Dec 13 / Simcha

How Do Children Develop Empathy? (P. Klass)

Detail, NYTimes illustration: Joyce Hesselberth

A popular nature-vs-nurture discussion in recent months focuses on how children develop “prosocial behavior,” the capacity to notice the distress of others and to be moved by it.  In the following selection from a longer article in the NYTimes (12.10.12), Dr. Perri Klass examines the research on “how and why we become our better selves.”

Twin studies have suggested that there is some genetic component to prosocial tendencies. When reacting to an adult who is pretending to be distressed, for example, identical twins behave more like each other than do fraternal twins. And as children grow up, these early manifestations of sympathy and empathy become part of complex decision-making and personal morality.

“There is some degree of heritability,” said Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a senior research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has done some of these twin studies. But she notes that the effect is small: “There is no gene for empathy, there is no gene for altruism. What’s heritable may be some personality characteristics.”

Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, described two broad theories to explain prosocial behavior. One, he said, was essentially motivational: It feels good to help other people. Economists have also looked at the question of altruism, and have hypothesized about a “warm glow effect” to account for charitable giving.

Experimental studies have shown that the same brain region that is activated when people win money for themselves is active when they give to charity – that is, that there is a kind of neurologic “reward” built into the motivational system of the brain.

“Charitable giving can activate the same pleasure-reward centers, the dopaminergic centers, in the brain that are very closely tied to habit formation,” said Bill Harbaugh, an economist at the University of Oregon who studies altruism. “This suggests it might be possible to foster the same sorts of habits for charitable giving you see with other sorts of habits.”

The other theory of prosocial behavior, Dr. Huettel said, is based on social cognition – the recognition that other people have needs and goals. The two theories aren’t mutually exclusive: Cognitive understanding accompanied by a motivational reward reinforces prosocial behavior.

But shaping prosocial behavior is a tricky business. For instance, certain financial incentives seem to deter prosocial impulses, a phenomenon called reward undermining, Dr. Huettel said.  Consider that in the United States, historically, blood donors could be paid, but not in Britain. And the British donated more blood. “When you give extrinsic motivations, they can supplant the intrinsic ones,” he said.

What would the experts say about fostering prosocial behavior in children, from kindness on to charity?  Parental modeling is important, of course; sympathy and compassion should be part of children’s experience long before they know the words.

“Explain how other people feel,” Dr. Eisenberg said. “Reflect the child’s feelings, but also point out, look, you hurt Johnny’s feelings.”

Don’t offer material rewards for prosocial behavior, but do offer opportunities to do good – opportunities that the child will see as voluntary. And help children see themselves and frame their own behavior as generous, kind, and helpful.

Working with a child’s temperament, taking advantage of an emerging sense of self and increasing cognitive understanding of the world, and helped by the reward centers of the brain, parents can try to foster that warm glow and the worldview that goes with it. Empathy, sympathy, compassion, kindness and charity begin at home, and very early.