Inmates’ empathy in relation to perceived parenting and attachment working models

Publication Date06 Nov 2017
AuthorHung-Chu Lin,Yang Yang,Robert McFatter,Raymond W. Biggar,Rick Perkins
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Criminal psychology,Sociology,Sociology of crime & law,Deviant behaviour,Public policy & environmental management,Policing,Criminal justice
Inmatesempathy in relation to perceived
parenting and attachment working models
Hung-Chu Lin, Yang Yang, Robert McFatter, Raymond W. Biggar and Rick Perkins
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine criminal offendersdispositional empathy andrelate it to
perceived parenting characteristicsof primary caregivers (measured as careand overprotection) and inmates
internal workingmodels of the self and others (measuredas attachment anxiety and avoidance, respectively).
Design/methodology/approach Comparedto a group of 110 college students, the group of 102 inmates
indicated lower levels of cognitive and emotional empathy (measured as perspective taking (PT) and
empathic concern (EC), respectively). Among inmates, perceived parental care was related to PT; parental
overprotection was related to EC.
Findings The inmatesdata fit a model suggesting a mediational role of attachment anxiety in the relation
between perceived parental overprotection and EC. Also, inmatesattachment avoidance moderated the
relation between attachment anxiety and EC, so that the relation only occurred when attachment avoidance
was not high. The findings suggested potential protective roles of early parental bonding and positive views of
social others in enhancing empathy for justice-involved populations.
Originality/value The findings shed light on how inmatesperception of parenting related to both aspects
of empathy and how cognitive representations of the self and others potentially underlie the association
between perceived parenting and their disposition for EC. To cultivate dispositional empathy as a means of
preventing delinquency, it is important to advocate not only parenting characterized as caring and warm, but
also cognitive interventions on framing positive working models of social others, particularly for those who
perceive their primary caregivers as overprotective and are highly avoidant to social closeness.
Keywords Empathy, Inmates, Empathic concern, Attachment anxiety, Attachment avoidance,
Cognitive empathy, Parental overcontrol, Parental warmth, Internal working models, Perceived parenting
Paper type Research paper
Deficits in trait empathy have frequently been associated with antisocial and delinquent behaviors
(DAntonio, 1997; de Kemp et al., 2007; Hunter et al., 2007; Miller and Eisenberg, 1988;
Robinson et al., 2007). Low levels of empathy have been believed to underlie a perpetrators
dissociation from the victim and ignoring the victims suffering, reflecting egocentricity and
callousness (Abel et al., 1989; Goldstein and Higgins-DAlessandro, 2001; Hare, 1998).
Understanding the risk factors associated with the development of empathy is critical t o reducing
negative outcomes for individuals and society in general. While genetic factors may predispose
individuals to the risk of developing empathy deficits (Davis et al., 1994; Knafo et al., 2008; Plomin
et al., 1993; Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992), socialization processes, particularly parenting, have been
related to the development of dispositional empathy (Eisenberg and Valiente, 2002; Knafo et al.,
2008; Milikowska et al., 2011). Moreover, one overlooked, but potentially important, factor that may
underlie ones general propensity for empathy is the global set of cognitive representations about the
self and others, namely, internal working models (Bowlby, 1969/1982, 1973, 1980; Goldstein and
Higgins-DAlessandro, 2001). However, information is scarce regarding how perceived parenting
characteristics and internal working models jointly relate to inmatesdispositional empathy.
Empathy has been defined as the psychological process that allows one to understand and
resonate with another s experiences (Goldb erg and Michaels, 198 5; Hoffman, 2000;
Received 1 September 2016
Revised 12 December 2016
9 January 2017
Accepted 9 January 2017
Hung-Chu Lin is an Associate
Professor, Yang Yang is an
Assistant Professor and
Robert McFatter is a Professor
of Psychology (Retired), all at
the Department of Psychology,
University of Louisiana at
Lafayette, Lafayette,
Louisiana, USA.
Raymond W. Biggar is a Senior
Research Scientist at the
Cecil J. Picard Center of Child
Development and Lifelong
Learning, University of
Louisiana at Lafayette,
Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
Rick Perkins is an Associate
Professor at the Department of
Psychology, University of
Louisiana at Lafayette,
Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
VOL. 7 NO. 4 2017, pp. 302-318, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829 DOI 10.1108/JCP-09-2016-0024
Preston and de Waal, 2002). The construct of empathy has been conceptualized as a
multi-dimensional process, involving cognitive and emotional components (Davis, 1996;
de Waal, 2008; Decety and Jackson, 2004; Mehrabian and Epstein, 1972; Smith, 2006;
Snow, 2000). Cognitive empathy entails socio-cognitive perspective taking (PT), in which the
empathizer takes the role and portrays in the mind the experiences of the observed person.
