Crime, Empathy, and the Adolescent Experience

Stealing a car requires planning. You need to learn how to get into and start a car without a key, do your best to not be seen, and have a place to take it – even if that’s just a joy ride. So, what stops any one of us from doing this? Is it just a lack of skill in picking locks? Trepidation about law enforcement? Or something else?

As we grow up, we learn our society’s norms and laws about what is okay to do, and for the most part, we follow the rules. Once we enter our teenage years, however, most of us begin to exhibit more antisocial behavior. That is, things that go against the grain of society. Most of the time it’s just harmless mischief, but occasionally, it’s more serious crime.

According to the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, boys commit more than twice as many crimes as girls. But what causes this gender gap? New research out of the University of Washington may have an answer: empathy. This is a skill that requires emotional intelligence and the ability – and willingness – to consider the future.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share other people’s feelings, and to recognize and predict other people’s emotions. It helps us think about how our actions might be viewed by others, and according to research, having more empathy leads to fewer criminal behaviors.

So, if you’re planning to steal a car, your future-facing empathy will pop into this decision-making process. The would-be car thief might at least briefly consider, “What would Mom think?”

Adolescent boys, however, have problems with their empathy development. Boys lag behind girls in this regard, and according to the study “Adolescence, Empathy, and the Gender Gap in Delinquency,” this may be part of what leads adolescent boys to commit more crimes like theft and fraud. Normally, empathy develops across adolescence, leveling out by adulthood. But for boys, adherence to a strict idea of what it means to be a man slows their empathic development.

Importantly, this empathy gap isn’t inborn but slowly emerges after about 10 years old. Before then, boys and girls develop at the same rate. But at around the 10-year mark, boys are internalizing strict gender roles, and they begin to emulate what they think it means to be masculine. Empathy is seen as a feminine trait, so while these gender norms encourage empathic behaviors in girls and women, they also unfortunately discourage it in boys and men. By the time they hit puberty, the gender gap in empathy doubles.

If delinquency is really grounded in culturally normative ideas of masculinity, it may be difficult to see the path forward. But Kate O’Neill, the researcher on this project, has an idea. Kate is a former criminal justice practitioner who taught anger management to male offenders. She says that despite what many interventions have attempted, our best bet is not to try to make empathy a “manly” trait.

“Not only is this ineffective, [but it also] reinforces the idea that there are narrow pathways towards feeling comfortable and secure in one’s gender identity,” says O’Neill.

Instead, she says that healthy emotional expression, especially empathy, needs to be presented as something “available and commendable for everyone.” This would mean pulling away from the focus on masculine versus feminine traits and instead opening the conversation to talk about human universals. To stop adolescent boys from offending at such high rates, we need to start considering empathy an important skill we should all foster.



OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. (2019). Estimated number of arrests by offense and age group. Available: Released on November 16, 2020.

O’Neill, K. K. (2020). Adolescence, Empathy, and the Gender Gap in Delinquency. Feminist Criminology, 15(4), 410–437.