Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Young Children's Theories of Mind about Empathic and Selfish Motives

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Young Children's Theories of Mind about Empathic and Selfish Motives

Article excerpt

Young children's prosocial behaviors may be motivated by empathy. Forty-one 36-66 month-old children were actively involved with a pipe cleaner figurine play scenario. One figurine appeared distressed at an alarm sound. The other figurines simultaneously terminated the alarm, expressing either empathic or selfish motives. Twenty-four participants (58.5%) correctly pointed at the empathic and selfish figurines, and correctly restated their motives. Of these, 50% (12) consistently predicted empathic or selfish figurines' motives and actions in 3 other situations. Linear regression analyses indicated children's theories of mind about others' selfish and empathic motives predicted preferences for snack sharing with the empathic figurine (R^sup 2^ = .690, p < .001) and empathically helping a friend in distress (R^sup 2^ = .702, p < .001).

Limited evidence has been offered that prosocial acts may be motivated primarily by concern for others, rather than by fundamental concern for self. Human neonates exhibited a rudimentary response to the distress of other infants as early as two days of age (Simner, 1971). Simner found a "contagion of crying phenomenon" in which newborns responded to the cries of their peers by crying themselves. He also found that that this reflexive crying was more pronounced than when equally loud, nonhuman noises were presented, suggesting that the infant's cries were in response to the distress of another. Sagi and Hoffman (1976) replicated these findings.

Zahn-Waxler, Friedman, and Cummings (1983) observed how children responded to infants crying for their bottles. Verbal, gestural, and physical help were all common responses of children in each age/grade, which ranged from four-year-olds to sixth graders. They also found that the rates of physical help and interventions increased significantly with age.

Batson (1981) observed that helping behavior among female college students can be motivated by empathy. In a series of five experiments that systematically replicated these results, Batson, Dyck, Brandt, and Batson (1988) found evidence that empathy is a stronger motivator than two specific egoistic motivations: motivations either for avoiding punishment or gaining self-rewards such as praise, honor, or pride.

More recent research has also shown that young children may be motivated by empathy. Zahn-Waxler (1998) observed toddlers' reactions to simulated distress in their mothers. Toddlers did in turn cry and look distressed. The present study was performed to determine whether preschool-aged children recognize the difference between empathic and selfish motives for an apparent act of helping. We examined the hypothesis that children showing the ability to discern empathic and selfish motives will have developed theories of mind about empathic and selfish motives of others. Theories of mind about empathic and selfish motives, expressed by consistent predictions, were related to young children's reported preferences for: (a) sharing a snack with empathic-motivated more than with selfish-motivated play characters; and (b) helping their own friend in distress because of empathic motivation. Age and gender were predicted to interact with these variables.



Forty-one 36-66 month-old children, enrolled in university day care facilities, were interviewed about empathic and selfish motives, represented by different colored pipecleaner figurines. Participants included in the sample data set were required to demonstrate recognition of the figurines' motives. During a structured interview, participants were queried about the figurines' motives after their involvement with the pipecleaner play scenario. The criteria for inclusion were that participants accurately pointed to the figurines representing empathy and selfish motives and stated the two different motives.

Twenty-four (58.54%) of the children met criteria for inclusion. There were 11 boys and 13 girls in the sample. …

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