Moral Reconation Therapy
Development of Higher Levels of Moral Reasoning
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 21, 2022
A therapy designed to assist in developing moral reasoning among incarcerated populations
Moral reconation therapy, originally developed for incarcerated populations, is now used beyond prison walls to treat traumatized war veterans, domestic violence perpetrators, and substance abusers.
Over the past 40 years, moral reconation therapy has treated hundreds of thousands inmates with promising results, improving recidivism rates and giving individuals a new lease on life. Moral reconation therapy's success does not come without legitimate opposition.
We must critically examine any therapy that is trademarked and marketed. Correctional Counseling, Inc. is the sole provider of certified moral reconation trainings. A significant portion of the supporting research is conducted by those with a vested interest. Even with the best intentions, biases may contaminate findings, and spoil results.
However, moral reconation therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy, which has largely been accepted as effective treatment for many emotional and behavioral disorders. Research for moral reconation therapy has shown lower recidivism rates than no therapy both in short and long term data.
History of Moral Reconation Therapy
Moral reconation therapy was developed in the 1980s by Drs. Greg Little and Ken Robinson and their colleagues at Correctional Counseling, Inc. Little and Robinson adapted treating prison inmates from the earlier work of Robert W. Wood and Richard S. Sweet. In the 1970's Wood and Sweet developed a program for rehabilitating narcotic addicts within a psychiatric hospital.
Wood and Sweet dubbed their narcotic therapy as reconation therapy. The term conation is derived from René Descartes' idea that there exists a geographical point in the person where mind and body fuse to create consciousness.
Benjamin Wolman, a Polish-American psychologist, defines conation as "the aspect of personality characterized by conscious, willing, strong, and purposeful action" (1988). Little and Robinson integrated the philosophy of purposeful action with Kohlberg's moral reasoning, leading to the labeling of their therapy as Moral Reconation Therapy.
Little and Robinson believed that raising the level of moral reasoning was the essential factor in effective treatments.
In 1985, Shelby County Correctional Center implemented Little and Robinson's Moral Reconation Therapy.
The programs, first implemented on small groups, immediately had promising results. The program was quickly expanded to general inmate populations. In 2008, moral reconation therapy was accredited as an “evidence-based” therapy.
As of today, several hundred studies have examined the effectiveness of MRT, many with positive associations between the treatment and lower recidivism rates. Today, moral reconation therapy is utilized in all 50 US states as well as in 9 countries across the globe.
Moral reconation therapy has expanded its scope to include treatment to other mental and behavioral health patients. Some of the finding for the expansion into new fields of treatment are not as positive.
Seven Basic Areas of Focus
7 basic issues of treatment in moral reconation therapy are:
Confrontation and Assessment of Self (Beliefs, Attitudes, Behavior, and Defense Mechanisms)
During "the initial stages of treatment, the therapist seeks to identify the client's assets and deficits." This is a phase of self discovery. This is achieved through groups specifically designed to confront "every aspect of the personality." Little and Robinson explain that clients becoming responsible for their treatments as well as becoming involved in the treatment of others is crucial to the success of moral reconation therapy (1988, p. 144).
"The self-evaluation and the gradual change of client's beliefs, attitudes, and behavior is an ongoing process that continues throughout treatment" (p. 145).
Assessments of Current Relationships
Another crucial element to successful treatment is raising the clients awareness of their relationship to others. Relationships are a common theme in group and individual sessions. Relationship assessments evaluate damaged relationships and "require development of a specific plan to repair relationships or terminate them" (p. 145).
Reinforcement of Positive Behavior
Clients are provided opportunities to become involved in "positive activities and behaviors that foster good work habits, concern for others, and awareness" (p. 146). The goal is to help the client raise awareness of the connection between freedom and responsibility—the more responsible the behavior the more freedom is acquired.
Positive Identity Formation
Moral reconation therapy aids the client in the self-actualization process. Therapists assist relieve the cognitive dissonance of conflicting conscious identities with the inner self.
Positive identity development is achieved "through the use of exercises, group activities, and individual sessions designed to penetrate defense mechanisms and explore the client's inner self" (p. 146).
Enhancement of Self-Concept
Self-concept is one's "picture of the self." Our self concept is how we perceive ourselves. Low self-concepts is associated with offenders. Moral reconation therapy "specifically designs self-concept enhancing activities to increase self-esteem" (p. 147).
Decrease the Hedonistic Orientation and Increasing Delay of Gratification
Moral reconation therapy aims to decrease client's decision making that relies heavily on present moment pleasure and pain consequences. Hedonistic (pleasure/pain) decision making is a central element to substance abuse. In many disrupted lives, behaviors that offer an immediate reward is given significant value over behaviors that are difficult in the moment but offer a promising future.
Moral reconation therapy strives to decrease hedonistic orientation through promoting and requiring clients' to participate in activities that "only offer internal gratification" (p. 147). Many of these activities are others related such as helping fellow clients complete therapy tasks or participation in various forms of public service.
Moral reconation therapy increases clients' ability to delay gratification by successful achievement of steps that require sustained, consistent effort. Effort required to accomplish new steps is increased as the client moves through therapy.
The Development of Higher Stages of Moral Reasoning
Moral reconation therapy theorizes that offenders and substance abusers suffer from low levels of moral development. Sessions and treatments are designed to assist the client develop higher levels of moral reasoning. "Moral reconation therapy seeks to foster higher levels of moral reasoning as well as forge a link between moral behavior and moral reasoning" (p. 147).
Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development
Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
The child or individual in this stage is good in order to avoid punishment. They believe if a person is punished, then that person must have done wrong.
Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange
At this stage, children begin to recognize that there is not just one right view. Different individuals have different viewpoints.
