Investigating whether male sexual offenders in a high security hospital show an attentional bias towards offence related stimuli
This study was the first time a paradigm used to investigate attentional bias in emotional
disorders had been applied to a sexually offending population within a high security hospital.
The aims were to investigate whether sexual and non-sexual offenders display an attentional
bias towards stimuli related to offending, and to explore whether sexual offenders differ from
controls in the way their attention is allocated to non-offending sexual stimuli.
Sixty participants (15 sexual offenders against children, 15 sexual offenders against adult
women, 15 non-sexual offenders, and 15 male members of staff) completed the probe
detection task. Their task was to press a key to indicate the position of a dot probe that
followed a neutral word or a 'target' word on a computer screen. The five categories of
`target' word were: stimuli related to sexual offending; stimuli related to non-sexual
offending; stimuli related to non-offending sexual behaviour; stimuli related to sexual
anatomy; and a `neutral' set of stimuli related to travel.
All three groups of offenders showed non-significant attentional biases towards sexual
offending stimuli. Considerable differences in individual participants' attentional bias scores
were observed. The combined group of offenders displayed a trend, approaching significance,
of `attentional avoidance' of stimuli related to non-sexual offending. There was limited
evidence that sexual offenders differ from male staff in their attentional processing of nonoffending
The findings are interpreted, noting the significant methodological limitations of this pilot
study. Clinical implications and ideas for future research are discussed. There is some
potential for future clinical use of the dot probe paradigm but further research is required to
facilitate the generalisation of findings to broader populations of sexual offenders.