Two Cognitive Obstacles to Preventing Child Abuse: The 'Other Mind' Mistake and the 'Family Bubble'

by Axel Aubrun; Joseph Grady

Apr 1, 2003
Following decades of effective publicity about the issue, Americans are now aware of the horrors of child abuse and have an idea (even an exaggerated idea) of the pervasiveness of all types of maltreatment. Making further headway in engaging the public on the issue will have to involve more than raising the volume on awareness campaigns. Such campaigns can even backfire by intensifying the public's media-fed association between abuse and sensational crimes -- which only "sick monsters" could commit and no programs can ever totally eliminate. To take the public to the next step in engagement, communications will need to address counterproductive patterns of reasoning that hinder better understanding of the issue. One of the most pervasive of these is the "Other-Minds" mistake: Lay people misperceive a child as a little mind which develops through abstract processes like learning, memory and choice; or which does not "develop" at all, and exists from the beginning as something like an adult mind which just needs to be "filled" or "guided." This fallacy effectively obscures any scientific understanding of development of biological systems which guide these and all other aspects of behavior. This fallacy is natural, we suggest, because of a highly evolved (and very useful) human mechanism for interpreting the content of Other-Minds (known to psychologists as the "Other-Minds module"). While the "Other-Minds" module is extremely useful for trying to read the minds of other adults, it also leads to a number of distortions that make child maltreatment more likely to happen, and less likely to be prevented. These distortions include a tendency to believe that an infant has an "agenda" that conflicts with ours; an exaggerated sense of children's ability to "get past" abuse through force of will; a sense that even one year-old children can benefit from punishment for breaking moral rules; and a difficulty understanding the concept of "neglect" except as something like "underinvolvement;" among others. An additional cognitive obstacle which communications need to address is the "Family Bubble" -- the default mode of thinking in which events within the family (including child rearing and child maltreatment) take place in a sphere that is separate and different from the public sphere. This default understanding is stronger than a mere belief that families should be autonomous. It means that even thinking about the interaction between child rearing and public policy is difficult for people, and that communications based on reinforcing the "Village," while appealing, can lead to conflictedness rather than change. This research analysis is part of New FrameWorks Research on Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, and was conducted in collaboration with the FrameWorks Institute, and commissioned by Prevent Child Abuse America, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
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