Empathy as a mediator between physical punishment experiences and aggressive attitudes towards children and animals

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Holens, Pamela Luanne
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Violence in the form of physical abuse has serious and harmful effects on both the short- and long-term development of children (e.g., Aber & Allen, 1987; Cicchetti & Beeghly, 1987). Research has shown that the majority of reported cases of childhood abuse started out as legally permissible forms of corporal punishment that subsequently escalated to abusive levels (Zigler & Hall, 1989). Particularly concerning is evidence that suggests that attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours related to the physical punishment of children are passed on from generation to generation in an endless cycle (e.g., Covell, Crusec, & King, 1995). The purpose of this study was to explore the development of aggressive attitudes in individuals who were physically punished in childhood by examining a potential mediating variable--empathy--using Davis' Organizational Model for the Study of Empathy. The study also explored the generalizability of Davis' model to aggressive attitudes directed toward animals. Results of the study indicated trends suggesting that physical punishment experiences act to decrease empathy for others and increase attitudes of aggression. The model was not shown to strongly generalize to aggressive attitudes directed towards animals.