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Criminal Offenders' Dispositional Empathy, Perceived Parental Bonding, and Attachment Dimensions

Research findings from the Developmental Science Lab

Deficits in trait empathy have frequently been associated with delinquent behaviors (D’Antonio, 1997). Research has related criminal offenders' empathy to their perception of early bonding with parents (e.g., Schaffer, Clark, & Jeglic, 2009), and to their adult attachment (e.g., Goldstein & Higgins-D’alessandro, 2008). Attachment anxiety generally involves positive views of others and a need for others’ approval, whereas attachment avoidance involves negative views of others and a proclivity to avoid close relationships. The purpose of this study was to examine criminal offenders' dispositional empathy and relate it to both the perception of early parental bonding and adult attachment.         

Participants included 101 inmates recruited from the correction center of a midsize southern US city. Most of the crimes involved drug charges, burglary, probation/parole violation, theft, and drinking under the influence. For comparison purpose, 110 college students were recruited from a local university. Participants completed (1) the Parent Bonding Instrument (Parker, Tupling, & Brown, 1979) for the perception of early parental bonding, including the Care and Control subscales, (2) the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980) for dispositional empathy, including the Empathic Concern, Perspective Taking, and Personal Distress subscales, and (3) the Experience in Close Relationships Scale-Short Form (Wei, Russell, Mallinckrodt, & Vogel, 2007) for adult attachment, including Anxiety and Avoidance dimensions.

When compared to college students, inmates reported lower levels of empathic concern, higher levels of attachment anxiety, and lower levels of parental care, t(210) = -2.32, p = 0.022, t(210) = 2.50, p = 0.013, and t(188) = -3.86, p = 0.0002, respectively.  Two findings in inmates, but not college students, were particularly noteworthy.  First, there was a significant interaction between attachment anxiety and avoidance in the prediction for empathic concern, t = -2.12, p = .037. Subsequent simple slope tests indicated that higher levels of attachment anxiety was associated with higher levels of empathic concern when inmates’ attachment avoidance was at a low or medium level, b = 2.02, t = 3.80, p

The results suggested that inmates’ perception of parental overprotection was associated with positive views of others and a need for others’ approval (attachment anxiety); attachment anxiety, in turn, was related to a greater propensity for empathically responding to others’ distress.  However, the association between attachment anxiety and empathic concern was buffered by inmates’ disposition to avoid close relationships (attachment avoidance).  The findings suggested potential protective roles of early parental bonding and positive views of others in enhancing empathy for populations at risk of delinquency.