, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 127-139

Interrelations of empathy, cognition, and moral reasoning with dimensions of juvenile delinquency

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The interrelations of a variety of indices of sociocognitive development (empathy, role-taking, logical cognition, and moral reasoning) were studied in delinquent and nondelinquent adolescents. Delinquent males (grouped into psychopathic, neurotic, and subcultural subgroups) and a matched nondelinquent comparison group were administered individually two empathy scales (the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index and the Mehrabian and Epstein Questionnaire Measure of Emotional Empathy), an adaptation of Byrne's and Flavell's role-taking tasks, two Piagetian cognitive tasks, and two of Kohlberg's structured moral dilemmas. Delinquents as a group displayed significantly more immature modes of role-taking, logical cognition, and moral reasoning than did nondelinquents. The delinquent subgroups, however, did not significantly differ from one another on these dimensions. Role-taking, logical cognition, and moral reasoning were significantly related to one another. Anticipated differences in level of empathy between the delinquent and nondelinquent adolescents failed to occur. A number of interpretations for this unexpected finding are offered.

This study is based on a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Texas at Austin (Lee, 1983) and presented in part at the meetings of the Western Psychological Association, San Jose, April 1985, and the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development, Tours, France, July 1985. Appreciation is expressed to James Bieri, Edward T. Emmer, Guy J. Manaster, Philip M. Powell, and Robert K. Young for constructive suggestions at various phases of the study.
Delinquents were drawn from the Brownwood (Texas) State School through the cordial collaboration of Adrian Moore, Director of Planning, Research, and Evaluation of the Texas Youth Commission. The support of Cary Cockerell, superintendent at the Brownwood State School, and Dann Barger, superintendent at the Statewide Reception Center, and their staff was also instrumental in securing delinquents. Nondelinquents were obtained through the cooperation of Jack Allison, principal of the Travis High School, Austin, Texas, and his staff. Freda M. Holley, Director of the Office of Research and Evaluation, Austin Independent School District, and her staff are thanked for their assistance in obtaining these subjects.
The contributions of Danny Escobar and of Ping-Fong Chu in scoring protocols is gratefully acknowledged.