In its May issue, Criminal Justice and Behavior published new research focusing on whether the protective factor of empathy can reduce recidivism among formerly incarcerated youth and how that might differ when intersected with gender identity. Here, we summarize the research background, purpose, design and analysis, and key findings. The original article - authored by Chelsey S. Narvey, Katherine L. Perez, Kevin T. Wolff, Michael T. Baglivio, and Alex R. Piquero - is entitled "Gender Differences in the Empathy–Recidivism Relationship" and can be accessed here.
Background for the Study
Empathy has long been considered by psychologists to be an important component of prosocial development and behavior. Empathy "is defined by an individual’s ability to understand another’s feelings or emotional experiences" by combining emotional and cognitive dimensions of the self.
Because low empathy has previously been correlated in research with "aggressive, antisocial, and deviant behaviors," criminologists believe it's an integral part of better understanding why some individuals engage in criminal behaviors. For this reason, empathy "has been considered a protective factor against crime."
Empathy also has been seen to vary by gender identity. Specifically, past research "found relations between gender, empathy, and delinquency that may vary between childhood and adolescence were a result of gender socialization practices." Specifically, boys are typically socialized to develop anti-empathic traits after the age of 10; whereas girls are socialized to continually expand their empathic abilities.
"The current study aims to expand on recent research by Narvey and colleagues (2021) that began to explore the interrelationships between risk factors, empathy, and recidivism among a sample of justice-involved juveniles."
Prior research conducted by Narvey et al. indicated that empathy "acts as a buffer between the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and later recidivism." However, that research did not explore how differences in gender identity might impact the development of empathy and therefore influence recidivism rates among male and female youth.
There has been a greater focus for differentiation among genders in programming within justice settings, as well as a focus on how gender differences influence a youth's offense history. Yet, less attention has been paid to how gender differences might impact recidivism and the protective factors that could prevent reoffending among youth.
Similarly, there has been prior research conducted to examine the relationship between empathy and criminal behavior; however, less focus has been placed on "linking empathy to juvenile recidivism specifically."
Thus, the authors "aim to consider the extent to which empathy differentially relates to recidivism across gender" by:
"(a) exploring the role of empathy in reoffending among a statewide sample of youth returning to the community following a juvenile justice residential placement and (b) investigating whether the association between empathy and recidivism operates similarly for both male and female youth."
Design and Analysis
Participants were recruited from a residential facility located in the state of Florida in the U.S. from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2012. The study sample consisted only of youth within their first residential placement, and all participants were required to complete the Residential Positive Achievement Change Tool (R-PACT) assessment tool used at that time by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Total sample size included 11,053 participants, 14% of whom were female and 86% of whom were male.
All the residential programs from which participants were found for the study were run by private providers and offered individualized yet similarly constructed treatment plans. Participants within the sample had been assigned to their residential facility by a juvenile court judge; were required to go to school while in treatment; were assigned a case manager and therapist; and - if deemed necessary - were provided additional treatment for any substance use or mental health issues present. "All residential programs provide individual counseling, family therapy, and treatment groups, provided by licensed (or supervised) mental health professionals, to every youth admitted based on their individualized assessed needs (as per the R-PACT and clinical assessments)."
Study variables included:
- Independent variable: Recidivism
- Dependent variable: Empathy
- Control variables: Demographics, Criminal History Indicators, Self-Control, Gang Involvement, Past Drug Use/Abuse, Child Welfare Involvement, Mental Health Problems, and Runaway History
Analysis was conducted using multivariable methods, including bivariate correlations, logistic regression, and adjusting "predictions rather than significance of the coefficient of the product term alone."
The authors identified two key findings upon analysis of their data:
"First, empathy emerged as a significant protective factor against recidivism—a finding that was observed even after extensive controls for a range of variables known to predict criminal activity, including previous offending and justice system placements, substance use, gang involvement, and self-control. Second, and most important, we detected a significant interaction between gender and empathy such that
empathy emerged as much more strongly protective against recidivism for females than males."
Based on these findings, the authors recommend the following changes might be important to explore when considering treatment for justice-involved youth:
- Increasing "empathy-based interventions" within existing substance use and anger management treatment programs and
- "Including empathy-based targets in larger treatment programs" - particularly for youth whose assessments indicate higher psychopathology and females.
- "Valid assessment of gender-based needs is pertinent to the development and implementation of appropriate programming designed with reduced reoffending as a primary objective."
- "Programs should consider adopting more tailored empathy training practices across genders that could improve their empathic abilities and thus potentially decrease risks of recidivism."
- Use of restorative justice programs may "foster empathic ability through perspective taking and learning the emotions of the victim."
- Because females have been seen in prior research to benefit from a safe environment and interpersonal connection, "fostering relationships through empathic connection could also increase social bonds, thus offering further protective factors against recidivism."
"Moving forward, we believe that empathy has a seat at the criminological table as well as a potentially even more important one in the prevention and intervention arena."
* References available upon request.