ATSA Forum - Vol. XXIX, No. 4
Fall 2017  (Plain Text Version)

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In this issue:
Regular Features
 Editor's Note
 President's Message
 Why is Juvenile Polygraph Not Recommended by ATSA?
Featured Articles
 Responding to Problematic Technology Use:
Creating a Therapeutic Toolbox

 Looking After Ourselves and Each Other
 Utilizing Recreation Therapy as Part of the Treatment Model
 Understanding and Preventing Adolescent Pedophilia TEDMED Talk
 Step One of Cultural Competency Addressing Privilege & Power
Students' Voice
 Assessment of Deviant Preferences Using Novel Behavioral Assessment Procedures
 A Studentís Guide to the ATSA 2017 Conference
Book Review
 RNR Principles in Practice In the Management and Treatment of Sexual Abusers
 2017 ATSA Conference Events
 Preventing Harmful Sexual Behaviors in Youth: An Infographic from the ATSA Prevention Committee
 Welcome Incoming Board Members
 2017 ATSA Awards
 ATSA Professional Code of Ethics 2017 Revisions and Additions
 New ATSA Members

Assessment of Deviant Preferences Using Novel Behavioral Assessment Procedures

John Michael Falligant, M.S.
Department of Psychology, Auburn University

Recently, I was fortunate to be awarded a Predoctoral Research Grant from ATSA to fund an exciting new project, “Assessment of deviant preferences using novel behavioral assessment procedures.” Broadly, my research interests include the assessment and treatment of illegal sexual behavior (ISB) and severe problem behavior among adolescents adjudicated for ISB, traumatic stress, delay and probability discounting, legal decision-making strategies, and behavior analysis. This new project will encompass many of these research areas, as I hope to evaluate the utility of several novel behavioral assessment procedures to assess inappropriate preferences for deviant visual stimuli among adjudicated youth.

Although many contextual developmental factors, such as social skills deficits, lack of supervision, and impulsivity contribute to the development or maintenance of ISB among juveniles (e.g., Chaffin, 2008), inappropriate sexual interests may also be a contributing factor for some adolescent offenders. Given that juveniles who engage in illegal sexual behavior are more likely to offend against children than adults (Finkelhor, Ormrod, & Chaffin, 2009), it may be necessary that clinicians evaluate these individuals’ preferences for inappropriate sexual partners in addition to assessing all other critical contextual factors that are related to adolescent offending. Thus, identifying procedures to assess preferences for inappropriate sexual partners is a crucial step towards adequate treatment and assessment of recidivism risk for these youth. Unfortunately, there are relatively few reliable and valid objective procedures available to assess sexual preference for juveniles relative to adult offenders. For example, phallometric assessment, which is considered a very good measure of deviant sexual arousal (e.g., Letourneau, 2002), is largely viewed as inappropriate for juvenile populations because of the lack of evidence of its reliability and validity with adolescents (e.g., Kaemingk, Koselka, Becker, & Kaplan, 1995) and because of the obvious ethical concerns associated with using this procedures with juveniles (Worling, 2006). In contrast to phallometric assessments, viewing time (VT) procedures have emerged as a less-intrusive alternative to assess preferences for deviant sexual stimuli. Though both VT and penile plethysmograph may accurately identify deviant preferences in adult offenders (Letourneau, 2002), the use of VT-based procedures is largely unsupported with adolescents (Smith & Fisher, 1999). Accordingly, few options remain for assessment of deviant sexual interests in adolescents apart from self-report measures, which have numerous drawbacks (e.g., Gannon, Keown, & Polaschek, 2007; Rea, Dixon, & Zettle, 2014).

Fortunately, translational behavioral research may hold the key to improving assessment procedures concerning juvenile offenders and deviant sexual stimuli. Specifically, research involving conjugate schedules of reinforcement suggests that objective, behavioral measures of deviant sexual arousal may be attainable for adolescents. Conjugate schedules of reinforcement have garnered increased attention recently for their roles in a wide variety of complex behavior (e.g., MacAleese, Ghezzi, & Rapp, 2015; Rapp, 2008). In conjugate schedules, the schedule of reinforcement is continuous, and the rate or intensity of the reinforcer is proportional to one or more dimensions of the target response (e.g., Rapp, 2008). Pressing the accelerator on a car is one example of conjugate reinforcement, as there is a proportional relation between the magnitude of the target response (i.e., applying strong pressure to accelerator) and the reinforcing event (i.e., rapidly accelerating). The more force that one applies to the accelerator, the faster the vehicle accelerates. This is in contrast to discrete schedules, under which there is no proportional relationship between responses and reinforcers (e.g., regardless of how much force is applied to the accelerator, the vehicle always accelerates at the same rate).

