Confirmatory Bias & Distortion in Child Custody Disputes

Sometimes, the relationship between two parents can become so fractured that previously inconceivable boundaries get crossed.

And when there are children involved? Then the lines of human decency tend to get blurred. These heated circumstances can result in parental alienation, where one parent disparages their counterpart to the point where the child loses respect and love for them.

Alienation takes on many forms. Sometimes it's a mere matter of verbally insulting the targeted parent in front of the child.

In more extreme examples, it can escalate towards a harmful legal consequence. Namely, the manipulation of a son or daughter into making false abuse claims against the targeted parent.

Just because you're in a high-conflict custody dispute doesn't mean you deserve this kind of strife. But it's still something you must disprove—and you can only do so when you understand what you're dealing with.

What are Confirmatory Bias and Confirmatory Distortion?

Confirmatory bias – or confirmation bias – is the innate desire to selectively find proof that supports an initially developed hypothesis.

Confirmatory distortion is when a person is arrogant about their initial hypothesis and intentionally selects the data to be considered and reported. Both factors can result in a distorted picture of a child's parent or parents in the instance of high-conflict custody cases.

Interestingly, these two forms of bias often aren't seen as a substantial threat by custody evaluators. Yet, according to a research paper called "Psychological Testing in Child Custody Evaluations," it should be something these professionals worry about it. These biases could be something of a "silent enemy" to those in the field. (See Martindale, D.A. (2005). Confirmatory bias and confirmatory distortion. Pages 31-48 in J.R. Flens & L Drozd (Eds.) Psychological testing in child custody evaluations. New York: Haworth.)

While it's hard to say that these biases occur purposefully, it's still an issue that negatively impacts judgment in these situations.

How Do These Biases Manifest Themselves in High-Conflict Custody Cases?

Even a child custody evaluator with the best of intentions could fall victim to the manipulations of a parental alienator.

With a convincing enough act, anyone can lobby allegations of abuse at the other parent and have a child back up those claims.

As pointed out, astutely, by the author of the research paper mentioned above, custody evaluators are human beings and can fall victim to emotional factors. One parent might be skillful enough in their alienating tactics to poison the well with an evaluator.

The moment this "objective" third party hears the word "abuse" being lobbied, there's reason to believe it flips a switch in their brain. Instead of evaluating the targeted parent as a blank slate, they now potentially have lingering stories of horrible acts lurking in the consciousness.

This could mean that they're collecting and analyzing data through a distorted and subjective lens.

There have even been studies to back how supposedly objective field experts fall victim to biases.

"On Being Sane in Insane Places"

A study called "On Being Sane in Insane Places" shows how mental health professionals perceived additional information based on a previous diagnosis of schizophrenia and manic depression.

The patients in the study, after being admitted to the hospital, all behaved normally. Yet, these otherwise ordinary behaviors were related to the patient's presumed psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, histories and family dynamics that weren't all that noteworthy were also associated with the diagnoses.

Every bit of information that was observed and assessed was interpreted to support the schizophrenia diagnoses.

This wouldn't all mean much if the test subjects weren't “pseudopatients” feigning these mental health ailments.

This study was not performed to prove any favored leanings, distortions, and preconceived notions, but it showed that experts, surrounded by the real thing for thousands of hours a year, were swayed so drastically by the initial report of a diagnosis, that it impacted how they evaluated later viewed behaviors.

What Do These Results Say About Custody Evaluators?

From the findings above, there's one thing that becomes perfectly clear. Upon hearing the word "abuse" being used against a targeted parent, there's a definite possibility that a custody evaluator could be impacted in how they interpret evidence. Be it subconsciously or consciously.

This isn't to discredit these people—some are perfectly capable of remaining as objective as possible.

However, even the most stringently stoic evaluator can be susceptible to slight manipulations.

As such, while these evaluations should hold some weight in custody cases, they shouldn't be the only proof being relied upon by the legal system. For abuse claims to be truly impactful, "multiple methods of data gathering" should be employed, as per the American Psychological Association's Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings.