Loughborough University
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Cognitive beliefs, moral development, and social knowledge in differentiating offender type: an attempt to integrate different models

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posted on 2015-01-08, 09:51 authored by Chien An Chen
This dissertation originated out of a research interest in the role of moral-reasoning development in different types of crime. However, as this interest developed, it became apparent that the evidence that moral-reasoning development is differentially involved in different types of crime was a) somewhat weak and b) did not apply to all types of crime. In addition, as part of the developmental work for this dissertation, it was decided to re-analyze a previous Taiwanese study by the author. This reanalysis substantially supported what the previous research literature had indicated in terms of the, at best, modest role of moral-reasoning development in different types of crime. Furthermore, it was found that when the data were analysed ignoring the conventional moral norms that previous research had employed, there was evidence that question content had a role in differentiating different types of crime. This is at variance with structural approaches to moral-reasoning development. Taken together, these findings steered the development of this dissertation in the direction of social cognitive theories of deviant behaviour for which the research evidence is fairly compelling. Consequently, the dissertation moved from structural models of moral reasoning development to socio-cognitive explanations of why some offenders demonstrate a clear pattern of specialization in particular types of crime. This research aimed to assess different social cognitions about offending and moral reasoning ability and used them to predict characteristic types of offending. The participants were four hundreds and thirty two male (adult=302, juvenile= 130) prisoners incarcerated in seven correctional facilities in Taiwan. Based on the offenders' self-reported crime histories, crime specialism indexes (CSI) were calculated to represent offenders' crime propensities in drug abuse, theft, sexual and violent offending for each of respondents. Twenty-three of these respondents were questioned using semi-structural interviews. The qualitative aspect of the research was informed by interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). In addition to moral reasoning competence measured by Gibbs's SRM-SF, five additional social cognitions were investigated including 1) normative beliefs, 2) crime cognitive beliefs, 3) moral domain placement, 4) crime episode judgments, and 5) criminal-identity. It was hypothesized that different cognitive representations predict decisions about types of offences committed. Research questions were, 1) What are the relationships between moral reasoning ability in overall, individual moral value, age, crime episode judgments, and CSIs? a) Juvenile offenders operated at immature moral reasoning level, while adults predominantly exhibited at mature stages. b) No significant correlations emerged between sociomoral reflection moral score (SRMS) and CS Is, except a positive relationship found with the juvenile sexual CS!. c) Comparatively arrested development was found in both age offenders' property & law and legal/justice than the rest of three moral values. d) Except one in the juvenile drug taking (SRMS), and two in life and legal justice, as well as one significant correlations showed in the adult legal justice in sexual offending context, there was no relationship found between the trend of responses towards crime episode questions and moral reasoning ability. 2) What are the relationships between offenders' crime perceptions, evaluations and CS Is? a) Only drug CSI correlated positively with the criminal identity, while negative relationships were found with theft and sexual CSIs. b) A self approval tendency in normative beliefs was found in all but the juvenile sexual CSIs. c) A self endorsement tendency was observed in cognitive beliefs scale in the adult group. d) Findings indicated that there were two differences in the adult drug and theft CSIs, with those offenders thinking drug taking and stealing behaviour as personal discretions being higher in these two acts CSIs than those regarded these two crimes as moral domains, respectively. 3) Is it possible to predict CSIs from sociocognitive factors considered? Multiple-regressions indicated that content-oriented cognitive appraisals predicted types of criminal behaviour, while structural variables did not, with two exceptions. In the case of adult violence CSI two moral reasoning level indicators accounted for some additional variance. In the case of juvenile violence, SRMS accounted for some additional variance. But in this latter case, a higher level of moral reasoning was associated with greater specialisation in violence. In the qualitative research questions, research question 4) What are the relationships between offenders' crime perceptions, evaluations and offending behaviour? Interviewees tended to approve their own behaviour more, particularly when compared with other crime patterns. Most of interviewees showed appreciations of Gibbs's mature moral reasoning forms. This seems to contradict with what they had done to others. Despite the meanings behind laws were recognised they largely based their justifications on heteronymous moral thinking. 5) How do offenders' explain the above conflicts, if any? Drug abusers tended to see there was more consistent than conflict, For example, it is a personal prerogative issue. Although theft and violent offenders admitted conflicts present, the former group tended to justify with reasons, such as if they do not harm other physically, stealing is not that bad behaviour, while the latter indicated they only use violence under threatening or legitimate circumstances. Although relatively little information was elicited from sexual offender interviewees on this issue, conflicts were expressed by them. In summary, a self-serving yet other-blaming tendency was observed in cognitive evaluations both in qualitative and qualitative data. The more intensive an offender's involvement in a specific type of crime the more likely were they to evaluate this type of crime more positively, legitimately and less moral concerns involved then any of the other crime types. Moral reasoning may simply accommodate to offenders' progressively firm crime social cognitions. Based on the research findings, a crime cognitive whirlpool model was proposed. This is an idea that offenders are being pulled down (socio-cognitively strapped) to crimes. The model illustrates how a differential relationship between content and structural social knowledge develops for specific crime commitment. Future research should explore in greater depth the specificity and versatility of social cognitive reasoning in this context. Also, the factors which intervene between beliefs about what is good and good behaviour need to be understood better.



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Chien An Chen

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