Empathy and attachment in violent and nonviolent criminal offenders

Harold Meyer Goldstein, Fordham University


It is generally accepted as a given that criminal offenders are deficient in their ability to empathize with their victims. Empathy is defined as the ability to vicariously comprehend the psychological experience of another. The construct is viewed as having affective and cognitive components that play a central mediating role in social interactions and antisocial behavior. The differential effect of deficiencies in cognitive or affective empathy on criminal behavior was a focus of this study. Attachment theory and recent research indicate that the attachment relationship forms a blueprint for future relationships and interactions. The emotional attunement between the primary caretaker and child is believed to have a lasting impact on the degree to which one is able to emotionally connect with other people throughout life. The connection between attachment history and affective empathy was the second major focus of this study. One hundred nineteen male and 67 female offenders incarcerated in the New York City jail system completed questionnaires measuring affective and cognitive empathy, history of attachment, current attachment, social desirability, and verbal skills. Offenders were classified into violent and nonviolent categories based on the nature of their past and current offenses. A control group of 63 males and 67 females enrolled in general equivalency diploma courses in New York City also completed the same battery of questionnaires listed above. Multiple analysis of variance was used to compare the groups on the dependent variables and the Pearson r correlation coefficient was used to assess the relationship between empathy and attachment. The male offenders as a whole scored higher on affective empathy than the control group with the nonviolent male offenders scoring significantly higher on affective empathy than the control group males. However, after age was used as a covariate, the groups were no longer significantly different on affective empathy. No significant differences were found among the female groups on cognitive or affective empathy. There was also no relationship found for the male or female groups between empathy and history of attachment. Limitations of the study and the implication of the results for future research were discussed.

Subject Area

Academic guidance counseling|Psychology|Criminology

Recommended Citation

Goldstein, Harold Meyer, "Empathy and attachment in violent and nonviolent criminal offenders" (1996). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9631037.