The Interrelationship Between Empathy and Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Impact on Juvenile Recidivism

Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
Subject MatterArticles
YVJ939647 45..67 Article
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
2021, Vol. 19(1) 45-67
The Interrelationship
ª The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Between Empathy and
DOI: 10.1177/1541204020939647
Adverse Childhood
Experiences and Their
Impact on Juvenile Recidivism

Chelsey Narvey1 , Jennifer Yang2 , Kevin T. Wolff2 ,
Michael Baglivio3 , and Alex R. Piquero4,5
Low empathy has been implicated in antisocial, aggressive, and criminal behavior, especially among
adolescents. Less understood is the extent to which empathy is amenable to treatment, and whether
an improvement in empathy can mitigate the deleterious effects of known risk factors, such as
childhood maltreatment. A sample of 11,000 serious juvenile offenders in long-term residential
placement is leveraged to examine whether over cumulative traumatic exposure, measured by the
adverse childhood experience (ACE) score, is associated with the initial level of empathy at
admission to a residential program, and whether changes in empathy during treatment moderate the
impact of ACEs on juvenile recidivism. Results show youth with higher ACE scores have less
empathy at admission and both ACEs and empathy predict recidivism. Most importantly, large gains
in empathy are able to dampen the effect of ACEs on recidivism.
adverse childhood experiences, trauma, empathy, juvenile recidivism
Since the early part of the 20th century, philosophers have linked a concept referred to as empathy to
delinquent and criminal activity. What exactly is empathy? For Buber (1923), empathy entails one’s
ability to distinguish between the “I-you,” where one is connecting with another person’s thoughts
1 Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
2 John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, USA
3 Youth Opportunity Investments, LLC., & University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, FL, USA
4 University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
5 Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Chelsey Narvey, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA.

Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 19(1)
and feelings, and the “I-it,” where one is treating the person as an object. More recently, Cohen and
Strayer (1996) define empathy as “the ability to understand and share in another’s emotional state or
context” (p. 988). And Joliffe and Farrington (2004) suggest that this definition acknowledges “that
empathy is both a cognitive process (i.e., the ability to understand another’s emotional state) and an
affective capacity (i.e., the sharing of the emotional state of another)” (p. 442). What these defini-
tions and interpretations all have in common is the notion that in some way, shape, or form, empathy
connotes a regard for, or the ability to appreciate, the feelings of others (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988).
Not surprisingly, then, low empathy has consistently been linked to antisocial, aggressive, delin-
quent, and criminal behavior (Joliffe & Farrington, 2004, 2007) while higher empathy serves as a
protective factor for such behavior (Broidy et al., 2003).
Although the knowledge base regarding the relationship between empathy and crime is strong,
there remain some important gaps in the literature. In particular, while many prison treatment pro-
grams have empathy as a part of their intervention strategy—especially within the context of
cognitive-behavioral strategies (Mulloy et al., 1999; Ross & Ross, 1995), less research has examined
the extent to which empathy is sensitive to treatment intervention among juvenile offenders, and the
extent to which empathy may serve as a buffer that limits the effects of other known risk factors on
criminal activity, especially those surrounding childhood maltreatment. Accordingly, the current
study uses data from a large sample of adjudicated serious juvenile offenders in the state of Florida
to examine whether changes in empathy during residential treatment moderates the impact of one very
strong risk factor composite, adverse childhood experiences (ACE), on juvenile recidivism. A focus
on juvenile offenders is especially important because: (1) prior research has found that empathy is
more strongly related to offending among adolescents than adults and (2) juvenile offenders are at a
pivotal time period when some of them will continue their criminal activities into adulthood and others
will desist (Piquero et al., 2012). The extent to which these juveniles can learn protective factors, such
as improving their empathy, is an important policy issue. Before we turn to the results of our analyses,
we provide overviews of the literatures that we integrate in the current study, namely: empathy,
childhood maltreatment, ACEs, and their inter-relationships to criminal activity.
The Role of Empathy and Delinquency
Defining Empathy
Definitions of the concept of empathy have differed on two main components: the emotional compo-
nent, where one is able to experience the emotions of another, or the cognitive component, where one
is able to understand the emotions of another. More recently, however, researchers who study empathy
have started to agree that empathy likely encompasses both emotional and cognitive components
(Joliffe & Farrington, 2006).
Empathy and Offending
Within the criminological and psychological research, studies continue to demonstrate strong sup-
port for the relationship between empathy and offending, with lower empathy being related to an
increased risk of offending. Studies have shown that individuals who had previously demonstrated
violent behavior also demonstrated lower empathy, a finding that is true for both males and females
(Joliffe & Farrington, 2007). Much of the reasoning behind this connection centers on the notion that
those individuals with lower empathy do not feel repressed from engaging in behavior that might be
harmful to others since they do not fully understand or appreciate the harm done to that person
(Feshbach, 1975; Joliffe & Farrington, 2006; Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). Empathy has been found to
be a factor in self-reported offending, violent offending (Joliffe & Farrington, 2007), sexual

