Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

The Role of Social Understanding and Empathic Disposition in Young Children's Responsiveness to Distress in Parents and Peers

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

The Role of Social Understanding and Empathic Disposition in Young Children's Responsiveness to Distress in Parents and Peers

Article excerpt


The second year of life marks the beginning of empathic responsiveness to others' distress, a hallmark of human interaction. We examined the role of social understanding (self-other understanding and emotion understanding) and empathic disposition in individual differences in 12- to 24-month olds' responses to mothers' and an unfamiliar infant peer's distress (N = 71). Results reveal associations between empathic responsiveness to distressed mother and crying infant peer, suggesting that individual differences in prosocial motivation may exist right from the outset, when the ability to generate an empathic, prosocial response first emerges. We further found that above and beyond such dispositional characteristics (and age), children with more advanced social understanding were more empathically responsive to a peer's distress. However, responses to mothers' distress were explained by children's empathic disposition only, and not by their social understanding. Thus, as early as the second year of life some children are dispositionally more inclined to empathy regardless of who is in distress, whether mother or peer. At the same time, emotion understanding and self-other understanding appear to be especially important for explaining individual differences in young children's empathic responsiveness to a peer's distress.

KEYWORDS: empathy, prosocial behavior, emotion understanding, toddlers, peers.

The role of social understanding and empathic disposition in young children's responsiveness to distress in parents and peers

Caring about others enough to intervene to reduce their pain or sorrow and to increase their well-being, i.e., to help, share with, and minister to others, is one of the bedrocks of human morality and civilization. Our emotions connect us to one another, but it is our caring about others' emotions and needs that promotes interpersonal bonds. When and how does compassionate caring arise, and what influences children to become more, or less, empathic and prosocial? Individual differences in empathic responsiveness toward others can be observed even in its earliest manifestations (Gill & Calkins, 2003; Spinrad & Stifter, 2006; van der Mark, van IJzendoorn, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2002; Young, Fox, & Zahn- Waxler, 1999; Zahn-Waxler, Robinson, & Emde, 1992). Beginning in the middle of the second year, some toddlers become distressed when they encounter someone else who is upset, some appear genuinely concerned about the other person and even sometimes try to help or comfort them, and some are unaffected. When a sibling or peer is distressed some youngsters are additionally amused, and may go so far as to further aggravate the situation, exacerbating the other child's distress (Demetriou & Hay, 2004; Dunn & Munn, 1986). In the current study we examined sources of individual differences in early prosocial orientation during this formative second year of life.

Because the capacity for empathy is both a developmental universal in humans and a dimensional trait that varies among adults, there are two ways to interpret such early-appearing individual differences. One possibility is that at any given age some children are ahead of others normatively. Toddlers who are more likely to exhibit concern for others' well-being may be more developmentally advanced than others their age, essentially functioning like an older child, whereas those who become distressed themselves or who ignore the plight of others may be less mature. In this case, the presumed correlates of developing empathy that are also developmental universals, such as emotion and internal state understanding, autonomous self-regulation, representational change, and the like, would be expected to be more mature in the former children and less so in the latter. We call this possibility the developmental hypothesis.

Another possibility is that individuals differ from one another in a more global empathic disposition, with some individuals more likely than others to respond empathically to another person in distress, regardless of age. …

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