In the present study, we found that parental care and control factors in childhood and adolescence had a significantly greater influence on the empathy of offenders than parental encouragement factor. In addition, regarding the paternal and maternal parenting styles, the predictive model of parental care factors on the empathy of the offender had similar patterns, while there were differences between the predictive patterns of paternal and maternal parental control factors on the empathy of offenders. Moreover, the present study revealed that there were different associations between parental care and control factors with offenders’ empathy when the parenting styles were consistent or inconsistent, and the most interesting result was that the parental control factor had a special influence on the empathy of offenders. Although the results of a single study are far from conclusive, our study offers new avenues for exploring and understanding the associations between different parenting styles and empathy of individuals.
Our hypothesis was based on the fact that empathy had usually been divided into cognitive empathy and affective empathy in previous studies [23, 44]. Perspective taking and fantasy were used to measure cognitive empathy, and empathic concern and personal distress were used to measure affective empathy [24–26]. Based on regression analyses, the present study found that the three different parenting style factors in childhood and adolescence had different influences on the cognitive and affective empathy of offenders. On the one hand, paternal and maternal care had a significant influence on the individual's cognitive empathy, including perspective taking and fantasy, but a weaker influence on affective empathy, i.e., influenced empathic concern only. On the other hand, maternal control had a significant influence on an individual’s cognitive empathy, including perspective taking and fantasy, while paternal control had a significant influence on affective empathy, including empathic concern and personal distress of offenders. Moreover, only maternal encouragement had a significant predictive influence on the perspective taking of offenders. Several previous studies have revealed that parental care and control have significant influences on empathy of individuals but less attention has been paid to parental encouragement [45, 46]. However, several studies have found that parental encouragement has no significant influence on the empathy of individuals [34, 36]. Based on the regression results, parental care and control factors had a more significant impact on an individual's empathy than the encouragement factor. Therefore, we will pay more attention to the associations between parental care and control factors with offenders’ ability to empathize in the subsequent discussion.
To further examine the associations between parental care and control factors in childhood and adolescence with the empathy of offenders, we divided parental care and control into three groups, namely, high, medium and low, to compare the differences in the four empathy items with the three different degrees of parenting style factors. In addition, the ANOVA showed that there were significant differences in cognitive and affective empathy with different degrees of paternal and maternal care factors. High levels of parental care had a positive predictive effect on cognitive empathy (i.e., perspective taking and fantasy) compared with low levels of parental care. There was also a significant influence on affective empathy, which was characterized by higher empathic concern and lower personal distress. Reti et al. (2002) and Britton et al. (2005) suggested that parental care may be positively associated with perspective taking and empathic concern, and the results of this study are consistent with this conclusion [46, 47]. One study found that paternal care influenced affective empathy and maternal care related to cognitive empathy in men, while none of the parental care variables were related to cognitive empathy in women . This study revealed that both paternal and maternal care influenced affective and cognitive empathy among male offenders. It may be that most offenders have experienced a poor family of origin environment in childhood and adolescence, and these individual's empathy is more sensitive to parental care [7, 17, 18]. There were also significant differences in cognitive and affective empathy associated with different degrees of paternal and maternal control factors. Parental control had a significant influence on affective empathy with a negative predictive effect on empathic concern and a positive predictive effect on personal distress. As with many previous studies, parental control during adolescence has been proven to have a negative predictive effect on an individual's empathic concern; in addition, one study revealed that parental control had no significant association with the empathic concern of individuals, although perceived parental control had a significant predictive effect on individual's empathic concern . The ANOVA results showed that higher and lower parental control had a positive influence on cognitive empathy and that medium parental control had a negative predictive effect on cognitive empathy. Asano et al. (2016) revealed that parental control and perceived parental control during early adolescence directly increased perspective taking . McElroy and Rodriguez (2008) provided support that parental control in childhood had a significantly negative association with perspective taking . Our study revealed that the degree of parental control is very important and that either high or low levels of parental control may promote the development of offenders’ cognitive empathy; high levels of parental control may have a greater promoting effect.
