Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Criminal empathy

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Criminal empathy:
What causes empathy for criminals?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case Study

Two men are on trial for the armed robbery of a local convenience store. One man is white and other black. All the actors of the law in this case were white. In the police officer's description of what occurred, the black male was described as uncooperative, aggressive and the leader that had an offensive weapon whereas the white male was described as cooperative and 'bullied into the robbery'. The charge of armed robbery with an offensive weapon carries a hefty sentence of 25 years but because the white male was considered just the 'company' of the black male and was 'unaware' the robbery was going to occur; he just played along as he was in fear of his own life. The sentencing for the white male was much lighter as he was considered only an accessory. This occurred despite evidence that the white male was fully aware and was carrying the offensive weapon not the black male.[factual?]

Court room
Figure 1: Supreme Court Room, Independence Hall

Whilst people are led to believe that the Black male in this story was the aggressor he was not[grammar?]. What made the White arresting police officer say that the Black male was the aggressor? It is suggested that one's racial identity can construe their perception thus affecting their empathy (Johnson & Lecci, 2019). In this case scenario, the police officer and the White assailant shared a common group membership which is their race. Thus, it was incongruent for the police officer to see the White male as an aggressive individual and due to a phenomenon termed social stereotypicality which explains that the degree that a Black individual adopts behaviours that are concurrent with aversive and racist stereotypes of Black people (Johnson & Lecci, 2019); it was easier for the officer to assume that the Black male was the aggressor therefore, not feeling empathetic towards him at all.

From an evolutionary standpoint, greater empathy for one's in-group is expected as it is shown in apes that engage in cooperative behaviours in groups (De Waal, 2012). This causes challenges as empathic failures are considered deep rooted within intergroup conflicts (Cohen & Insko, 2008). Research has found that a remorseful apology was likely to increase the level of empathy felt for a transgressor or criminal (Davis & Gregg, 2011; Witvliet et al, 2020).

There are several theories which propose concepts and ideas in an attempt to explain why people experience empathy. Social appraisal theory implies that people adopt other people's emotions to understand their own better (Wondra & Ellsworth, 2015). However, this theory would then consider empathy not as a first-hand emotion that can be felt but rather an experience[grammar?]. A more current and recent theory proposes that empathic emotions are not entirely based on the other person's emotion but how an individual interprets the other person's situation (Wondra & Ellsworth, 2015).

There are another two theories that propose concepts about group members that are also relevant to this chapter. These theories are systems justification theory and intergroup emotion theory. Systems justification theory argues that stereotypes act to justify the ill treatment of certain groups regarding others and illustrates the secondary status of disadvantaged class in ways that are instinctive (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Johnson & Lecci, 2019). Relevant to this theory is the intergroup emotion theory which conveys that significant groups that people are affiliated with shape their emotions because people stereotype how they should be to feel included within the group standard and due to their adoption of the group goals as their own (Mackie et al, 2008; Wondra & Ellsworth, 2015). These theories are a strong base that plays into the understanding of social identity theory in its relevance to the empathy felt towards criminals.

Focus questions
  1. What is empathy?
  2. How does a person's social identity influence empathy that one shares with another person?
  3. Are people more empathetic of criminals when they are in the same group membership?
  4. How does group membership and forgiveness influence the empathy one feels for a transgressor?
  5. What role does restorative justice play in empathy for criminals?

Empathy[edit | edit source]

Empathy is partly heritable as some components of empathy are less genetically heritable in comparison to affective empathy (Zahn-Waxler et al, 1992; Davis et al, 1994)[say what?]. Across the literature, empathy is described inconsistently. For this chapter, empathy is understood as the ability to understand another individual's experience from that individual's frame of reference rather than one's own. Empathy is multi-faceted and includes:

  1. Affective sharing which describes the innate capability to become emotively aroused by other's emotions (Decety, & Cowell, 2015).
  2. Empathic concern is relative to the motivation one has to care for another's welfare (Decety, & Cowell, 2015).
  3. Perspective taking is the skill which allows an individual to imagine what another person is experiencing (Decety, & Cowell, 2015).

Examples of the following facets are shown in Table 1. The most researched facet of empathy, crime and social identity is perspective taking hence, this will be the most referenced throughout the chapter. Empathic concern and affective sharing, whilst relevant, are not explicitly mentioned throughout research which makes it difficult to definitively argue what researchers are referring to when referencing similar concepts.

Table 1. Examples of the facets in real life scenarios.

Facet of Empathy Example of Facet
Affective sharing When sitting across from someone you happen to find yourself with your arms crossed in an angry position. When you look up to the person you are sitting across from, they are also sitting with their arms crossed angrily.
Empathic concern When shopping a young lady seems to be overwhelmed and upset, you approach them to ask what is wrong despite not knowing the young lady.
Perspective taking Your friend was given cake for her birthday, but she does not like cake. Even though you like cake, you can understand why your friend would be upset when receiving cake as you remember a time when you were given a food that you do not like.

