errors may occur because
of personal characteristics of the decision maker (i.e., intolerance of
ambiguity, ambition, need for approval, anger and rage).
Decision theory research shows conclusively that the human mind does not
process information very well (Meehl, 1993). Even in relatively simple,
straightforward decisions involving a limited number of factors but requiring
thoughtful choices, we resort to short cuts or heuristics, biases, many
of which produce errors (Arkes, 1989; Crocker, 1981; Dawes, 1988; Einhorn
and Hogarth, 1978; Kahneman and Tversky, 1979; Turk and Salovey, 1985).
It is simply the case that rational thought using a $3.95 calculator to
add up empirically derived weights does far better than our brilliant intuitive,
insightful, and creative subjective hunches or certainties (Dawes et al.,
1989). The importance of decision theory research and the demonstration
of the error-producing biases is dealt with in more detail elsewhere in
these volumes. In this chapter, when we are discussing behaviors or procedures
which demonstrate one or the other of the biases discovered by decision
theory research, we will briefly identify it.