Cognitive Distortions Among Juvenile Delinquents and Non-delinquents
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
BAKER, B. K. (1999). Cognitive Distortions Among Juvenile Delinquents and Non-delinquents. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Cognitive Distortions Among Juvenile Delinquents and Non-delinquents
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
Delinquent and non-delinquent youth were investigated in regards to the use of four types of cognitive distortions and their overall global self-esteem. Each group of youth was given three questionnaires to complete. The results indicated the delinquent youth used more cognitive distortions and the non-delinquent youth had an over higher global self-esteem.

Juveniles experience many events throughout the early years of their lives that influence their individual thoughts and actions. Liau, Barriga, and Gibbs (1998) define cognitive distortions as inaccurate or rationalizing attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs concerning one`s own or others` social behavior. Youth, especially delinquent youth, use cognitive distortions to justify socially unacceptable actions as acceptable. Barriga, Landau, Stinson II, Liau, and Gibbs (1999) categorize four main cognitive distortions: self-centered, blaming others, minimizing/mislabeling, and assuming the worst. The first distortion is self-centered and is a primary distortion. An individual resorting to a self-centered cognitive distortion behaves according to his or her own views, expectations, needs, rights, immediate feelings, and desires to such an extent that the legitimate views of others (or even one`s own long-term best interest) are scarcely considered or are disregarded altogether. The second distortion is blaming others. Blaming others is misattributing blame for one`s harmful actions to outside sources, especially to another person, a group, or a momentary aberration (one was drunk, high, in a bad mood, etc.), or misattributing blame for one`s victimization or other misfortune to innocent others. The third distortion is minimizing/mislabeling in which an individual depicts antisocial behavior as causing no real harm or as being acceptable or even admirable, or referring to others with belittling or dehumanizing labels. The fourth distortion is assuming the worst. Assuming the worst is when an individual gratuitously attributes hostile intentions to others; considering a worst-case scenario for a social situation as if it were inevitable; or assuming that improvement is impossible in one`s own or others` behavior. The second, third, and fourth distortions are secondary distortions and are used to rationalize and diminish the bad feelings felt or enhanced due to the use of the primary or self-centered distortion (Barriga and Gibbs, 1996). Juvenile delinquents find it acceptable to use cognitive distortions and, therefore use them frequently. These at risk youth tend to come from hostile and dysfunctional families in which very little emphasis is placed on structure and discipline. Their environments tend to be high in criticism, physical and emotional abuse, unnecessarily harsh punishments, and lack of positive parental influence. Researchers have found children that have been raised in a negative type of environment are more aggressive, more often diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit disorder, conduct disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, and exhibit more frequent use of cognitive distortions (Giancola, Mezzich, Clark, and Tarter, 1999). According to the social information processing theory, cognitive distortions may not be only due to environmental factors but due to the result of physiological processes. An individual`s behavior may be altered due to cognitive distortions interrupting the transfer of incoming information before the information activates a particular behavior. The interruption may affect traditional schemas and/or the ability for the incoming information to continue to lead to an action (Liau, Barriga, and Gibbs, 1998). As a result of cognitive distortion usage being higher among some juveniles, those juveniles are more likely to engage in illegal activities. An accurate recording of crimes committed is needed in order for researchers to evaluate the use of cognitive distortions among delinquent and non-delinquent youth. This can be achieved in many ways but one of the most common and surprisingly most accurate is a self-reported delinquency questionnaire. According to Elliott and Ageton (1980), the major types of crimes can be found in six broad categories. Cognitive distortions are widely used ways of thinking that enables individuals to justify unacceptable behavior that may be the result of both environmental and physiological factors. In order to replicate previous studies and support previous research, cognitive distortion differences among juvenile delinquents and non-delinquents need to be further examined. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to compare the differences between juvenile delinquents and non-delinquents in regards to cognitive distortions and global self-esteem.


The participants in this study consisted of 10 male, juvenile delinquents and 10 male, non-delinquents. The delinquents were residents of Riverbend Treatment Center, a Division of Youth Services maximum security facility located in St. Joseph, Missouri. The non-delinquents were high school students attending Chillicothe High School in Chillicothe, Missouri. Both groups of juveniles were of similar ages ranging from 14 to 18 years old with the average age of 15.8 for the delinquents and 16.0 for the non-delinquents.