Cognitive empathy has thereby commonly been regarded as synonymous to the construct of
theory of mind the attribution of another persons mental states, such as beliefs, goals, desires,
intentions, etc. (Blair, 2005; Preston and de Waal, 2002; Rueckert and Naybar, 2008). Emotional
empathy refers to an affective process resulting from witnessing the quandary of others
(Batson et al., 1987; Eisenberg and Strayer, 1987; Hoffman, 2000). These emotional responses
generally involve other-focused feelings of concern, compassion, sympathy, and tenderness, and
are likely to motivate altruistic goals and prosocial actions (Decety and Meyer, 2008; Eisenberg
and Fabes, 1998; Hoffman, 1982, 2000). Although cognitive empathy and affective empathy
appear to be qualitatively distinct dimensions, some theorists argue that genuine empathy entails
the integration of both aspects of empathy; thus, both should be taken into consideration when
examining the construct of empathy (Cohen and Strayer, 1996; Smith, 2006).
Reports on offenderslevels of empathy as comparedto non-offenders have been conflicting,with
some indicating lower levels of cognitive empathy in offenders when compared to non-offenders
(e.g. Chandlerand Moran, 1990; Lee and Prentice, 1988),others indicating lower levels of affective
empathy, but not cognitive empathy, in delinquents when compared to non-delinquents
(e.g. Kaplan and Arbuthnot, 1985; Rotenberg, 1974). Still, others (e.g. Cohen and Strayer, 1996)
reported differences in both cognitive and affective empathy between conduct disordered and
non-conduct disordered youth. Goldstein andHiggins-DAlessandro (2001), however, did not find
differencesin either cognitive or affectiveempathy between violent and non-violent offenders.Other
reports focuson how offending differentiallyrelates to cognitive and affectiveempathy, respectively.
Jolliffe and Farrington (2004), for example, conducted a meta-analysis on the relation between
offending andempathy and reported that low cognitive empathy was stronglyrelated to offending,
but low affective empathy was only weakly related to it. Similarly, Van Langen et al. (2014)
documented in a meta-analysis that the relation of offending with cognitive empathy was stronger
than with affective empathy. The discrepancies in thefindings across different studies may be due
to the lack of consensus on the definition of empathy, inconsistentassessment methods used for
empathy and offending, and varying levels of control for sample characteristics in the analyses,
including age, gender, type of offense, intelligence, socio-economic status(SES), etc. ( Jolliffe and
Farrington, 2004; Van Langen et al.,2014).
Early experiences with primary caregiver and empathy
Research has indicated the important role of parenting in the development of empathy (Eisenberg
and Valiente, 2002; Knafo et al., 2008; Koestner et al., 1990; Milikowska et al., 2011). Supportive
parenting has been found to satisfy childrens physical and emotional needs and encourage
childrens sense of self-worth and agency (Liem et al., 2010). In this way, children tend to be freed
from preoccupation with their own issues and become more morally sensitive and empathically
available for others (Eisikovits and Sagi, 1982; Grusec and Goodnow, 1994; Hoffman, 1975a, b;
Hoffman and Saltzstein, 1967; Larzelere et al., 1996, 1998; Soenens et al., 2007).
Parenting characteristics have been conceptualized as consisting of two separate dimensions:
care (acceptance-responsiveness) and control (demandingness-overprotection) (Darling and
Steinberg, 1993; Maccoby, 2007; Maccoby and Martin, 1983; Parker et al., 1979). Parental care
or acceptance-responsiveness is displayed in parents who are sensitive and responsive to their
childrens needs and provide appreciation and praise when their children meet their expectations.
Parental control or demandingness-overprotection refers to a too high level of protection or
control the parent has over the decisions of the child to an extent that the child is not allowed to
display autonomy. Inadequate parenting, particularly with characteristics of low parental care and
overprotection, has been linked to antisocial behaviors in children (Ehrensaft et al., 2003; Knutson
et al., 2004; Narusyte et al., 2007; Reti et al., 2002; Roche et al., 2007; Schaffer et al., 2009;
Smith and Farrington, 2004; Thornberry et al., 2003).
VOL. 7 NO. 4 2017

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