The study, carried out by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) criminologist Dr Neema Trivedi-Bateman and her student research assistant Emma Crook, reviewed evidence from programmes designed to improve empathy amongst children, young people, and adults.
Weak empathy is associated with subsequent weak shame and guilt, all of which play a primary role in moral decision-making when making behavioural choices. Multiple types of crime, including violent, sexual, and fraud-related offences are found to be linked to weak empathy. This is found in various countries and settings, such as in school, prison, psychiatric institutions, and within communities.
Previous research by Dr Trivedi-Bateman has identified a strong link between weak empathy and involvement in crime, with prolific, violent offenders having empathy levels 15% lower than less severe offenders and non-offenders. Other studies have shown that higher empathy is linked to lower levels of youth aggression, weapon carrying, and gang membership.
For the first time, this new study stresses the merits of programmes that attempt to strengthen empathy and outlines under which conditions they are found to be most effective, finding that these initiatives may reduce both reoffending and first-time offending in society.
In Germany, a 10-week classroom-based programme was found to increase empathy and reduce cyberbullying behaviour, while a bullying-focused empathy programme in Turkey saw a reduction in bullying behaviour of 40% amongst the primary school pupils who took part, with the control group showing no change in their bullying behaviours.
The research explains how empathy deficiency should be of central concern to criminal justice agencies and that it could be identified and addressed as early as in infancy.
By using a combination of universal empathy-training programmes for the general population, including pre-natal training for parents to help them foster empathy from birth, social and emotional learning programmes in schools, and specific offender-targeted programmes beginning as early as mid-childhood, Dr Trivedi-Bateman believes that offending rates could be reduced.
Dr Trivedi-Bateman, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “Empathy is crucial for supporting law-abiding behaviours and decisions, and traditional sources of empathy development, such as parents and teachers, are vital for the development of lawful behaviour in children.
“Deficient empathy is a risk to all members of the community and can occur when children have inadequate or absent role models. If deficient empathy can be identified and addressed from infancy, we strongly believe that fewer incidents of harm and wrongdoing will occur in society.
“Our study highlights that targeted empathy training programmes used in North America, Asia and Europe can be beneficial. We also show that repetition and rehearsal of the empathy strengthening techniques are key to successful and longer-term outcomes, while the use of virtual reality technology, placing participants in ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ scenarios, are beneficial when used in cases of bullying and domestic abuse.
“So far this has been a largely neglected area of crime policy focus but if the UK can adopt empathy training programmes on a wider scale – involving parents, siblings, teachers, peers, and the criminal justice system, such as probation services – it could pave the way for a new and relatively low-cost approach to tackling crime in this country.”