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Empathy is an individual difference that has been theoretically linked with an increased likelihood of offending, particularly serious offending. In contrast to the strong theoretical relationship, however, the empirical evidence of the relationship between empathy and offending is lacking. This is problematic as many offender treatment programs are designed to address this supposed “lack of empathy.” In order to further knowledge about empathy and offending, the measurement of empathy should be improved and studies should attempt to use more sensitive measures of offending (e.g., self-reports). Prospective longitudinal studies are needed to establish whether a lack of empathy is a correlate, a risk factor, or a causal risk factor for offending. Only if empathy is the latter would empathy enhancement be expected to reduce the likelihood of future offending.
Empathy is an elusive construct, and as a result, clarifying its association with offending has challenged researchers for some time. Despite the definitional difficulties, empathy (or more accurately a lack of empathy) is viewed by criminologists as having relevance for understanding the causes of crime. For example, empathy is mentioned in influential theories such as Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime (1990, pp. 89–90), “a lack of empathy” is a key, and possibly the, defining characteristic of the concept of psychopathy (e.g., Blair 2007) and there is conceptual overlap between empathy and a host of factors that have been associated with explaining crime such as poor social cognition, lack of guilt, lack of emotional intelligence, poor perspective taking, and weak moral reasoning. Perhaps most importantly however, empathy enhancement (through role-play and various perspective taking exercises) is viewed as standard practice in many offender rehabilitation programs (Marshall et al. 2009).
There is also direct evidence of the perceived importance that criminologists place on empathy in understanding crime. In their 1999 postal survey of 147 criminologists from the register of the American Society of Criminology, Ellis and Walsh found that “a lack of empathy and concern for others” was rated as one of the most important factors associated with serious and persistent criminal offending (behind only “an economic system that frustrates efforts by some to participate”). Nine years later a replication with 1,218 criminologists (similarly recruited) found that “a lack of empathy and concern for others” was the most highly rated for explaining the persistence of criminal behavior (Ellis et al. 2008).
What Is Empathy?
Although the concept of “sympathy” has a long history, the term “empathy” is relatively new, being in widespread use for less than 50 years (Hanson 2003). Originating from the German term “einfuhlung,” meaning “to feel into,” the term was first used in the early part of the twentieth century to describe the tendency to feel emotions from works of art (Allport 1985). The concept of empathy soon shifted to the social realms, acquiring new meanings as it was used to explain the effective ingredients of psychotherapy, the early socialization process, and the accuracy of interpersonal perceptions.
Currently, there remain many definitions of the term “empathy” available in the literature, and these have tended to either emphasize the proposed emotional component of empathy (i.e., being able to experience the emotions of another person; e.g., Hoffman 2000) or the cognitive component (i.e., being able to understand the emotions of another person; Hogan 1969). However, a broad consensus seems to be forming around empathy containing both affective and cognitive components (e.g., Davis 1983; Jolliffe and Farrington 2006). This separation also appears to have support from neuroscientific explorations of empathy (with affective and cognitive components having different neuronal pathways and associated substrates; Shirtcliff et al. 2009).
The theoretical relationship between low empathy and offending is seductively simplistic. Individuals who have lower levels of empathy are more likely to offend. This is because low-empathy individuals are free to act without the constraints imposed by the vicarious experience or understanding of the emotional consequences of their actions on others (e.g., Feshbach 1975). The fear, distress, sadness, and other negative emotions experienced by others as a result of the individual’s antisocial actions are not factored in as a cost or consequence of the transgression, and therefore not inhibitory for present (or future) antisocial behavior. Having the ability to share or understand another’s emotions is like having an emergency handbrake to reduce the likelihood of antisocial behavior, and individuals with low empathy are proposed to be missing this.
A number of more detailed models of the relationship between empathy and antisocial behavior exist (e.g., Feshbach 1987; Hanson 2003; Hoffman 2000), each postulating various subcomponents (e.g., ability to recognize emotions in others), or ordering of constituent parts of empathy (e.g., understanding another’s emotions leads to the affective sharing of emotions). In general, however, these models all have the same overall formula: Low empathy increases the likelihood of committing offenses. The theoretical relationship between low empathy and offending appears stronger for interpersonal offenses such as violence and sex offenses than for offenses where the victim is more abstract or less obvious (e.g., shoplifting, drug possession). The separation of affective and cognitive empathy is theoretically useful for explaining offending that might show evidence of sufficient cognitive empathy (i.e., to understand the emotions of another, in, for example, grooming for sexual offenses), but a clear lack of affective empathy (i.e., no sharing of victim’s fear or distress).
Below are examples of some of the larger studies conducted looking at empathy and offending. Fisher et al. (1999) administered a measure of cognitive and affective empathy to a group of 140 child molesters (59 participating in community-based sex offender treatment, 81 incarcerated) and 81 prison officers in training. The two groups were similar in IQ but differed significantly in age (with the prison officers younger). Overall, the child molesters were found to have similar levels of cognitive empathy to the prison officers, but significantly greater affective empathy. Similarly, Goldstein and Higgins-D’Allessandro (2001) used questionnaires to measure the empathy of 184 offenders incarcerated in New York jails (117 male, 67 female) and 126 comparison individuals. The results suggested that offenders did not differ significantly from non-offenders on either cognitive or affective empathy.
