Empathy and Offending: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Darrick Jolliffe, University of Cambridge
David P. Farrington, University of Cambridge

There are many definitions of the term empathy. One current and inclusive definition is provided by Cohen & Strayer (1996, p.988); they view empathy as "the ability to understand and share in another's emotional state or context". What makes this definition particularly encompassing is the acknowledgment that empathy is both a cognitive process (cf. the ability to understand another's emotional state) and an affective capacity (cf. the sharing of the emotional state of another).

This definition addresses one of the most contentious issue in empathy research: Is empathy best conceptualised as an affective construct, a cognitive construct, or both? While contemporary research appears to have adopted the 'both' option, this is not ubiquitously endorsed, and fervent debate continues over the definition and measurement of empathy (e.g. Mehrabian, 1997; Wispe, 1987).

Despite the lack of consensus regarding its conceptualization, researchers appear to be in agreement about certain aspects of empathy. First, empathy is thought to exist within and vary between individuals and is therefore viewed as an individual difference factor (Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987; Farrington & Jolliffe, 2001). Second, many researchers believe that empathy can be measured, and that with certain tools this measurement is reliable and valid. Third, it is implicit within all research on empathy that this construct has an influence on behaviour (Eisenberg, Fabes, Murphy, Karbon, Smith & Maszk, 1996; Kaukiainen, Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, Osterman, Salmivialli, Rotheberg & Ahlbom, 1999). That is, those with higher levels of empathy are expected to act in a more responsive way to the perceived feelings of another. Empathy can be viewed as a continuous variable (e.g. low empathy) or as a dichotomous risk factor (e.g. lack of empathy). There are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. The continuous concept is probably more realistic, but the dichotomous concept identifies deviant individuals and can be easily used by practitioners in a symptom score or risk factor score. It is widely believed that empathy encourages prosocial or altruistic behaviour and numerous studies appear to support this view (e.g. Batson, Fultz & Schoenrade, 1987). It has also been proposed that a lack of empathy encourages antisocial or aggressive behaviour, as such actions might be facilitated in those who fail to appreciate the feelings of others (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). In trying to explain offending, criminologists have postulated that those who offend, and those who act antisocially, have less empathy than those who do not offend (e.g. Burke, 2001; Bush, Mullis & Mullis 2000; Hogan, 1969; Marcus & Gray, 1998). This is because individuals who share and/or comprehend another's negative emotional reaction, which occurs as a result of their own antisocial or aggressive behaviour, may be inhibited and less inclined to continue with this behavior or act in an antisocial or aggressive manner in the future (Feshbach, 1975). Empathy is therefore viewed as an individual protective factor, decreasing the probability of certain types of criminal behaviour, while a lack of empathy is assumed to have a facilitating influence on offending. For example, Farrington (1998, p.257) suggests that offenders are "_callous with low empathy. They are relatively poor at role-taking and perspective-taking, and may misinterpret other people's intentions. This lack of awareness or sensitivity to other people's thoughts and feelings impairs their ability_to appreciate the effects of their behaviour on other people". Other criminologists have also highlighted the potential significance of empathy in relation to delinquency: the "ability to imagine the distress of another may inhibit harmful behaviour" (Blackburn, 1993, p.34).

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Updated 05/20/2006