Evaluator Empathy in Risk Assessment Interviews



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This study examined evaluator differences in the use of reflective empathy in forensic assessment and the association between empathy and evaluator opinions in a risk assessment case. Participants were 200 experienced forensic evaluators who read excerpts of a parole risk assessment interview transcript. Throughout the interview, participants chose the next question that they would ask the evaluee. In 12 of these instances, they were asked to choose between a question that included reflective empathy and one without reflective empathy. At the end of the interview, they provided ratings of the evaluee’s level of risk for recidivism and future violence and appropriateness for parole. Participants also provided ratings on their perceptions of the evaluee and were asked a series of questions regarding their attitudes towards and use of empathy in forensic assessment. Across analyses, there was clear support for three subgroups of evaluators based on their use of reflective empathy: low empathy (n = 92), moderate empathy (n = 86), and high empathy (n = 22). High empathy evaluators rated reflective empathy techniques as more appropriate than those in the low and moderate empathy classes. Low empathy evaluators were more likely to report they were trained to avoid empathy and were more likely to report they purposefully avoided conveying empathy in forensic evaluations. Low empathy evaluators were also more likely to report that using empathy forensic assessment is unethical. Evaluators in the high and moderate empathy classes rated their overall understanding of the hypothetical evaluee’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and situation as higher than those in low empathy class, but evaluator empathy was not strongly associated with opinions about the offender’s risk or need for supervision. Overall, findings indicate experienced forensic evaluators may differ notably in their use of empathy and their opinions regarding empathy’s appropriateness in forensic assessment.



Empathy, Evaluator differences, Forensic assessment, Risk assessment