The growth of most individuals in the family of origin environment is influenced by both fathers and mothers, while previous studies have paid little attention to the influences on the empathy of individuals when the paternal and maternal parenting styles are consistent or inconsistent in the family of origin [17, 20, 34]. The present study also divided paternal and maternal care and control factors into three degrees, i.e., high, medium and low, to observe whether there were significant differences in the empathy of offenders when the paternal and maternal parenting styles were consistent or inconsistent. When the paternal and maternal parenting styles were consistent, parental care had a positive predictive effect on cognitive empathy. There were also significant differences in affective empathy, which manifested as higher empathic concern and lower fantasy. The theory is consistent with the pattern of influence of paternal and maternal care on offenders’ empathy revealed earlier in this study. Paternal and maternal care factors, separately or together, had an influence on offenders’ cognitive and affective empathy, and there were the same predictive trends for both types of empathy. As in some previous studies, parental care refers to a warm parenting style and has been revealed to have a positive effect on the empathy of individuals [29, 50]. Parlar et al. (2014) provided support that higher levels of paternal care on the PBI were predictive of higher scores on the perspective taking subscale of the IRI . The indulgent parenting style, which mainly involves parental care, has been proven to have a significant predictive effect on higher empathy, but the study did not reveal specific influences on cognitive and affective empathy . Parental control had a significant influence on affective empathy but had no significant influence on cognitive empathy of the offenders. Empathic concern and personal distress showed opposite trends with different degrees of parental control, and this pattern was consistent with the trends associated with paternal and maternal control. When the paternal and maternal parenting styles were inconsistent, perspective taking and personal distress were significantly different based on the different levels of paternal and maternal control. This means that parental control had a significant predictive effect on the cognitive and affective empathy of the offenders with a larger effect on cognitive empathy. Furthermore, the results revealed that paternal and maternal control had different influencing patterns on offenders’ empathy when the parenting style was consistent or inconsistent. Parental control usually refers to strictness or authoritarian parenting style and has been found to be associated with the empathy of individuals [36, 37]. However, few studies have paid attention to the influences on cognitive and affective empathy; meanwhile, these studies have not discussed the effects on empathy when the degree of paternal and maternal control was consistent or inconsistent. It should be noted that the parenting style consists of paternal and maternal rearing styles, and previous studies have supported the notion that fathers and mothers may have different rearing attitudes regarding the development of individuals [3, 11, 20]. It should also be noted that the family of origin environment for particular populations (e.g., a group of offenders) is generally dysfunctional, and family members including the father and mother may have had some bad habits and perhaps a history of antisocial behavior or criminal history . This may lead to different parenting attitudes and styles of parents regarding individuals during periods of growth (e.g., childhood and adolescence). The paternal and maternal care and control factors may have differential influences on empathy of offenders in these developmental periods, and the effects of inconsistent or consistent patterns of paternal and maternal parenting styles on offenders’ empathy are different.
Strengths and limitations
The present study is one of the few studies exploring the associations between different degrees of parenting style factors experienced in childhood and adolescence and cognitive and affective empathy among offenders. Our finding that different paternal and maternal style factors had different predictive effects on the empathy of offenders is interesting, and the results revealed that parental care and control had a more significant influence on an individual’s empathy than parental encouragement. Previous studies have focused more attention on the influences of overall parenting style on individuals and did not examine the influence of the three parenting style factors [6–8]. The most important finding was that different degrees of paternal and maternal care and control factors had different associations with the cognitive and affective empathy of offenders. Based on whether the paternal and maternal parenting styles were consistent or inconsistent, parental control also had different predictive effects on the cognitive and affective empathy of offenders.
However, our study also has some limitations. First, the study sample in the present study was limited to male offenders, and it is unclear whether or how gender may impact empathy. Some studies have supported the view that women are more empathic than men, and our future research should also recruit subjects of different genders [51, 52]. Furthermore, information on the parenting style experienced by the offenders mainly came from the questionnaire regarding the recall of parental rearing before the age of 16. There may have been recall bias, and the information collected in the present study may not be sufficient to fully characterize the experienced parental rearing patterns. A longitudinal study is needed to establish the impact of different paternal and maternal rearing styles on the development of empathy. Finally, this association needs to be further studied in other populations, such as students at different stages. These associations were investigated in a specific population of prison inmates because the participants in the study were more likely to have deficits in empathy and to have experienced poor parental rearing styles in the family of origin; the associations between different degrees of parental style factors with cognitive and affective empathy may differ from those in the general population[1, 53].