For more in-depth detail about this particular area see the following chapters;

Social identity theory[edit | edit source]

Model showing Tajfel and Turner's social identity theory
Figure 2: Tajfel and Turner's social identity theory

This theory proposes that the groups a person defines themselves provides a sense of belonging in the social world (Scheepers & Ellemers, 2019). As shown in Figure 2, based on Social Identity theory, people separate the world into "them" (out-group) and "us" (in-group). A person's social categorisation can be based on race, culture, gender, level of education, age, etc. A central hypothesis of this theory is that members of an in-group will attribute negative ideals to an outgroup which enhances the ingroup's self-image (Scheepers & Ellmers, 2019).

Thus, when this theory is applied to the concept of empathy for criminals it begins to create an understanding for why people may feel empathetic for an individual who has committed a crime. Specifically, racial categorisation is heavily researched throughout the literature as such this will be exemplified more throughout the chapter. An infamous example of empathy and crime is the empathy that was felt for O.J. Simpson by the Black community partly based on his race and celebrity status (Enomoto, 1999). Majority of the Black American community emphasised O.J. Simpson's innocence which is thought to be due to racial identification to O.J, whereas, the White American community expressed their rejection of the 'not guilty' verdict due to their racial identification to White murder victim (Kuhl, 1997)[grammar?].

Short quiz on social identity theory[edit | edit source]

1 Based on what you have been told so far about Social Identity theory who are you more inclined to feel empathetic for?

A person who does not like the same music as you and is the opposite gender to you.
A person who does like the same music as you and is the same gender as you.
A person who does not like the same music as you and is the same gender to you.
None of these answers are correct
All of these answers are correct

2 Who is more likely to experience ingroup bias in relation to the case study mentioned in the overview?

Sammy, a young French tourist who was passing through the town.
Jane, a young White girl who grew up with the White perpetrator.
Morgan, a older local White male who does not like younger people.
Raquel, an older Black woman who has grown up in this town.
None of these answers are correct


Explanation for the correct answers

In number 1, option 2 is the most correct as in the first option there is nothing that relates you both in group membership with the information given. In the third option, whilst you may feel empathy for them because they are the same gender as you, it is significantly less than the person who likes the same music and is the same gender as you. Thus, option 2 is the most correct answer.

In number 2, option 2 is the most correct as the girl is White (racially identifies with one of the perpetrators) and also grew up with one of the perpetrators. Despite not being told which perpetrator we are inclined to believe that the perpetrator must be the White perpetrator because this makes sense in our unconscious mind.

Influence of group membership on empathy[edit | edit source]

Group membership is experienced across cultures from a young age. Group membership has a large influence on empathic responding (Hein et al, 2010). Interestingly, group membership was not influential on empathy when the victim was a child as it is proposed that children are primers of prosocial norms (Crawley & Suarez, 2016). Literature surrounding the role of group membership, criminality, and empathy heavily emphasises the differing experiences of race and racial categorisation.

Racial categorisation has a strong influence of the in-group bias one experiences in empathic neural processing rather than general social group categorisation (Fourie, Subramoney & Madikizela, 2017). When people see someone that fits a category very little cognitive energy is spent on categorising. This stronger influence could possibly be explained as an automatic encoding of race as an adaptation to help people identify those apart of their group (Fourie, Subramoney & Madikizela, 2017). The importance of one's group membership plays heavily into how a person responds. The level of identification one has in their group can have a significant impact on one's empathy and how they perceived behaviour from outgroups. For example, high racially identified Black individuals were more inclined to make the assumption that White individuals are more likely to partake in bigotry and prejudice behaviour towards Black people (Lecci & Johnson, 2008). When people have a strong racial identification, it is suggested that they are more inclined to experience empathy of racial ingroup members thus, developing a more intense level of empathy toward one's own race (Fourie et al, 2017). The way someone identifies is significant in the level of empathic responding someone has for others.

People that identify at a higher level with their own group had increased perspective taking for the perpetrator that was in their social group than the victim (Li, Leidner, & Fernandez-Campos, 2019). The possible explanation for this is that endorsing the perspective of another person especially from another social group (outgroup) is cognitively taxing and requires more effort (Decety & Cowell, 2015). Perspective-taking is an important part of empathy, often being relied on for people's understanding of other people's feelings and it has been shown that it is less complex for ingroup members over outgroup members. One study had found that when painful stimulation applied to racial ingroup faces promoted increased activity in areas that are related to the experience of pain in participants however, this was reduced when viewing the faces of the outgroup race (Vanman, 2016). However, this result is not consistent as another study found that it was the same for both groups (Lamm et al, 2010). Despite the fact the participant did not experience the painful stimulation they were able to use their perspective taking skills to empathise with others.

