The (non)relation between empathy and aggression: surprising results from a meta-analysis

Psychol Bull. 2014 May;140(3):751-73. doi: 10.1037/a0035236. Epub 2013 Dec 23.


Assumptions regarding the importance of empathy are pervasive. Given the impact these assumptions have on research, assessment, and treatment, it is imperative to know whether they are valid. Of particular interest is a basic question: Are deficits in empathy associated with aggressive behavior? Previous attempts to review the relation between empathy and aggression yielded inconsistent results and generally included a small number of studies. To clarify these divergent findings, we comprehensively reviewed the relation of empathy to aggression in adults, including community, student, and criminal samples. A mixed effects meta-analysis of published and unpublished studies involving 106 effect sizes revealed that the relation between empathy and aggression was surprisingly weak (r = -.11). This finding was fairly consistent across specific types of aggression, including verbal aggression (r = -.20), physical aggression (r = -.12), and sexual aggression (r = -.09). Several potentially important moderators were examined, although they had little impact on the total effect size. The results of this study are particularly surprising given that empathy is a core component of many treatments for aggressive offenders and that most psychological disorders of aggression include diagnostic criteria specific to deficient empathic responding. We discuss broad conclusions, consider implications for theory, and address current limitations in the field, such as reliance on a small number of self-report measures of empathy. We highlight the need for diversity in measurement and suggest a new operationalization of empathy that may allow it to synchronize with contemporary thinking regarding its role in aggressive behavior.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Self Report
  • Violence / psychology*