How Empathy Cuts Crime

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
5 min readNov 22, 2021
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Institutions aren’t just about products and services — there are real humans involved. Whether you’re buying and selling, creating and consuming, or teaching and learning, every social transaction has subjective feelings operating at both sides. Modern industry takes this seriously, which is why you’ll often find behavioral scientists and psychologists working at major organizations.

However, the same attention to human experience isn’t present in many of our most crucial public services. Earlier this year, one research project studied the human side of criminal behavior and the way our legal system responds to it. It turns out that nurturing one simple human variable — empathy — may help to reduce criminal reoffending.

Comic from @wawawiwacomics

Empathy in the penal system

Recidivism refers to repeated criminal behavior following prior offenses, and it’s one of the biggest challenges in legal systems around the world. When we punish people for wrongdoing, our ultimate hope is that the punishment will deter future criminal behavior. But this assumption often doesn’t work out so well. The US has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world with 76.6% of released prisoners finding themselves back in handcuffs within five years.

Many of our efforts to improve the legal system focus on objective processes and efficiencies. While those questions are important, any good answer to the recidivism problem requires a human-centered focus too. For example, what emotional variables affect the probability that someone will reoffend?

Earlier this year, Jason Okonofua and his colleagues at Berkeley published a study putting human perception front and center. They specifically looked at how parole and probation officers interact with their clients.

One common mistake we all make in social interactions is to collectively blame entire groups for the offenses of single individuals. If we have a negative experience with a mechanic, we might conclude “mechanics are so frustrating”. If we discuss a political topic with a hostile adversary, we might conclude “people who vote for that party are so evil”. For parole…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: