Cognition, Empathy, and Sexual Offending

  • Barnett G
  • Mann R
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Most empathy research in the forensic context has assumed that empathy has two components. In this two-component model, the cognitive component involves perspective taking, and the affective component involves experiencing appropriate emotion. In this review, we identify how this assumption has both dominated and limited empathy research with offenders, nearly all of which has been conducted with sexual offenders. We propose instead that five components are involved in the experience of empathy: perspective taking, the ability to experience emotion, a belief that others are worthy of compassion and respect, situational factors, and an ability to manage personal distress. We suggest that the non-situational factors that blocked empathy for the victim at the time of a sexual offense are probably other dispositions known to be related to sexual offending, such as sexual preoccupation, generalized hostility to others, implicit theories about children and sex, and/or poor coping with negative emotions. We conclude with directions for practice and research, and urge greater caution in correctional policies on victim empathy programs.

Author-supplied keywords

  • cognition
  • empathy
  • sexual offending
  • victim empathy

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  • Georgia D. Barnett

  • Ruth E. Mann

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