It’s Just the Way Rapists Think. Or, Is It?

We often view rape as a conscious choice made by a hateful, cruel individual. But, what if it’s a flaw in their brain’s autopilot? Can we still blame them for their actions? And, more importantly: can that knowledge be used to identify and treat rape-prone men before they become rapists? The 2010 paper from Emily Blake and Theresa A. Gannon entitled “The Implicit Theories of Rape-Prone Men: An Information-Processing Investigation” looks at exactly this.

Rape and Men – Is an Implicit Reaction?

We often think we have full control over the way we think, but in truth, our brains often rely on a set of schemata and implicit thought processes to reduce cognitive load. So, for example, we know how to breath, wake up, identify objects, and make use of every day things such as shoes because we’ve developed a set of schemata that implicitly tells our bodies what to do. In other words, it does so without having to consciously think about the various steps in the processes. And sometimes, such as schemata relating to things such as stereotyping or driving, those schemata are learned. In this study, explicit and implicit measure of implicit theories were taken to see if the rape schemata exists, and if it can be used to predict proclivity (cognitive distortions).

With Polaschek and Ward’s five rapist ITs in mind (“Women are unknowable/dangerous,” “Women are sex objects,” “Male sex drive is uncontrollable,” “Entitlement,” and “Dangerous world.”), this study measured men on Bumby’s Rape Scale (explicit measure using self-report) and Bohner’s Rape Proclivity Measure (based on answers to five scenarios). They predicted that men who scored higher on the Rape Scale would be more likely to support rape-supportive beliefs.There is just one problem with these tests. Because they are susceptible to the social desirability bias and are unable to report thoughts participants aren’t aware they have, researchers also used a lexical decision task paradigm.

Lexical Decision Paradigm Task, Cognitive Timing, and Rape Potential

A popular implicit test, the lexical decision paradigm task presented each participant with a sentence fragment one word at a time. It then gave them target words to finish the sentence fragment. The target words were one of three types: rape-supportive, non-rape supportive, and non-words. The researchers then measured processing/reaction times on the idea that those who react faster to rape supportive words would be the more prone they would be to rape. They would also score higher on Bohner’s Rape Proclivity Measure, which has been shown to be a fairly reliable predictor in the past. The results they received, however, weren’t exactly as the researchers predicted: only the explicit questionnaires had any significant relation to an individual’s rape proclivity score.

Thought Does Not Equate Action – A Rant About IATs

Personally, I have always had an issue with Greenwald’s IATs. It’s not that I don’t think they work. I don’t think they test exactly what researchers often think they do. In measuring racism, for example, I think IATs are a better measure of out-group biases and a reflection of the society itself than they are of any racism within the individual. It’s purely conjecture at this point, of course, but I think assuming someone is racist based purely on cognitive processing time is a slippery slope fallacy particularly when we’re not sure what else is going on.

Researchers found evidence to support the idea that rape-prone men endorse rape-supportive statements on questionnaires, while they couldn’t find a significant enough correlation between implicit response times and Rape Proclivity Measure. However, all of this seems based on the assumption that thoughts equal actions. I’m not sure about anyone else, but I think a lot of things I shouldn’t. It doesn’t mean I would ever act on them. Why? Because a lot of processes and “cognitive filtering” occurs between thought, beliefs, and actions. We also don’t know anything about their environment or previous life history. So, did they merely grow up in a household around a father that holds those strong views? It would mean that, while this is their knee-jerk reaction, they have since learned rape isn’t ok. Or, at least, not something they should ever do. All this aside, I am fascinated by ITs and how our brains use schemata.

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