Babies display empathy for victims as early as 6 months

Summary: Children as young as 6 months can show empathy for victims. The findings debunk the theory that the ability to empathize only develops after one year of age.

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Babies show empathy for a bullied victim at only six months of age, according to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Hebrew University in Israel.

In a paper published in British Journal of Psychology, researchers through two experiments contributed to the debunking of the theory that babies only develop the ability to empathize after one year.

“The findings indicate that even during a baby’s first year, the infant is already sensitive to others’ feelings and can draw complicated conclusions about the context of a particular emotional display,” says Dr. Florina Uzefovsky, head of the BGU Bio-Empathy Lab, and senior lecturer in BGU’s department of psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience. “Even during the first year of life, babies are able to identify figures who “deserve” empathy and which ones do not, and if it appears that there is no justification for the other one’s distress, no preference is shown.”

In the first experiment, researchers determined that five- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate a clear pro-victim preference. They showed 27 infants two video clips depicting a square figure with eyes climb a hill, meet a circular friendly figure, then happily go down the hill together, all the while displaying clear positive or neutral feelings. In the second video, however, the same round figure hits and bullies the square figure until it goes back down the hill, showing distress by crying and doubling over.

This shows a baby
In the first experiment, researchers determined that five- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate a clear pro-victim preference. The image is in the public domain.

The researchers then had the babies show their preference by choosing one of the square figures presented to them on a tray. More than 80% of the participants chose the figure that had shown distress, thus showing empathic preference towards the bullied figure. When shown the same set of figures without the context of why there was sadness or a positive mood, the babies showed no preference for either figure.

Researchers Dr. Maayan Davidov and Yael Paz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem participated in the study.

Funding: This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation.

About this neuroscience research article

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Media Contacts:
Andrew Lavin – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Young infants are pro‐victims, but it depends on the context”. Florina Uzefovsky, Yael Paz, Maayan Davidov.
British Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjop.12402


Young infants are pro‐victims, but it depends on the context

The current study examined whether and when young infants are sensitive to distressed others, using two experiments with a forced‐choice paradigm. Experiment 1 showed that 5‐ to 9‐month‐old infants demonstrate a clear pro‐victim preference: Infants preferred a distressed character that had been physically harmed over a matched neutral character. Experiment 2 showed that infants’ preference for a distressed other is not invariable, but rather depends on the context: Infants no longer preferred the distressed character when it expressed the exact same distress but for no apparent reason. These findings have implications for the early ontogeny of human compassion and morality, addressed in the discussion.

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