Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Resist/Refuse Dynamics: Confirmatory Bias and Abductive Inference in Child Custody Evaluations

Had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, the great Sherlock Holmes, actually engaged in deductive reasoning, he would have solved many fewer crimes. In fact, Holmes’ logical progression from astute observation to hypotheses is a model of a type of inductive reasoning. This paper argues that mental health professionals tasked to evaluate why a child is resisting/refusing contact with one parent must approach each family the way that Holmes approached each case, without a presumed suspect, moving systematically from detail to hypothesis, well‐versed in the full range of dynamics that may be at play, and erring in favor of parsimony rather than pathology. By contrast, the custody evaluator who approaches these matters through a deductive process, seeking data that support an a priori theory, is vulnerable to confirmatory bias and doing harm to the child whose interests are paramount. The literature concerned with resist/refuse dynamics is reviewed, yielding 13 non‐mutually exclusive variables that evaluators must consider so as to more fully identify why a particular child is resisting or refusing contact with one parent. On this basis, the hybrid model is expanded to include the full spectrum of contributing dynamics. Specific recommendations are made for judicial officers in the interest of writing orders for custody evaluations that minimize the risk of confirmatory bias.

Key Points for the Family Court Community

  • Deductive reasoning seeks to confirm or refute an a priori hypothesis
  • Deductive reasoning is highly vulnerable to confirmational bias
  • Confirmational bias can corrupt and invalidate forensic evaluation to the detriment of all involved
  • Resist/refuse dynamics must be understood through an inductive process that is open to all possible hypotheses
  • A survey of the literature identifies at least thirteen mutually compatible hypotheses, all of which must be evaluated
  • Courts must take care to word orders for forensic family evaluations in a manner that minimizes confirmatory bias and invites inductive investigation

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