The Relation of Empathy to Aggressive and Externalizing/Antisocial Behavior

Paul Miller, Nancy Eisenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

795 Scopus citations


A number of researchers have proposed that empathy, sympathy, or both, defined primarily in affective terms, may inhibit aggressive and antisocial behaviors (N.D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach, 1982; S. Feshbach, 1970; Parke & Slaby, 1983). Apart from brief reviews, however, no systematic review of the research concerning the relation of empathy/sympathy to aggression and other antisocial, externalizing behaviors has been conducted. In this review, we organized the relation of empathy/sympathy to relevant negative behaviors principally by mode of assessing empathy (i.e., picture/story, questionnaire methods, facial/gestural reactions, and experimental inductions) and analyzed empirical findings with meta-analytic techniques. Empathic/sympathetic responding was negatively related to aggression and antisocial, externalizing behaviors for questionnaire methods and negatively but nonsignificantly related for other indexes of empathy. Child abuse also was associated with low levels of empathy/sympathy, as was the receipt of such abuse. Relations between the empathy indexes and aggression/externalizing behaviors were generally the same for male and female subjects, especially after controlling for sample size. We discuss conceptual issues related to the pattern of findings, as well as directions for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)324-344
Number of pages21
JournalPsychological bulletin
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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