Child Maltreatment, Empathy, and Memory: A Longitudinal Study (2015-16)

Empathy is often considered foundational to moral development. A lack of empathy interferes with conscience development and promotes aggressive behavior. This project aims to obtain pilot data on child maltreatment, empathy, and memory for federal and foundation grant applications.

PI: Gail Goodman, Psychology

Collaborators: Camelia Hostinar, Psychology/Center for Poverty Research; Donna Shestowsky, School of Law; Anthony Urquiza, School of Medicine


Update (October 2017):

Since receiving ISS seed funding in 2015-16, Gail Goodman and her fellow researchers have collected data from approximately 130 adults. These subjects derive from Dr. Goodman’s ongoing longitudinal study of over 700 children (now adults) in Chicago who had been removed from home in the 1990s for investigation of child abuse and neglect. The collected data relates to empathy, attachment, psychopathology, and childhood abuse. The empathy element of the survey was conducted by telephone, and the researchers are currently developing a coding system for those data.

Grant proposals related to this project have been submitted to the Templeton Foundation and the National Institute of Justice. A further proposal was solicited by another federal agency; that proposal will be developed and completed soon. Beyond this specific project, ISS seed funding has been instrumental in advancing Dr. Goodman’s ongoing longitudinal study.


Empathy plays an essential role in interpersonal relations, including in early attachment between primary caregivers and children, and caring for the well-being of others. A lack of empathy is a definitional feature of psychopathy (antisocial tendencies). A psychopathological lack of empathy is associated with callous disregard for the well-being of others, guiltlessness, and little appreciation of moral wrongdoing.

The project advances psychological theory (e.g. childhood trauma effects on empathy and memory) and legal/mental health application (e.g. deficits in empathy underlying psychopathology and criminal behavior). The timing for federal and foundation funding is particularly ripe, but pilot data are needed.

The proposed research builds on a longitudinal study of over 700 children in Chicago who had been removed from home in the 1990s for investigation of child abuse and neglect. At that time, permission was obtained by the Illinois Juvenile Court and Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to examine the children’s memory, mental health (especially trauma-related psychopathology), intelligence, suggestibility, cortisol response, and other physiological indices. The children’s DCFS records and forensic evaluations were also collected. The children had been removed from home and were being evaluated in a special medical/forensic unit.

The study was funded by the Administration on Children and Families and resulted in numerous publications. The data are unique: There is much more of great importance that we can learn from this sample. Twenty years later, with funding from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Goodman’s research team is re-contacting the participants, now young adults. The currently funded project examines techniques to obtain the most complete and accurate memories of childhood events from these adults given histories of childhood trauma. Building on this funding, we seek to apply for multiple federal grants to permit us to explore a wide range of theoretical and applied questions of substantial societal importance.