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Empathy and social desirability: a comparison of delinquent and non-delinquent participants using direct and indirect measures

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Empathy has repeatedly been shown to be relevant for pro-social behaviour, while a meta-analysis reported lower levels of empathy among delinquent compared to control subjects. However, most findings are based on self-reports of the ability or the willingness of persons to empathize with others. The present study measures empathy and attitudes towards empathy in a sample of incarcerated delinquent subjects and a non-delinquent control group using direct measures and a Single-Target Implicit Association Test (ST-IAT). Higher social desirability was associated with higher levels of self-reported empathy in the delinquent sample whereas the indirect measure revealed a less strong positive connotation of empathy for the delinquent group compared to the control group. In a discriminant function analysis, delinquency was predicted by lower ST-IAT scores, higher cognitive concern, and higher social desirability. Different correlational patterns of direct and indirect measures are observed for delinquent and non-delinquent subjects. Whereas differences in the indirect measure correspond to our expectations, results for the self-report measures contradict meta-analytical findings of lower levels of empathy amongst delinquent compared to control subjects. Findings are discussed with regard to effects of incarceration and conceptualization of delinquency.

Keywords: Single-Target IAT; delinquency; empathy; indirect measures; social desirability

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Differential and Personality Psychology, University of Jena, Jena, Germany

Publication date: January 1, 2009


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