Empathy Begins in Infancy

Summary: Children as young as 18 months display empathic concern towards others, marking a significant milestone in early emotional and cognitive development. The research found that children’s capacity for empathic concern grows in environments where caregivers respond sensitively to their needs, highlighting the importance of social interactions in acquiring empathy.

Furthermore, empathic concern, crucial for prosocial behavior, is shown to be a learned trait rather than innate, with developmental psychology suggesting that emotional contagion in infants is a precursor to understanding and sharing the feelings of others.

Key Facts:

  1. Early Signs of Empathy: Children exhibit signs of empathic concern by 18 months, responding to others’ distress with appropriate facial expressions, gestures, or vocalizations.
  2. Role of Caregivers: The sensitivity of caregivers significantly influences the development of empathic concern in children, underscoring empathy as a socially acquired skill.
  3. Importance for Prosocial Behavior: Empathic concern is vital for the development of prosocial behaviors, motivating children to care for others in distress.

Source: LMU

Children already exhibit empathic concern at 18 months. In an LMU study, the facial expressions, gestures, or vocalizations of children at this age indicated they were emotionally affected by the distress of another person. From a psychological standpoint, this is an important developmental step.

“To experience empathic concern, the child must be able to distinguish between the self and the other person,” says Markus Paulus, Chair of Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology at LMU. This self-concept emerges during the second year of life, as evidenced for instance by children recognizing themselves in the mirror.

This shows a toddler and a baby.
The researchers recorded signs of empathic concern in the children in playful situations at four different points in time. In the experiment, the children observed how another person had a slight accident and simulated pain. Credit: Neuroscience News

Infants are moved by the feelings of others, such as fear or grief, from an early age. Developmental psychology interprets this emotional contagion as a first step toward empathic concern. “

For empathic concern, you also have to be able to regulate the emotion and not be overwhelmed by it,” explains Markus Paulus.

Empathic concern requires not only affective resonance, but also cognitive understanding and the ability to take the perspective of the other person.

Empathic concern is acquired through social interactions

In the study, the researchers also investigated what role the behavior of caregivers plays in the ability of children to feel empathic concern for others.

They discovered that the degree of parental sensitivity is key: The more sensitively mothers responded to the needs of their infants, the greater the capacity of the children was in their second year of life to show empathic concern for a stranger. Thus, empathic concern is socially acquired.

“A child couldn’t survive without sensitive caregivers who act with empathic concern. Children learn from them how to deal with negative emotions. As a result, they are subsequently able to apply these lessons themselves,” says Markus Paulus.

As such, the study shows that empathic concern is not innate, but develops in the context of social interactions.

For the further development of the child, empathic concern is critical for prosocial behavior.

“Empathic concern helps us respond appropriately to the distress of others. It motivates us to care for them,” says co-author Tamara Becher.

For the study, a team led by Markus Paulus and Tamara Becher invited the same infants and their mothers to behavioral experiments at LMU when the children were 6, 10, 14, and 18 months old.

A total of 127 mother-child pairs were studied over a period of one-and-a-half years. The researchers recorded signs of empathic concern in the children in playful situations at four different points in time.

In the experiment, the children observed how another person had a slight accident and simulated pain. Their response was additionally compared against their behavior when they saw another person laughing.

The children were six months old at the time of their first visit and 18 months old at the time of their last one.

About this neurodevelopment and empathy research news

Author: Constanze Drewlo
Source: LMU
Contact: Constanze Drewlo – LMU
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
When do children begin to care for others? The ontogenetic growth of empathic concern across the first two years of life” by Markus Paulus et al. Cognitive Development


When do children begin to care for others? The ontogenetic growth of empathic concern across the first two years of life

Empathic concern for others plays a central role for human cooperation and is proposed to be key in moral development.

Developmental theories disagree on the age of emergence of empathic concern in human ontogeny and the factors supporting its early development.

To assess different theoretical views, the current study longitudinally assessed infants’ (N = 127) reactions towards an experimenter and their mothers simulating pain at 6, 10, 14, and 18 months. As an emotional control condition, infants’ reactions towards a laughing experimenter were assessed.

Maternal sensitivity, children’s temperamental emotionality, and self-recognition were included as predictors. True intraindividual change models were applied to capture the growth of empathic concern in early development.

Overall, there were minor and inconsistent differences in children’s responses to laughing and crying others in the first year of life, whereas clear differences emerged in the second year.

At 6 months, scale values of empathic concern were significantly related to measures of infant distress suggesting that infants experience emotional contagion and not veridical empathic concern.

At 18 months, children’s concern towards the experimenter was related to their concern towards their mother.

Maternal sensitivity, negative emotionality and self-recognition were related to children’s empathic concern within the second year.

These findings suggest that empathic concern emerges in the second year and point to a gradual emergence of concern for others in human ontogeny.

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