Empathy in infants and toddlers

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Chapter 12 endnote 38, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Human infants can comfort another infant who is in distress.

At birth, newborns cry in response to other infants crying.[1] This is an early example of body-budget synchrony.[2] When ten-month-olds watch films of a square block being mean to a circle, they reach for the injured party when they can choose to pick up one block or the other.[3] Toddlers comfort one another by patting, hugging, offering a toy, or asking "You OK?"[4][5][6]

Helping others is arousing. Two-year-old toddlers have increased peripheral nervous system arousal (measured by pupillary dilation) when they help a person, or even when they see that person being helped.[7]

Scientists debate whether this form of empathy is innate or learned,[8] but the evidence is clear that toddlers help others more (and share more) when their parents ask them to label and explain emotions that are depicted in storybooks.[9]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Martin, Grace B., and Russell D. Clark. 1982. "Distress crying in neonates: Species and peer specificity." Developmental Psychology 18 (1): 3–9.
  2. Other forms of synchrony has been shown to predict comforting in toddlers. See Cirelli, Laura K., Stephanie J. Wan, and Laurel J. Trainor. 2014. "Fourteen-month-old infants use interpersonal synchrony as a cue to direct helpfulness." Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369 (1658): 20130400.
  3. Kanakogi, Yasuhiro, Yuko Okumura, Yasuyuki Inoue, Michiteru Kitazaki, and Shoji Itakura. 2013. "Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others in Distress." PLoS ONE, 8(6): e65292.
  4. As I type this, I can't help but my daughter Sophia's two year-old voice asking "You OK?" to one of her little friends.
  5. Svetlova, Margarita, Sara R. Nichols, and Celia A. Brownell. 2010. "Toddlers’ Prosocial Behavior: From Instrumental to Empathic to Altruistic Helping." Child Development 81 (6): 1814-1827.
  6. Dunfield, Kristen A. and Valerie A. Kuhlmeier. 2013. "Classifying Prosocial Behavior: Children's Responses to Instrumental Need, Emotional Distress, and Material Desire." Child Development, 84 (5): 1766–1776.
  7. Hepach, Robert and others. 2012. "Young children are intrinsically motivated to see others helped." Psychological Science, 23 (9): 967-972.
  8. Hamlin, J. Kiley. 2013. "Moral Judgment and Action in Preverbal Infants and Toddlers: Evidence for an Innate Moral Core." Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22 (3): 186-193.
  9. Brownell, Celia A., Margarita Svetlova, Ranita Anderson, Sara R. Nichols, and Jesse Drummond. 2012. "Socialization of Early Prosocial Behavior: Parents’ Talk About Emotions is Associated With Sharing and Helping in Toddlers." Infancy, 18 (1): 91–119.