Despite the strong theoretical relationship between low empathy and offending, overall, the empirical evidence for the relationship is less impressive. This is true among studies comparing general offenders to non-offenders (e.g., Goldstein and Higgins-D’Allessandro 2001) as well as those comparing sex offenders to nonoffenders (e.g., Hayashino et al. 1995). The latter findings were contrary to expectation, especially as sex offenders have long been assumed to possess significant deficits in empathy which directly contribute to their chosen method of offending (Marshall et al. 2009).
The most comprehensive review of the relationship between empathy and offending was conducted by Jolliffe and Farrington (2004). This systematic review included 35 studies which compared offenders (defined as those who committed acts, that if detected could result in a criminal conviction) to comparison individuals on questionnaire measures of empathy. The results suggested that offenders had significantly lower cognitive and affective empathy than nonoffenders, but the relationship was stronger for cognitive empathy. More importantly, the relationship between low empathy and offending was greatly reduced after controlling for intelligence and socioeconomic status, suggesting that these might be more relevant factors or that empathy might mediate the relationship between these factors and offending (Jolliffe and Farrington 2004).
In addition to these substantive findings, this study also highlighted a number of areas where the evidence regarding the relationship between low empathy and offending was clearly lacking. For example, the questionnaires that existed to measure empathy were not ideal, and studies of empathy and offending tended to use only official and usually incarcerated offenders to represent offenders. In addition, the studies tended to make minimal attempts to test for the causal influence of empathy on criminal behavior. These issues will be explored in turn.
Measurement Of Empathy
While the systematic review of Jolliffe and Farrington (2004) suggested low cognitive empathy was strongly related to offending, there was evidence that the questionnaires which measured empathy might not have been adequately measuring cognitive empathy. That is, most of the studies which measured cognitive empathy did so using a scale that lacked face validity, making it unclear whether empathy was the actual covariate being compared between offenders and nonoffenders. The other questionnaire measures of empathy that were predominantly used were also potentially problematic as they contained items that appeared to be assessing levels of sympathy as opposed to empathy. Sympathy and empathy are interlinked but separate constructs (Feshbach 1975), with empathy defined as the understanding or sharing of another’s emotion (Davis 1983) and sympathy usually operationalized as the additional appraisal about how one feels about the emotions of another (Eisenberg and Strayer 1987). For example, the item from one of the more commonly used measures of empathy (the Questionnaire Measurement of Emotional Empathy) “I become more irritated than sympathetic when I see someone in tears” (Mehrabian and Epstein 1972) clearly assesses concerned feelings for others, rather than shared emotion. This overlap between empathy and sympathy in the questionnaire measurement of empathy makes it unclear to what degree empathy was actually being assessed, let alone the degree and magnitude of the relationship between empathy and offending. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that items which assess sympathy are more open to social desirability bias than those which assess empathy (Jolliffe and Farrington 2006).
Prisoners As Offenders
All studies of empathy and offending identified for the systematic review compared the empathy of those incarcerated (to represent “offenders”) to a comparison group of those variously recruited and matched. In one respect, prisoners are more likely to be serious offenders (e.g., Farrington 2003), so empathy deficits should be more apparent when this group is compared to those in the community. However, using prisoners as “offenders” actually provides very little information about the potential link between empathy and the likelihood of committing offenses as prisoners are a unique (and biased) sample of all those who commit offenses. Further complicating is the problem that empathy levels might be reduced by periods of incarceration (e.g., Cale 2006). This means that to the extent that prisoners have low empathy, this could be equally because low empathy is a characteristic of those who commit serious offenses or that being incarcerated makes people less empathetic.
Correlation Or Cause: The Evidence For A Relationship Between Empathy And Offending
When considering the relationship between empathy and offending, it is important to determine the extent to which we can have confidence that empathy is a correlate (i.e., associated with offending), a risk factor (i.e., associated with a proceeds offending), or a causal risk factor for offending (i.e., associated with, and proceeds offending and changes in empathy result in changes in likelihood of offending (Kraemer et al. 2005; Murray et al. 2009). This is an important distinction because only if low empathy is a causal risk factor for offending would empathy enhancement be expected to reduce subsequent offending.
One method of assessing the degree to which we can have confidence that empathy is a correlate, a risk factor, or causal risk factor for offending is to score studies included in a systematic review using a series of checklists designed to assess the methodological quality of studies included (e.g., Murray et al. 2009; Jolliffe et al. 2012). For example, the Cambridge Quality Checklists were developed to draw attention to key features of the included studies so that an assessment could be made regarding the confidence that one can have that the factor of interest (in this instance empathy) is associated with an outcome (e.g., offending).
The correlate score ranges from 0 to 5 depending on the method of sampling, the response rate, the sample size, and the method and quality of measuring the correlate and the outcome. The risk factor score is ordinal (out of 3) depending on whether the data used in the study was cross-sectional, retrospective, or prospective. The causal risk factor score is scored out of 7 with the lowest level being “A study without a comparison group and no analysis of change” and the highest being “A randomized experiment targeting the risk factor” (Murray et al. 2009).
