How empathy unfolds
1 The moment Hope, just nine months old, saw another baby fall, tears welled up in her own eyes and she crawled off to be comforted by her mother, as though it were she who had been hurt. And 15-month-old Michael went to get his own teddy bear for his crying friend Paul; when Paul kept crying, Michael retrieved Paul's security blanket for him. Both these small acts of sympathy and caring were observed by mothers trained to record such incidents of empathy in action. The results of the study suggest that the roots of empathy can be traced to infancy. Virtually from the day they are born infants are upset when they hear another infant crying – a response some see as the earliest precursor of empathy.
2 Developmental psychologists have found that infants feel sympathetic distress even before they fully realize that they exist apart from other people. Even a few months after birth, infants react to a disturbance in those around them as though it were their own, crying when they see another child's tears. By one year or so, they start to realize the misery is not their own but someone else's, though they still seem confused over what to do about it. In research by Martin L. Hoffman at New York University, for example, a oneyear-old brought his own mother over to comfort a crying friend, ignoring the friend's mother, who was also in the room. This confusion is seen too when one-year-olds imitate the distress of someone else, possibly to better comprehend what they are feeling; for example, if another baby hurts her fingers, a one-year-old might put her own fingers in her mouth to see if she hurts, too. On seeing his mother cry, one baby wiped his own eyes, though they had no tears.
3 Such motor mimicry, as it is called, is the original technical sense of the word empathy as it was first used in the 1920s by E. B. Titchener, an American psychologist. Titchener's theory was that empathy stemmed from a sort of physical imitation of the distress of another, which then evokes the same feelings in oneself. He sought a word that would be distinct from sympathy, which can
be felt for the general plight of another with no sharing whatever of what that other person is feeling.
4 Motor mimicry fades from toddlers' repertoire at around two and a half years, at which point they realize that someone else's pain is different from their own, and are better able to comfort them. A typical incident, from a mother's diary:
5 A neighbor's baby cries and Jenny approaches and tries to give him some cookies. She follows him around and begins to whimper to herself. She then tries to stroke his hair, but he pulls away … He calms down, but Jenny still looks worried. She continues to bring him toys and to pat his head and shoulders.
6 At this point in their development toddlers begin to diverge from one another in their overall sensitivity to other people's emotional upsets, with some, like Jenny, keenly aware and others tuning out. A series of studies by Marian Radke-Yarrow and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler at the National Institute of Mental Health showed that a large part of this difference in empathic concern had to do with how parents disciplined their children. Children, they found, were more empathic when the discipline included calling strong attention to the distress their misbehaviour caused someone else: "Look how sad you've made her feel" instead of "That was naughty". They found too that children's empathy is also shaped by seeing how others react when someone else is distressed; by imitating what they see, children develop a repertoire of empathic response, especially in helping other people who are distressed.