Creating a Psychologically Comfortable Position: The Link Between Empathy and Cognitions in Sex Offenders

Sarah J. Brown, Kate Walker, T.A. Gannon, K. Keown

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    13 Citations (Scopus)


    To examine the links between empathy and cognitions, 50 interview transcripts were analysed from a sample of male sex offenders who had abused children and were recruited from four prisons in the North Island of New Zealand. Thematic analysis revealed an overarching framework where participants appeared to create ‘Psychologically Comfortable Positions’ that enabled them to offend. The main themes identified were: Complete Denial, Partial Denial, Justifications: Beliefs and Attitudes to Support Offending Behaviour, Excuses: Ignoring the Perspectives of Others, and Taking Responsibility for Own Actions. These findings suggest that rather than viewing empathy as a trait-like process equally applied to all situations/people by each person in line with their empathic abilities, it would be better construed as a construct that is variously applied (i.e., it may be blocked by the presence of psychologically comfortable cognitions)..This has implications for the way in which empathy is addressed in sex offender treatment programmes, as most work to improve empathic skills, which appears to conceptualise empathy as a trait-like skill or concept. The findings of this study would suggest that an increase in empathic skills will not necessarily have an impact on future offending as cognitions in the form of denial, minimisation, excuse making and justification are likely to prevent the application of empathic responses
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)275-294
    JournalJournal of Sexual Aggression
    Issue number3
    Early online date11 Dec 2012
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


    • Empathy
    • victim empathy
    • sex offender empathy deficits
    • sex offender cognition


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