Applying the CQC to the empathy and offending systematic review makes for grim reading. Of the 35 studies included, the highest score achieved by any study on the correlated scale was a 2. Studies tended to be case–control with low sample sizes and limited measurement of offending. This means that based on the studies included in the review, we can have little confidence that empathy is a correlate of offending. In addition, all 35 studies used cross-sectional data. This means that, given the studies included in the review, low empathy could lead to offending, or equally, low empathy could be a consequence of offending. Also, the highest level achieved on the causal risk factor scale was 2. This was the lowest possible ranking given that, to be included in the review, the study needed to have measured empathy among both “offenders” and “non-offenders.” This means that there was no evidence to suggest that empathy was a causal risk factor for offending.
In summary, the evidence regarding the relationship between empathy and offending is poor because of weak measurement of empathy, weak measurement of offending, and studies of empathy and offending employ relatively low methodological quality standards However, there have been recent attempts to address some of these issues. For example, Jolliffe and Farrington (2006) developed a new measure of empathy (The Basic Empathy Scale) which appears promising, especially as the factor structure has shown some cross-cultural validity (Albeiro et al. 2009; D’Ambrosio et al. 2009). Also, in studies that have related this measure of empathy to self-reported offending and bullying among a medium-sized group (n ¼ 720) of secondary school students, an interesting pattern of results has emerged. Low affective empathy was found to be related to high levels of self-reported offending and bullying among both males and females. Furthermore, affective empathy was independently related to serious male bullying controlling for other important individual differences (e.g., high impulsivity, low intelligence) (Jolliffe and Farrington 2006, 2007, 2011). This fits well with evidence emerging from other areas of psychology which have suggested that it is deficits in affective empathy that characterize more serious offending (Blair 2007).
Empathy And Offending: The Way Forward
One of the first areas that should be addressed to better understand the relationship between empathy and offending is to improve the measurement of empathy. The BES empathy scale might be a good start, but it is unclear how well questionnaire measures capture empathy, especially affective empathy (Eisenberg and Fabes 1990). This is because responding to affective items not only requires a significant amount of insight into one’s emotions, but also the ability and willingness to label and disclose these. This might be why questionnaire measures of empathy have been described as measures of how empathic one wants to be seen.
Ideally a multi-method study of empathy and potentially overlapping traits such as impulsiveness and intelligence could be undertaken, much like the multi-method multisource study of impulsivity carried out by White et al. (1994) who carried out as part of the Pittsburgh Youth Study. In this investigation, 430 boys (aged about 12) completed 11 different measures of impulsivity and these were then compared with measures of intelligence, socioeconomic status, and self-reported offending.
The assessment of empathy should involve the administration of a number of questionnaire measures of empathy (e.g., the Basic Empathy Scale), and verbal responses to movie vignettes, perhaps while monitoring galvanic skin response; a measure of autonomic arousal (as another form to assess the experience of emotions) to a large number of both males and females. The intercorrelations of these measures would be very informative, but it would also be essential that the measures of empathy were compared to measures of potentially overlapping constructs such as sympathy, perspective taking, emotional intelligence as well as established risk factors such as intelligence and impulsivity. This would be especially helpful in clarifying the extent to which cognitive empathy might overlap with intelligence and/or impulsivity so that empathy measures can be selected for future research which minimize this overlap. It might be also be interesting to compare the measures of empathy (and the other measures) to an outcome such as self-reported delinquency, but this would be more informative in terms of determining the direction of effect between empathy and behavior, if it involved a test of prospective validity using a longitudinal study.
Once a device or set of devices have been established to adequately measure empathy, high-quality prospective longitudinal studies are required. Assessing the levels of empathy of a large group of children from an early age, before the onset of antisocial behavior, would help to address whether a lack of empathy is a risk factor for offending. By measuring additional established explanatory risk factors, which have been identified important in predicting offending in prospective longitudinal researchers (e.g., intelligence, impulsivity, parental supervision, parental discipline, socioeconomic status, etc.), the independent relationship between low empathy and offending might be explored (e.g., Farrington 2003; Loeber et al. 2008). By regularly assessing levels of empathy and levels of offending, the extent to which changes in empathy are related to changes in offending could be used to evaluate whether low empathy might be a causal risk factor for offending.
This methodological approach is essential for being able to evaluate the mechanisms by which empathy might have an impact on offending. For example, empathy may be unrelated to later offending (i.e., both low empathy and offending are the result of low intelligence), empathy may measure an underlying cause of offending (i.e., low empathy is a proxy measure of high impulsivity), or empathy may be directly related to offending (i.e., low intelligence leads to low empathy which increases the likelihood of offending). Currently, each mechanism is equally plausible, but in only one mechanism could interventions for offenders designed to increase empathy hope to result in a reduction in later offending.
In conclusion, the research surrounding empathy and its potential relationship to offending is in its infancy. Greater emphasis on understanding the best methods of measuring empathy and higher quality studies are needed to create an empirical basis with which to properly evaluate a potential relationship.
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