Do babies feel empathy?

© 2019 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

close-up of thoughtful, empathic baby by Beth Nazazio (flickr, creative commons)

Do babies know when you're sad? Do they feel concern? Do babies feel empathy? Yes!

You might have heard that empathy doesn't develop until the preschool years. But that's actually a terrible misrepresentation of the evidence. Scientists recognize two kinds of empathy -- affective empathy and cognitive empathy -- and studies strongly suggest that babies experience both.

First, take affective empathy. Also called "emotional contagion," this is what happens when your emotions trigger similar emotions in me.

If I see that you're joyful, it makes me feel joyful. If I notice that you're scared, it puts me on edge. If I see you twist your ankle, I wince sympathetically. Your feelings rub off on me, and it often happens automatically. I don't have to think about it, or deliberately try to match your emotions.

Do babies experience affective empathy? There are compelling reasons to think so.

Babies show evidence of emotional contagion within the first few days after birth. 

Newborns become distressed when they hear other newborns cry. It isn't simply a response to noise, because researchers have performed experiments where they also subjected babies to control stimuli -- like computer-synthesized crying. Babies cry more when they hear the cries of a real infant (Martin and Clark 1982; Sagi and Hoffman 1976; Simner 1971).

Babies watch faces, and begin learning about facial expressions early in life.

Babies begin to return our smiles by six weeks postpartum, and they become distressed if we stare at them with wooden, unresponsive facial expressions (Wörmann et al 2012; Nagy et al 2017).

By 3.5 months postpartum, babies may be able to distinguish some of their mothers' emotional facial expressions. For example, in one experiment, babies seemed to expect their mothers to sound happy when they looked happy, and to sound sad when they looked sad (Kahana-Kalman and Walker-Andrews 2001).

Like adults, young babies mirror the excitement they see in another person's face.

By four to six months, babies experience a special kind of physiological emotional contagion that you can see in their eyes. When we're excited, the pupils of our eyes dilate, and it's a powerful social cue that triggers a mirroring reaction: If you look into the eyes of someone with dilated pupils, your pupils will expand. Experiments show that babies respond in a similar way (Fawcett et al 2017).

By the end of their first year, babies show signs of sympathetic concern for people in distress.

By 10 months, they show concern when their mothers look upset (Roth-Hanania et al 2011). And they may show even greater sympathetic concern for distressed peers (Liddle et al 2015; Roth-Hanania et al 2011). 

So a number of studies -- testing infants in a variety of ways -- suggest that babies experience affective empathy before they can talk. And I'm persuaded by another piece of evidence too: Affective empathy has been documented in nonhuman animals, including young rodents (Heyes 2018; Langford et al 2006).

It seems ridiculous to assume that human infants can't do something that, say, a mouse can do. Don't let uninformed writers and self-appointed baby "experts" tell you that babies can't sense, and mirror, the emotional states of others.

But I mentioned another form of empathy -- cognitive empathy. What about that?

As I noted earlier, affective empathy can be triggered automatically. If you see a terrified person, you don't have to consciously think about the implications. You simply find yourself feeling more anxious, more on-edge.

Cognitive empathy is different. It's what you do when you try figure out why someone is terrified, and this requires perspective-taking and deliberate, effortful thought. It's more of a cerebral, Sherlock Holmes sort of exercise. And your success depends heavily on knowledge, experience, and emotional self-control.

The knowledge and experience part are pretty obvious.

If a frightened man is clutching his chest and wincing in pain, you might guess that he's feeling symptoms of a heart attack, or reacting to a sudden injury. But what if you had no medical knowledge, and no experience with anyone acting like this before?

The display of emotion might trigger affective empathy in you. But your ability to show cognitive empathy would be very limited. You'd have a hard time understanding the situation, and you probably wouldn't know what sort of help to offer.

So background information is crucial for showing cognitive empathy, and babies are clearly at a disadvantage. They have a very limited experience with the world. They aren't aware of all the things that can trigger emotions in others.

What about emotional self-control? The connection with empathy might be less obvious, but it too is crucial, especially if you are someone who experiences lots of affective empathy. The reason? Emotional contagion can prompt you to focus on your own feelings, instead of the feelings of the other person. 

