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Executive functioning as a predictive measure of offending behaviour

Karin A. Spenser (University of Derby, Derby, UK)
Ray Bull (University of Derby, Derby, UK)
Lucy Betts (Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Belinda Winder (Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)

Journal of Criminal Psychology

ISSN: 2009-3829

Article publication date: 4 January 2019

Issue publication date: 13 March 2019




Prosociality is considered important in the study of offenders and associated cognitive skills: theory of mind, empathic understanding and moral reasoning, are said to enable self-control and reduce the risk of offending behaviours. Previous research has made associations between these skills and executive functioning; however, research into a link between them, in an offending population, is limited. The paper aims to discuss this issue.


To further understand the practicalities of this, the present study considered the predictive abilities of the constructs believed to underpin executive functioning: working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control, in relation to theory of mind, empathic understanding and moral reasoning. In total, 200 male and female offenders completed measures in all six constructs.


Using path analysis working memory was demonstrated to be predictive of theory of mind and empathic understanding, cognitive flexibility was found to be predictive of theory of mind, and inhibitory control was found to be predictive of theory of mind, empathic understanding and moral reasoning.

Research limitations/implications

The study focussed on offenders serving a custodial sentence of six months or less and did not differentiate between crime categories or take into consideration the socio-environmental backgrounds or ethnicity. Therefore, considering these things could further establish the generalisability of the current findings. It is noted that the more focussed the intervention is to the specific needs of an offender, the greater the impact will be. Therefore, pre-screening tests for the constructs discussed may be able to more accurately assess an offenders’ suitability for a programme, or indeed tailor it to meet the specific needs of that person.

Practical implications

These findings may enable practitioners to more accurately assess offenders’ suitability for interventions aimed at reducing offending behaviours by improving levels of prosociality and develop more focussed programmes to meet the specific needs of individual offenders to reduce re-offending.

Social implications

As recommended in the study, a more tailored approach to offender rehabilitation may be a potential aid to reducing levels of recidivism.


The present study adds to the literature as it is the first to consider whether the constructs of executive functioning can predict levels of theory of mind, empathic understanding and moral reasoning and so provide a more accurate method in assessing the cognitive abilities of offenders prior to participation in rehabilitative interventions.



Spenser, K.A., Bull, R., Betts, L. and Winder, B. (2019), "Executive functioning as a predictive measure of offending behaviour", Journal of Criminal Psychology, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 10-22.



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