Three questionnaires were administered. The "How I Think" questionnaire was used to measure the four different types of cognitive distortions (Barriga and Gibbs, 1996). The Self-Reported Delinquency Scale was used to verify the types of crimes committed, if any, by the juvenile (Elliott and Ageton, 1980). The "What I Am Like" scale was used to measure global self-esteem.

The subjects were assigned to the delinquent or non-delinquent group due to the previous, court-ordered placement of the delinquent youths and enrollment and attendance at Chillicothe High School. Both scales were administered to the two groups of youths within one weeks time at approximately the same time of day. Approximate completion time was 30 minutes. After the questionnaires were completed, they were scored and similarities and differences between the two groups were examined.

Four independent t tests were calculated to determine the relationship between the delinquents and non-delinquents and the use of the four cognitive distortions: self-centered, blaming others, minimizing/mislabeling, and assuming the worst. The means for the self-centered cognitive distortion were 2.80 (sd = 0.74) for the non-delinquents and 3.50 (sd = .85) for the delinquents. No significant differences were found (t(18) = -1.964, p > .05). The means for blaming others cognitive distortions were 2.60 (sd = .59) for the non-delinquent and 3.56 (sd = .73) for the delinquents. Significant results were found (t(18) = -3.215, p< .05). The means for the minimizing/mislabeling cognitive distortion were 2.71 (sd = .60) for the non-delinquents and 3.92 (sd = .99) for the delinquents. Significant results were found (t(18) = -3.302, p < .05). The means for the fourth cognitive distortion, assuming the worst, were 2.67 (sd = .75) for the non-delinquents and 3.76 (sd = .78) for the delinquents. Significant results were found (t(18) = -3.186, p < .05). An independent t test was also conducted to examine self-esteem differences between the two types of youth. The mean was 2.44 (sd = .73) for the non-delinquents and 3.05 (sd = .56) for the delinquent youth. Significant results were found (t(18) = -2.09, p < .05). It appears that the delinquent youth use cognitive distortions more, with the exception of the self-centered distortion, than non-delinquent youth. Non-delinquent youth have a higher global self-esteem than non-delinquent youth.

It was found that overall, delinquent youth use more cognitive distortions than non-delinquent youth and non-delinquents have a higher self-esteem than delinquents. Juvenile delinquents use cognitive distortions to justify their unacceptable actions. These findings are similar to those found by Barriga and Gibbs (1996). In order to improve this study, several changes could be made. For more compliance and honesty, the use of unfamiliar youth would be helpful. The youth used in this study were juveniles that I work with on a daily basis and they were comfortable complaining and speaking freely of their opinion. If they had not known me, they probably would have been quieter and more reserved. Having a room that was quiet and free from distraction would make the testing of the youth better. The presence of a telephone or non-participating people such as other students or teachers interrupt the subjects and get them off focus. Another improvement could be made when distributing the questionnaires. Instead of giving all questionnaires out at the same time, giving them individually would be better. This would be less overwhelming and would alleviate some of the youth`s anxiety. It would also allow for the instructions to be clearer, more understandable, and more useful. If this study were to be replicated tomorrow, with the improvements made, most likely greater significance in the results would be obtained. For future research, researchers must provide clear and concise instructions and a quiet environment. They must also be prepared for an immense amount of questions over the field of psychology and the experiment being conducted.

Barriga, A. Q., & Gibbs, J. C. (1996). Measuring cognitive distortion in antisocial youth: development and preliminary validation of the "How I Think" questionnaire. Aggressive Behavior, 22: 333-343. Barriga, A. Q., Landau, J. R., Stinson II, B. L., Liau, A. K., & Gibbs, J. C. (1999). Cognitive distortion and problem behaviors in adolescents. Criminal Justice and Behavior, in press. Elliott, D. S. & Ageton, S. R. (1980). Reconciling race and class differences in self-reported and official estimates of delinquency. American Sociological Review, 45: 95-110.Giancola, P. R., Mezzich, A. C., Clark, D. B., & Tarter, R. E. (1999): Cognitive distortions, aggressive behavior, and drug use in adolescent boys with and without a family history of a substance use disorder. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 13: 22-32. Liau, A. K., Barriga, A. Q., Gibbs, J. C. (1998). Relations between self-serving cognitive distortions and overt versus covert antisocial behavior in adolescents. Aggressive Behavior, 24: 335-346.

Submitted 12/2/99 1:03:19 PM
Last Edited 12/2/99 1:08:35 PM
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