How Disconfirmation Bias Hurts Children

May 17, 2014
bernetThe disinclination of some people to believe that children have been sexually abused is a serious and under-recognized problem. It is a social problem that is clearest in individual cases, since even the most biased people always say “of course, sexual abuse is a problem.” A criminal case that is unfolding in Tennessee has unmasked the remarkable bias of Dr. William Bernet, whose custody evaluation in 2007 concluded that a young boy had not been sexually abused by his father. The father was awarded custody after Dr. Bernet told the court that the mother had a groundless “obsession” that her son had been sexually abused.

Four years later, according to this story in The Tennessean, an FBI investigation found “pornography and other items that the prosecutor said corroborated the boy’s story.” Criminal charges were then filed against the father. In a pretrial hearing, the prosecutor revealed that Dr. Bernet had omitted findings in his 2007 evaluation that the father had two risk factors correlated with pedophiles. Dr. Bernet also ignored the fact that the mother had taken the boy to a doctor after finding pubic hairs in his rectum and that the pediatrician had seen “fingertip bruising” on the boy’s buttocks. Faced with questions about this evidence, Dr. Bernet said the boy was “highly suggestible” and may share “delusional symptoms” with the mother.

The custody award has since been reversed and one hopes that justice will be done. The larger lesson is that a bias against thinking that children have been sexually abused, a bias that came out of the high-profile daycare sexual abuse cases of the 1980s, still exists and causes real harm to children. Being too prone to believe abuse allegations is problematic; so is being too prone to disbelieve them. But, as demonstrated in The Witch-Hunt Narrative, the former problem has been exaggerated, while the latter problem has barely been recognized.