Towards a more universal understanding of “grooming”

Ian A. Elliott

So could that explain how terrorists groom children for political violence too?

That was the question (paraphrased, admittedly) that I posed to terrorism gurus John Horgan and Mia Bloom, with whom I shared a corridor at Penn State, during a brainstorming mini-summit back in 2012. They were shaping the ideas that would form Small Arms, their upcoming book on the recruitment of children for political violence. We had engaged in a number of conversations about the similarities between recruitment processes in violence and terrorism and the “grooming” processes described in the sex offense literature, and had come to preliminary conclusions that there was likely to be some universal process that underlies those preparatory processes in both. I had just briefed attendees to our small meeting on the existing models of “sexual grooming” and set forth my initial half-baked ideas that would eventually become a newly-published attempt at a holistic model.

It’s reasonably accepted that although not all sex offenses involve preparatory processes, sexual assaults rarely occur spontaneously and many sex offenders self-report engaging in behaviors designed to develop a relationship with their victim prior to their offense. A great wealth of knowledge already exists on these preparatory processes in the sexual offending literature. The key problem was that the understanding of grooming in our field was so focused on sex offenses specifically that we risked restricting the application of some first-rate wisdom to a wider range of comparable phenomena.

For example, even within our own field there is evidence that sex offender clients may attempt to groom caregivers in order to access children as well as seeking to groom the children themselves. Yet there seemed to be a theoretical and practical tendency to handle these as separate phenomena in need of independent explanation. I make no claims to be the first or only person to suggest that there are similarities between grooming and other general human behaviors (e.g., traditional seduction), but a generalizable model was lacking.

“The [existing] understanding of grooming was so focused on sex offenses specifically that we risked restricting the application of some first-rate wisdom to a wider range of comparable phenomena.”

Given the richness of wisdom already available, the most sensible approach seemed to be to liberate the underlying concepts within the models developed for our niche population and make them relevant to all types of illegal goals – to strip away any assumptions that grooming is a process exclusive to sex offenses or that the psychology of the “sex offender” somehow transcends otherwise general psychological principles.

Conveniently, the previous models of grooming in the sexual offense process did appear to contain key concepts that could also potentially be preparatory behaviors in a range of illicit activity. Using three well-articulated process models (those of Olsen et al., O’Connell, and the European Online Grooming Project), a number of valuable “general” features were identified, including goal-motivated causal planning, self-regulatory feedback systems, the role of external influences (most notably a thinking, feeling target with their understandings and interests), rich descriptions of relationship-forming, the use of incentives, the management of the risk of detection, and discrete desensitization processes that inform when and how goal-related information is introduced.

Nevertheless, the models also shared some important limitations. They were highly specialized to the sex offense process and to sex offenders – particularly online – making them difficult to generalize. They used broad definitions of grooming and consequently their concepts occasionally would bleed into non-preparatory behaviors that don’t chronologically tally with a conceptualization of grooming as “preparing” the target. They mix etiology (the “why”) and process (the “how”) and tended to assume the perpetrator was psychologically dysfunctional and inadequate, discounting evidence of thoughtful and/or inventive actions. They contained some minor logical inconsistencies and the descriptions of how the process unfolds could be somewhat disjointed. Finally, they failed to identify and describe the underlying mechanisms for the surface behaviors they described.

“[The] aim was to unite the salient features into a model that contains more general ideas from outside the sex offender literature, but that still explains the phenomena described in the sex offender literature.”

So my aim was to unite those salient features into a model that contains more general ideas from outside the sex offender literature, but that still explains and unites the phenomena that are described in the sex offender literature. This new model would also require a narrower definition of “grooming” that would made it distinct and clearly set it apart from phases of approach and maintenance. I went with:

“[A] series of explicit or implicit goal-directed behaviors that together share the intention of preparing a target individual, where his or her compliance and/or submission is advantageous and/or necessary, for the specific purpose of achieving an unlawful or exploitative goal.”

The model is grounded in self-regulation theory and goal-achievement, concepts that would be familiar to those with even a cursory understanding of psychology and the sexual offending literature. It does makes some assumptions: that grooming is a goal-directed behavior; that goals can be varied, multiple, and linked; that progression towards goals is self-regulated (i.e., we continually evaluate and respond to feedback). The model has two phases: an initial potentiality phase and by a disclosure phase. [Edit March 15, 2018: In hindsight, I’d change the term “phase” to “component” since the two oscillate and change in relative priority depending on the circumstances and feedback.]

The potentiality phase creates and maintains an environment favorable to the  desensitization process – inoculating the target to the introduction of appeals to the nefarious. There are four mechanisms at work here that the protagonist can either emphasize or minimize as necessary to achieve the illicit goal. The first is rapport, which regulates the quality of the relationship between the protagonist and the target. The second is incentive, which aims to generate in the target motivation to engage in goal-relevant activities. The third is disinhibition, which seeks to lessen the target’s ability to respond genuinely, accurately, cogently, and convincingly. The fourth is security, which minimizes the potential for uncontrolled or untimely exposure of the protagonist’s goal to the target or to others associated with the target.

“The potentiality phase creates and maintains an environment favorable to the process of desensitization in phase two… [using] four mechanisms: rapport; incentive; disinhibition; and security.”

Once the protagonist has established satisfactory levels of rapport, incentive, disinhibition, and security, the second disclosure phase sees the protagonist gradually introduce small exposures to increasingly overt goal-relevant information. The mechanisms in the potentiality phase continue to operate; phase two capitalizes on those favorable circumstances to prudently and progressively disclose information related to the overall goal, assessing the target’s responses to escalating disclosures, and regulating the whole system accordingly. Once sensitivity has been reduced to a desired level, the protagonist can introduce – either directly or indirectly – the primary goal and the role(s) required of the target to achieve that goal.

“The second disclosure phase sees the protagonist gradually introduce small exposures to increasingly overt goal-relevant information.”

The model is now available, fully-elucidated (an ungated version can be found here). Although it is accepted that the model requires further empirical support, it is intended as a novel reinterpretation of salient and innovative features that have been established over previous decades. It does, however, draw from a variety of domains and (I believe) adequately explains the various phenomena previously described as grooming while proposing plausible underlying mechanisms that drive the grooming process. Throughout, I viewed this project as a further step on a journey undertaken by many and I was inspired as such. As Newton famously wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”


Suggested citation:
Elliott, I. A. (2015, August 2). Towards a more universal understanding of “grooming” [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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