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OPTIONS: A Cognitive Change Program Prepared by John M. Bush and Brian Bilodeau under an Interagency Agreement with the U.S. Navy and the National Institute of Corrections in June of 1993 has as a target population criminal offenders and the specific behavioral goal is to change their criminal behavior.

Cognitive change is based on the simple fact that how people think has a controlling effect on how they act. Common themes of antisocial thinking include the belief and mind-set that they are being victimized. Many offenders are accustomed to feeling unfairly treated and have learned a defiant, hostile attitude as part of their basic orientation toward life and other people. From the cognitive perspective, both their perception of being victimized and their hostile responses to it are learned cognitive behaviors. They are learned ways of thinking that are reinforced by experiences of success and self gratification. For instance, the sense of victim outrage is itself a feeling of strength and righteousness, much preferable (in their mind) to feelings of weakness and vulnerability.

Offenders often think they are entitled to a kind of absolute freedom in the way they conduct their lives. They may picture themselves as living in isolation from the world, in a kind of world of their own. In their subjective world, they are in absolute control and have the absolute right to do as they please. From this point of view, any restrictions of their freedom is resented as an unjust intrusion.

When the real world fails to comply with their expectations and demands, they stake a stance of righteous defiance. Relationships with other people are dominated by a struggle for power. Cooperation is seldom more than a passing convenience. Win-lose (“us and them”) is the dominant form of personal relationship.

Righteous anger, retribution, and license to do as they please, without regard to rules and consequences, become dominant themes of living. It all holds together in a kind of self-supporting logic.

This network of attitudes, beliefs, and thinking patterns on the part of offenders set up an adversarial relation to the world around them. Winning is defined in their mind as forcing someone else to lose. The gratification that comes with this kind of winning is, in some offenders, the only real satisfaction and gratification they have ever learned.

Antisocial winning has lots of forms. It may consist of direct physical assault. It may involve controlling people through fear and intimidation. Some armed robbers, for instance, take gratification in making their victims fear for their lives. It may involve the thrill and excitement of stealing, or lying, or conning, or is some other way breaking the rules and getting away with it.

One offender in a treatment group broke down in tears when he realized, and admitted to himself, that he never felt really good about himself except when he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing, and getting away with it.

When offenders win their struggle with the world, they may feel a towering sense of elation. They’re on top of the world. When they lose – for instance, when they are caught at a crime and held accountable – they feel terrible, but usually not for long. Their basic cognitive structure of attitudes, beliefs, and thinking patterns provides them with a ready interpretation of their difficulties that takes the sting out of their failure. They picture themselves as the victim and righteous anger displaces the feelings of loss and failure. With victim-stance thinking, there is no room for remorse. Righteous anger produces feelings and images of power.

This logic is a vicious cycle. Whether they win or lose, the underlying cognitive structure is reinforced.

The OPTIONS program does not assume that offenders in the program start with any motivation to change. Creating conscious choice is the heart of motivating antisocial offenders to change. The program is not coercive, but challenges offenders to make a conscious choice and to accept full responsibility for that choice.

Most offenders have an emotional stake in remaining as they are. They know how to feel okay by relying on their old attitudes and ways of thinking. They don’t know how to feel okay using new attitudes and new ways of thinking. Alternative thinking patterns must be emotionally, as well as, cognitively available.

The understanding of what to change, how to change, and the motivation to change will lead to the ultimate goal of the program: reduction of antisocial behavior. This goal will not be achieved in every offender who completes the program. Cognitive change is self-change. The techniques of cognitive self-direction taught in this program can be applied by an individual only to his or her own thinking.

The approach is not “therapy”. Instead, they teach offenders a set of well-defined and specific skills: to identify their habits of thinking that directly connect with their criminal behavior;to become aware of and appreciate the scope and consequence of their present ways of thinking; techniques for controlling or changing these habits of thinking; and then leave the choice to them.

These skills are effectively taught in a phased program within prison, but can be used as well in individual and group situations in home, school and community. The use of a “formal dialogue” approach or a phased group discussion both are oriented towards awareness, evaluation, alternatives and choice. And the focus on thoughts about self, others and future prospects enable an approach to most significant thoughts that drive atypical behavior.