Criminality, cognitive distortions, empathy, and legitimacy of laws: Behaviors and perspectives of youth offenders

Marie S. Tisak, Sara E. Goldstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The purpose of the present study was to examine links between thinking about criminal behavior and committing criminal behavior This research investigated youth offenders’ participation in aggravated and simple assault and whether their involvement was associated with different aspects of social thinking (i.e., egocentric and victim blaming biases, ability to empathize, and beliefs about the legitimacy of creating laws prohibiting criminal behaviors). We also examined the impact of gender in these associations. The participants were 251 youth offenders (158 males; 93 females) who were incarcerated in a juvenile center. There were several consistent and predictable results based on gender. For example, females, in comparison to males, reported that it was legitimate to create laws prohibiting violent and non-violent behaviors, and displayed more dimensions of empathy than males. There were also findings that were consistent across gender. For instance, empathic youth were more likely to believe in the legitimacy of the government to create laws. Results also indicated that youth were at the greatest risk for committing aggravated assault when they believed it unacceptable for the government to create laws and their cognitive distortion was high. In contrast, youth who believed it relatively acceptable for the government to make laws showed a lower likelihood of committing aggravated assault, even when cognitive distortion was high. Thus, the current data suggest that beliefs about the legitimacy of creating law appears to be stronger in predicting criminal behavior than cognitive distortion alone.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7049-7059
Number of pages11
JournalCurrent Psychology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • Cognitions
  • Criminality
  • Distortion in thinking
  • Empathy


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