Narvey et al.
offending (Barnett & Mann, 2013; Burke, 2001; Mann & Barnett, 2013), and bullying behaviors
(Joliffe & Farrington, 2006).
In one prominent study of 720 male and female adolescents (mean age ¼ 14.8) in the United
Kingdom, Joliffe and Farrington (2007) compared measures of cognitive and emotional empathy to
self-report offending. They found that both males and females who had committed a violent offense
had lower empathy than those who had not committed a violent offense, and that high-rate offenders
of both sexes had lower empathy than low-rate offenders. Results differed between males and
females with respect to overall offending, where males who had committed any offense (not just
violent) had lower empathy scores overall; for females, however, those who had committed any
nonviolent offense did not differ on their levels of empathy compared to the other females who had
not offended. Other research has looked specifically at empathy and sexual offending (Hanson,
2003). Most of the research on this subgroup of offenders suggests that they do not lack empathy in
general, but rather mainly for their victims (Fernandez & Marshall, 2003; Marshall et al., 2009).
Empathy Intervention
Given how consistently empathy has been found to be related to antisocial behavior, it is not surprising
to find that it is a key component of many treatment and intervention programs, many of which have
been applied to sex offenders. Yet, results have been mixed with respect to its effectiveness on samples
of sex offenders in particular (Brown et al., 2012; Hanson, 2003; Jackson & Bonacker, 2006; Mann &
Barnett, 2013). For example, in an evaluation of an empathy-focused victim impact training (VIT)
program, Jackson and Bonacker (2006) found overall support for the program, where VIT participants
were less likely to recidivate than those in the control group; however, they found that empathy alone
had no significant effect on recidivism. Conversely, in their 10-year longitudinal study of 105 sex
offenders in England and Wales, Brown and colleagues (2012) found that victim-specific empathy
improved during treatment and was related to overall change, but that a small group of offenders
whose victim-empathy scores decreased from pre- to post-treatment had higher rates of recidivism as
compared to the rest of the sample.
In samples other than sex offenders, some research has documented a significant relationship
between empathy and recidivism. For example, Bock and Hosser (2014) evaluated the role of empathy
in predicting recidivism among a sample of 748 male offenders between the ages of 15 and 28. Their
longitudinal study found that global empathy scores, especially the subscales of perspective taking
and empathic fantasy, contributed to the ability to predict recidivism. Researchers have also included
parenting style into the model, examining the role of empathy and parenting on the development of
antisocial behavior. Schaffer and colleagues (2009), for example, conducted a self-report survey of
242 undergraduate students that asked questions pertaining to their antisocial behaviors, empathy, and
mothers’ and fathers’ parenting styles. They found that parenting style, specifically maternal permis-
sive parenting, contributed to antisocial behavior through its effects on cognitive and emotional
empathy development.

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