In contrast to assessment procedures that use discrete schedules of reinforcement, conjugate schedules provide a dynamic mechanism for understanding response-reinforcer relationships (see Rapp, 2008 for an overview). Recently, MacAleese et al. (2015) demonstrated that changes in clarity of a preferred visual stimulus can effectively be used in a conjugate-reinforcement experimental preparation. Importantly, this unique procedure allows clinicians and researchers to systematically assess whether stimuli that participants report are highly-preferred are actually appetitive. Conversely, this procedure may allow clinicians to test whether stimuli (e.g., pictures of young children vs. peer-aged individuals) that are reported to be non-preferred or punishing are actually non-preferred/punishing. That is, clinicians may be able to measure the degree to which deviant and/or non-deviant visual stimuli (e.g., pictures of age-appropriate peers, pictures of young children, pictures of non-evocative stimuli) are appetitive without many of the drawbacks, such as obvious demand characteristics, associated with other procedures used to evaluate preferences for appropriate/inappropriate stimuli with juveniles (i.e., self-report measures, VT procedures). There are numerous advantages to using this or similar conjugate-reinforcement procedures to assess for deviant preferences with juvenile offenders. First, these computer-based procedures generate numerous dependent variables, such as the number of responses, the duration of the responses, and the time in the sessions when the responses end, all of which may be modeled as behavioral indices of preference. Furthermore, other apparatus may be used in these conjugate preparations such as force transducers, which can generate the aforementioned dependent variables in addition to the maximal peak force in grams of each response. This is stark contrast to data produced from VT procedures, which only include the duration that each stimulus is viewed and is a relatively insensitive, passive measure of preference (e.g., Letourneau, 2002). Additionally, these type of conjugate schedule procedures lack many of the demand characteristics associated with VT procedures (Smith & Fisher, 1999), potentially making these procedures more discrete and less prone to impression management (Gannon et al., 2007).

Overall, in the current project I will assess the utility and application of several conjugate-reinforcement based assessment procedure for measuring deviant preferences with juveniles adjudicated for illegal sexual behavior in a secure residential facility. Using a computer-based force-transducer procedure with audiovisual stimuli, the study aims to establish the convergent validity and reliability of these procedures using available data regarding participants’ offense characteristics and a variety of established risk assessment tools and protocols. The current study will be unique in several aspects. For example, there is a paucity of research on the development of behaviorally based assessment procedures for deviant sexual preferences, and the current study will utilize a heterogeneous population of juvenile delinquents, including those receiving mandatory inpatient treatment for ISB. Thus, the current study has the potential to develop novel assessment procedures that hold important applied and translational implications for researchers and clinicians interested in the assessment of risk for re-offending. If you would like more information about this project, please send me an e-mail at I would also like to recognize and thank my project advisors, Drs. John Rapp and Barry Burkhart. This project would not be possible without the generous financial support offered by ATSA through the Predoctoral Research Grant.


Chaffin, M. (2008). Our minds are made up—Don't confuse us with the facts: Commentary on policies concerning children with sexual behavior problems and juvenile sex offenders. Child Maltreatment, 13, 110-121.

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R., & Chaffin, M. (2009). Juveniles who commit sex offenses against minors. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Gannon, T. A., Keown, K., & Polaschek, D. L. (2007). Increasing honest responding on cognitive distortions in child molesters: The bogus pipeline revisited. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 19, 5-22.

Kaemingk, K. L., Koselka, M., Becker, J. V., & Kaplan, M. S. (1995). Age and adolescent sexual offender arousal. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 7, 249-257.

Letourneau, E. J. (2002). A comparison of objective measures of sexual arousal and interest: Visual reaction time and penile plethysmography. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 14, 203-219.

MacAleese, K. R., Ghezzi, P. M., & Rapp, J. T. (2015). Revisiting conjugate schedules. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 104, 63-73.

Rapp, J. T. (2008). Conjugate reinforcement: A brief review and suggestions for applications to the assessment of automatically reinforced behavior. Behavioral Interventions, 23, 113-136.

Rea, J. A., Dixon, M. R., & Zettle, R. D. (2014). Assessing the Generalization of relapse-prevention behaviors of sexual offenders diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Behavior Modification, 38, 25-44.

Smith, G., & Fischer, L. (1999). Assessment of juvenile sexual offenders: Reliability and validity of the Abel Assessment for Interest in Paraphilias. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 11, 207-216.

Worling, J. R. (2006). Assessing sexual arousal with adolescent males who have offended sexually: Self-report and unobtrusively measured viewing time. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 18, 383-400.