Is Empathy Learned--or Are We Born with It?

Twenty-three years ago, my husband and I were strolling with our toddler on the steamy streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where we were taking a time-out before diving into our careers. At eighteen months, Zai was toddling ahead of us, and I watched as an elderly woman approached her, cupped hands outstretched, in the universal request for food or money. I held my breath as Zai offered the woman her most precious possession: her stuffed kitty. I did not want to interfere with Zai’s gesture of compassion—but the kitty was her security object. Empathy—a concern for others—is present in children from the beginning but not much has been known about how it unfolds early in life. Studies of newborn babies show that they cry more to the sounds of other babies’ cries of distress than they do to equally loud sounds of other types or even to recordings of their own crying. Psychologists believed that while this reaction foreshadows later empathy and suggests a hard-wired orienting to other people’s feelings, empathic distress throughout the first year of life was a more contagious, reactive, egocentric kind of response. Upset in others simply triggered, or got merged with, a baby’s own feelings of anxiety or fear.

Empathy in Children: The New Research

Until recently, researchers believed that true empathy doesn’t emerge in children until the second year of life, after 12 months of age, when a more separate sense of self begins to be consolidated. Psychologists believed that to accurately appraise how another person feels required greater cognitive complexity. Children needed to be able to separate what others might be feeling from their own internal experience. But three researchers were interested to see whether true empathy might actually be evident earlier, in the first year of life: Israelis Ronit Roth-Hanania at The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and Maayan Davidov at The Hebrew University, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Roth-Hanania, Davidov, and Zahn-Waxler went into the homes of 37 mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class infants from eight to 16 months and set up three distressing situations:

  1. The mother pretended to hit her finger with a toy hammer and be upset for one minute (and she avoided eye contact with her child in this minute so as to not bias the child’s response).
  2. The mother walked toward the baby and pretended to bump her knee, again showing distress for one minute (and again without making eye contact).
  3. The baby was shown a video of another baby crying for one minute.

All of the infants showed genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways. The younger babies’ feelings of concern for their mothers’ pain registered on their faces, from a fleetingly furrowed brow to sustained looks of sadness. Many cooed or made other sympathetic sounds. As the babies tried to figure out what had happened, their glances bounced from the hurt body part up to the mother’s face and back.  Some made questioning sounds, or they looked to the face of another adult for interpretation.

In the first two scenarios, the older babies, who were more mobile and physically coordinated, added behavioral attempts to comfort and help, softly patting their mothers and making soothing sounds. The 16-month-olds made the most physical attempts to help, by far.  In comparison, the video evoked very few responses in all of the babies, showing that they no longer have the reflexive, contagious upset of the newborn, and that they are beginning to tell the difference between situations they can do something about and those they cannot.

Empathy and Gender: Is There a Difference?

Of course, some babies were more empathic than others, and those personality differences were fairly stable from ten months through 16 months. In this study, there were no sex differences in expressions of empathy. Other studies have found mixed results in babyhood, and more consistent differences seem to show up later in middle childhood when more girls than boys express their concern for others.

Parenting for Empathy: What Is Our Role?

Carolyn Zahn-Waxler speaks at TEDxGoldenGateED on June 11, 2011.

Zahn-Waxler, who has studied children’s emotional lives for decades, says that parents often miss expressions of kindness in their babies, even in the presence of the experimenters who are recording the child’s empathic expressions at that very moment. In the flow of everyday life, tantrums, conflicts and other demands can obscure more gentle behaviors, and adults may start reinforcing achievement-related skills over helping behaviors in the preschool years.

Teaching empathy and compassion has become a big focus among progressive schools. These studies suggest that perhaps kindness doesn’t need to be taught anew as much as supported more continuously from an early age. Children’s empathy seems inborn, a gift that is ours as a society to lose depending on how we react to these earliest overtures.

As for Zai and her kitty, the old woman responded by gently guiding Zai’s laden hands back to her chest as if to say, “Thank you. I appreciate your offer, and I see that you are just a child. You keep your treasure.” Children’s kindness often brings out the best in adults.