Empathy or objectivity: The forensic examiner's dilemma?

Behav Sci Law. 2010 Sep-Oct;28(5):585-602. doi: 10.1002/bsl.953.


Examiners are ethically bound to manage personal biases that may infect their expert opinions. Empathy-related issues that lead to bias in forensic assessment of adjudicative competence arise in evaluation interactions with defendants (therapeutic empathy) and from examiners' personal views of issues that these assessments address (empathy-bias). This article first summarizes flexible adjudicative competence legal standards that invite bias by forensic experts. Then, after reviewing the therapeutic empathy issue, the article examines empathy-bias and its effects on the development of expert opinions. The authors assert that, properly managed, the often assumed dilemma between empathy and objectivity is a false one. Using case law, research psychology, and professional guidelines, the authors first emphasize that examiners must actively generate plausible alternative explanations of evaluation data as they form their opinions, not afterwards. Then the authors present a practical model to help experts develop opinions that best explain the data while minimizing empathy-bias.

Publication types

  • Legal Case

MeSH terms

  • Criminals / psychology
  • Empathy*
  • Forensic Psychiatry / standards*
  • Humans
  • Mental Competency / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Mental Competency / standards
  • Prejudice
  • United States