Gender Differences in the Empathy–Recidivism Relationship

Published date01 May 2023
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 5, May 2023, 688 –707.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2023 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Sam Houston State University
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Youth Opportunity Investments, LLC
University of Miami
A large body of criminological research often focuses on risk factors that propel individuals toward criminal activity rather
than those that act as protective factors to reduce criminal involvement. In this study, we focus on a potentially important
protective factor, empathy, which has long been considered an individual characteristic related to prosocial human behavior
including non-offending. Specifically, we test the effects of empathy on juvenile recidivism and evaluate how empathy inter-
acts with gender as a protective factor among a large sample of adjudicated youth followed for 1-year post-release from a
residential treatment facility. Results show that empathy was associated with lower recidivism among the entire sample of
youth, with a stronger protective effect against recidivism for justice-involved female youth. Findings contribute to the gen-
dered literature on responses to crime and suggest empathy should be included in programming and interventions for youth
involved in the juvenile justice system, particularly for females.
Keywords: empathy; gender; juvenile recidivism; protective factors
Empathy has often been considered an important characteristic in establishing prosocial
human interaction and behaviors and is defined by an individual’s ability to understand
another’s feelings or emotional experiences; it is considered a multidimensional construct,
with emotional and cognitive components (Watt & Panksepp, 2016). Specifically, the emo-
tional (i.e., affective) component of empathy addresses one’s ability to respond to, and share
in, another person’s emotional state; the cognitive component focuses on the cognitive
awareness of another person’s feelings through simple associations or perspective-taking
(Cohen & Strayer, 1996).
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We have no conflicts of interest to disclose. The analysis and conclusions presented here
are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Bureau of Justice Statistics or the U.S. Department
of Justice. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Chelsey S. Narvey, Sam Houston
State University, 1905 University Avenue, C-123, Huntsville, TX 77340; e-mail:
1153423CJBXXX10.1177/00938548231153423Criminal Justice and BehaviorNarvey et al. / Gender and Empathy
Narvey et al. / GENDER AND EMPATHY 689
Psychologists have posited that low empathy typically results in aggressive, antisocial,
and deviant behaviors (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). More recently, criminologists have
begun to view empathy as an important characteristic in understanding criminal behavior
(Jolliffe & Farrington, 2004, 2007, 2021; Narvey et al., 2021; van Langen et al., 2014).
Individuals who possess high levels of empathy have the ability to understand and share in
another’s emotional state or context, suggesting empathy may act as a protective factor
against a variety of antisocial behaviors, including the likelihood of reoffending (Vachon
et al., 2014). Those who can comprehend and share another’s emotions may be inhibited
from wanting to be the cause of any negative emotional reactions and will therefore be less
inclined to engage in behavior that results in these consequences. Those who exhibit less
empathy, however, might be left incapable of understanding the consequences of their own
negative behavior and therefore perceive fewer risks associated with their actions. As such,
they are “unburdened by the experience or knowledge of the emotional consequences of
their actions on others” (Jolliffe & Farrington, 2021, p. 2). For this reason, empathy has
been regarded as one of the most valuable human resources (Pinker, 2011). This explains
why both cognitive (d = .43) and affective (d = .19) empathy are associated with antisocial
behavior (van Langen et al., 2014).
Empathy has been considered a protective factor against crime and is considered a
female-coded prosocial characteristic (O’Neill, 2020). Empathic ability also varies
between and within persons and can be expressed differently across several character-
istics, including gender. O’Neill (2020) found relations between gender, empathy, and
delinquency that may vary between childhood and adolescence were a result of gender
socialization practices. These socialization practices may lead boys to experience a
period of “anti-empathic development” after age 10 as they become aware of gender-
normative behavior (p. 428), resulting in decreased empathic ability, while girls expe-
rience greater personal distress (i.e., greater affective empathy) when others suffer,
increasing their likelihood of depression. Evidence suggests that exercising the ability
to predict how one’s actions will result in another’s negative emotional reaction disin-
clines the individual from engaging in offending (O’Neill, 2020) and that this ability
differs significantly between males and females (Broidy et al., 2003). 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. Findings from their research suggest that empa-
thy acts as a buffer between the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences
(ACEs) and later recidivism. While their study found that empathy was malleable dur-
ing residential treatment, the authors did not explore the extent to which empathy may
differentially affect the likelihood of recidivism between males and females. The
recent gendered literature in criminology calls for differentiation in programming
between males and females, espousing the argument that there are meaningful qualita-
tive differences between genders that include some unique pathways to offending and
to reoffending (Hubbard & Matthews, 2008; Rettinger & Andrews, 2010). While the
gendered pathways to initial offending have been explored, less research has evaluated
gender-specific protective factors against reoffending. This is especially important
given the increase in the rate of justice-involved females in the last several decades
(Kajstrura, 2019).

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