Empathy is considered highly adaptive but heavily reliant on context which may explain why empathic failures exist intergroup (Cikara et al, 2011). With respect to empathy and group membership, there is plenty of research which examines the effect of racial group membership and the experience of empathy. However, there is a minimal amount of studies which discuss different memberships other than race.

The role of forgiveness in empathy[edit | edit source]

Case Study

In a case against a Catholic Bishop for charges of abuse, plantiffs granted $23.4 million dollars, [grammar?] they had appealed that this was to be postponed until a sincere apology was made. When the Bishop had expressed his apology unequivocally, with compassion and empathetically for the suffering caused by him in which after the plantiffs relinquished their monetary request. (Fehr & Gelfand, 2009).

A consistent theme across the literature is the importance of apologies and forgiveness. With an empathy model proposing that an apology persuades victims to forgive by encouraging their empathic concern for the perpetrator (McCullough et al, 1998)[grammar?]. The experience of empathy from a victim encourages them to feel more concern for the transgressor and the concerned relationship which makes the victim more likely to forgive the perpetrator (McCullough et al, 1998). Forgiveness is found to be important in transgressions as it creates a better understanding of the perspective of the perpetrator. This has been shown in group membership also, when one sees their own group's potential for misdeeds forecasted their own forgiveness of outgroup offenders (Exline et al, 2008)[grammar?]. This increases one's empathy as it allows them to have a better understanding of the perpetrator (Exline et al, 2008). Forgiveness seems to play an important role in influencing empathy from victim to the perpetrator.

In one experiment, participants were more contented when the outgroup apologised over no apology and were more inclined to believe the outgroup was more remorseful when apologetic (Philpot & Hornsey, 2008). This is important as it creates a potential bridge which allows for intergroup perspective taking to occur. This does suggest that there could be a potential that intergroup apologies may work but more research into the strategies that are sensitive to intergroup context rather than interpersonal strategies (Philpot & Hornsey, 2008)[grammar?]. The role of forgiveness in empathy may provide a possible avenue for why empathy is felt for criminals. It has been proposed that a remorseful apology and the corresponding forgiveness may represent an unspoken social contract which implicates that the transgressor vows not to reoffend (Davis & Gold, 2011).

Another possible explanation for why it poses a challenge for ingroup members to forgive outgroup members is that ingroup members have a strong collective memory about the cruelty and wrongdoings experienced (Sahdra & Ross, 2007). When this is considered through social identity theory it is logical that members of the ingroup have more solid memories of events where the group members were victims rather than offenders of intergroup violence. See the following chapter for more information related to forgiveness and empathy:

Restorative justice[edit | edit source]

Restorative justice is an approach in the criminal justice system in which reaching a level of harmony and empathy are beneficial in respect from the evolutionary perspective as the human species in that they desire peace among members (Walsh, 2000)[grammar?]. This is an upcoming approach which is attempting to provide a platform for victims and perpetrators to communicate to reach a level of harmonisation. Restorative justice allows for stronger perspective taking between the two parties which provides a greater empathy and understanding (Jackson, 2009). This approach could be a fruitful field that may allow people to empathise more with criminals because people are hearing from the perspective of the perpetrator. While the vast majority of violent crime victims are not drawn to mediation, there is a small majority[say what?] (Wemmers, 2002). However, those that are victims of property crimes are more drawn to mediation (Wemmers, 2002). Restorative justice is an approach that requires more intensive research in regard to the level of empathy one feels for the perpetrator as this is limited.

Empathy decreases the differences in injustices as it allows victims to take perspective of the offender (Exline et al, 2003). Restorative justice allows for a greater depth for empathy between victim and offender which may have not occurred otherwise. A project in Canberra, Australia, showed that victims who took part in a restorative justice meeting later said that they had forgave their perpetrators in 39% of the cases (Sherman et al, 2006). These statistics are significant as mentioned prior forgiveness plays a role in empathy towards transgressorsTemplate:Rewrit.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Whilst the understanding of why people feel empathy for criminals is not solid, there are some explanations, including group membership. Group membership plays an important role in why someone may experience empathy for a criminal such as in the O.J. Simpson case. There is, however, limited current research in other categories separate from race which poses a challenge in understanding why someone might feel empathy for a criminal. This is why restorative justice may have a pivotal role in the forgiveness and empathy a victim will feel for a perpetrator. There is a vast amount of research regarding social transgressions not of a criminal nature and empathy. However, the level of transgression a criminal partakes in is higher in severity and people are less likely to forgive due to this. Group membership in criminality may provide an avenue of comprehension which has yet to be thoroughly researched. Restorative justice is taking a step in the right direction to creating a greater knowledge bank for why people do feel empathy for criminals.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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External links[edit | edit source]