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.

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