Stage 3: Good Interpersonal Relationships.
The child or individual is good in order to be seen as being a good person.
Stage 4: Maintaining the Social Order.
The child or individual becomes aware of the wider societal rules. Individuals obey rules to uphold the law and avoid guilt.
Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights
The child or individual becomes aware that while laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, they do not always serve everyone. Some laws work against the interest of particular individuals or groups.
Stage 6: Universal Principles
People at this stage have developed their own set of moral guidelines (human rights, justice, equality) which may or may not fit the law. The person in this stage will fight against laws that conflict with deeper principles, even if society will punish opposition.
What Does Moral Reconation Therapy Session Look like?
Moral reconation treatment is delivered in group format using a patient workbook. Treatment is composed of 12 to 16 steps. Moral reconation therapy is "a structured program that uses a manual describing exercises and lessons directed at groups of 10-15 offenders" (2013, p. 4).
Moral Reconation sessions last 1-2 hours and typically meet twice a week. "To pass a step, participants complete homework assignments, which are designed to be appropriate for those with low reading levels. Assignments are completed by participants between groups and then presented at the next group session for feedback" (2022). On average, each step takes 2 sessions to complete.
Research on Moral Reconation Therapy
In 2012, L. Myles Ferguson and J. Stephen Wormith conducted a mega-analysis of the effectiveness of moral reconation therapy. They measured correlation between moral reconation therapy and recidivism rates across 33 studies and 30, 259 offenders. They found that moral reconation therapy had a statistically significant positive impact on overall recidivism rates (2013, p. 1).
A 2022 study investigated the effectiveness of moral reconation therapy on justice involved adults in mental health residential treatment found that moral reconation therapy was not more affective in recidivism rates among those treated than those that received the usual care provided at the facility (2022).
Moral reconation therapy outside of prison walls needs more studies before the treatment can be reasonably evaluated for effectiveness.
Who Benefits from Moral Reconation Therapy?
Many different populations can benefit from moral reconation therapy. The most researched populations benefitting from moral reconation therapy are those in the criminal justice system. According to research courts and prisons see fewer second-time substance abuse convictions, reducing the volume of people reentering the criminal justice system.
However, moral reconation treatment is expanding beyond this population. Studies examining the benefits on these new populations are mixed. Some of the people and settings that may benefit from this kind of therapy include:
Opposition to Moral Reconation Therapy
A few criticisms of moral reconation therapy should be noted.
Since moral reconation therapy relies on the foundational structure of Kohlberg's definition and steps of moral reasoning, moral reconation therapy includes the weakness of Kohlberg's theory; that is cultural relativism. "Kohlberg's theory is mainly applicable within the limited context of Western culture" (2013, p. 22).
Different cultures can maintain fundamentally different conceptions of morality. Therefore, the development from one step to another in a predefined moral steps may be less effective in cultures that differ significantly from Western thought.
Freewill and Individualism
Moral reconation therapy's focus on individual change may be seen as minimizing the role of external environments on individual behavior. Certainly, the individual must navigate their own course through their individual obstacles to development. However, a journey "marked by poverty, under resourced communities, racism, lack of family support, or easy availability of alcohol and drugs" may require a much different skill set and resources than someone in treatment with a more supportive environment.
Ferguson and Wormith suggest that "traditional notions of free will and personal autonomy" may be criticized "for placing too much emphasis on mental functions and processes, and too little on the social milieu within which an offender interacts on release (2013, p. 22).
A third criticism of moral reconation therapy is that it is strongly rationalistic. Formal reasoning, a concept strongly embraced by moral reconation therapy, "is the means by which rational beings propose and consider explanations concerning cause and effect, true and false, what is good and bad, and right and wrong" (2013, p. 23). However, in many ways, we are not rational beings. Often we are driven by emotion, only utilizing rational thought after the behavior to justify.
Many behaviors are driven by affective-intensive processes (emotions). For many observers, moral reconation therapy's emphasis on moral reasoning dismisses the impact of emotion on behavior.
A Few Final Remarks
Moral reconation therapy is built around many of the concepts that the Western wellness is built on. We treasure our autonomy and self-determination. In many ways, our beliefs in these self-endowments to direct our own lives leads to a different set of choices than if we believe in our vulnerability to external environments. Of course, these beliefs also have some drawbacks and biases that harm different segments of society.
The research numbers strongly suggest that moral reconation therapy does reduce recidivism and, therefore, the treatment is most likely effective under certain circumstances. Problems occur when individuals begin to tinker with programs to fit limited budgets or choose to change populations being treatment. When this is done, research numbers are no longer relevant and new studies should be conducted.
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Blonigen, Daniel M., Michael A. Cucciare, Thomas Byrne, Paige M. Shaffer, Brenna Giordano, Jennifer S. Smith, Christine Timko, Joel Rosenthal, and David Smelson (2022) A Randomized Controlled Trial of Moral Reconation Therapy to Reduce Risk for Criminal Recidivism Among Justice-Involved Adults in Mental Health Residential Treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 90.5 (2022): 413-426.
Ferguson, L., & Wormith, J. (2013). A Meta-Analysis of Moral Reconation Therapy. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 57(9), 1076-1106.
Little, G., & Robinson, K. (2016). Effects of Moral Reconation Therapy upon Moral Reasoning, Life Purpose, and Recidivism among Drug and Alcohol Offenders . Psychological Reports, 64(1), 83-90.
Little, Gregory L., and Kenneth D. Robinson (1988) Moral Reconation Therapy: A Systematic Step-by-Step Treatment System for Treatment Resistant Clients Psychological Reports 62.1 (2016): 135-151.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Developmental Theory. Flourishing Life Society. Published 6-11-2022. Accessed 6-18-2022).
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