Do Violent Offenders Simply Lack the Capacity for Empathy? New Research Suggests it’s Not that Simple

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If the ability to empathize with another plays an important role in regulating and controlling one’s anger, empathy could ultimately be the key to avoiding violence in certain situations. Thus, it is easy to surmise that aggressive individuals or violent offenders must not be able to empathize in the way others are able.

In a recent study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, author Dr. Andrew Day investigated this very question by examining the presence of perspective-taking abilities in violent prisoners and comparing them to a student sample with regard to anger and aggression. Perspective taking refers to the ability of one to relate to others and perceive their thoughts or feelings or to see something from another’s point of view. What Dr. Day and his colleagues found was that the ability to perspective-take did act as an inhibitor of angry or aggressive behavior.  However, Dr. Day claims, “there was no evidence to suggest that the relationship was any stronger for violent offenders than for students.” He advises, “it would be wrong to assume that violent offenders lack the ability to empathize, rather that careful assessment of the situations and circumstances when they choose to… is important.”

With an increasing abundance of exposure to criminal behavior—both fictional and non-fictional—particularly through media, it is easy to make assumptions about the perpetrators involved and deny any similarities that they may have to you; no one wants to believe that they could actually share similar characteristics with a violent offender, especially in terms of what often makes a criminal violent: his or her anger. Nonetheless, Dr. Day proposes, “this study shows that in many ways violent offenders may be more similar to other people than the stereotype suggests, especially in relation to their ability to empathize and the types of thing that makes them angry. However, it is likely that once aroused they have much less ability to regulate both their emotion and their behavior.” This is an important piece of information when considering different types of treatment or rehabilitation strategies for violent offenders as well as when considering the stereotypes we place on such individuals. It is not necessarily their ability—or lack-there-of—to empathize that must be contemplated; rather, as Dr. Day puts it, “there is a need to understand how the relationship between anger and empathy works for each individual.”

By Lauren Vieaux
Lauren is a junior Psychology and Human Development major with a minor in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.