Let's go back to the example of the frightened man having a heart attack. Being around him is disturbing. You may "catch" his feelings of panic and distress. To respond with cognitive empathy -- and sympathetic concern -- you need to keep your focus on the man's needs. Not your own. But that could be difficult if the situation is stressing you out. You might have the impulse to turn away.

It can happen with positive emotions too. Someone else's happy excitement might be too much for you. And this is why you sometimes see a baby try to disengage from social interactions, turning his or her head. Closing his or her eyes.

The situation is too stimulating. The baby is overwhelmed, and trying to disconnect from the source of stimulation. 

So practicing cognitive empathy requires a certain amount of emotional self-regulation. You need to be able to separate yourself, emotionally, from whatever is going on. Not necessarily so much that you don't feel emotional contagion any more. But enough that you can think clearly about the other person's perspective and needs.

Do babies show signs of cognitive empathy? Yes!

Experiments suggest that many of the components of cognitive empathy are in place. For instance, babies as young as 6 months seem knowledgeable about victimization -- and they show a bias for approaching individuals who have been victimized.

You can read more about it in an upcoming article for Parenting Science. But the takeaway here is that babies know something about the emotional consequences of social interactions. They seem to understand that victims feel distress when they are bullied. And, given a choice between someone who was well-treated and someone who was bullied, babies are more likely to approach the victim (Uzefovsky et al 2019).

There are also clear cases of older babies offering instrumental help.

For example, consider experiments conducted by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello. When 14-month-old babies observed an adult stranger trying -- and failing -- to pick up an object, most children responded by handing the object over. They did this without being asked or bribed. They noticed the struggle, worked out what the stranger wanted, and offered help (Warneken and Tomasello 2007).

Other research suggests that some babies will try to help other infants. In one experiment, researchers swaddled a realistic-looking baby doll, concealing most of the doll's face, so that viewers wouldn't be tell it was merely a doll, and not a live infant. Next, the researchers fitted the doll with an audio device. It played back recordings of a baby crying (Nichols et al 2009).

The researchers left babies -- between the ages of 12 and 24 months -- alone with the crying doll. What happened next? Most babies registered concern in their faces, and some approached the swaddled figure and attempted to offer comfort. They tried to give the "infant" a toy.

Once again, this behavior appeared without any prompting or bribery. Babies observed what they believed to be a distressed infant, and they responded in ways that suggest cognitive empathy. They probably knew from experience that a toy can improve an infant's mood. It appears they engaged in perspective-taking, and came up with an appropriate remedy.

What about theory of mind?

You might have heard that theory of mind -- the ability to attribute mental states to others -- is lacking in babies. And that would seem to be a problem for cognitive empathy. It's hard to figure out what someone needs if you have no insight into his or her beliefs, desires, and thoughts!

But the truth is that babies aren't totally clueless when it comes to theory of mind. By the age of 5 months, most babies can infer another person's goals -- like an intention to grab an object (Robson and Kuhlmeier 2016). So babies may be prepared to understand the emotional consequences of having one's goals thwarted.

And while the precise timing is controversial, experiments suggest that many babies will have begun to show more sophisticated abilities by the age of two. They may grasp, for instance, that other people can believe things that are false (Burnside et al 2019). Or they may realize that not everyone loves the same foods. They understand that you might want to eat broccoli -- even if they themselves dislike it.

There's much more to learn about other people's minds, and babies aren't as knowledgeable as older people. But babies know some things -- enough to be able to empathize in a variety of situations.

So where does empathy come from? What makes babies empathic?

We've already noted that cognitive empathy depends on your experiences and knowledge. It depends on motivation too.

Are you able to understand another person's predicament? Do you want to help? Do you think this individual is deserving of your help?

Cognitive empathy doesn't just emerge. A willingness to help doesn't just emerge. To a large degree, it is learned.

Biological psychologist Cecilia Heyes thinks the same is true for affective empathy, and I think her ideas make a lot of sense. She proposes that babies learn affective empathy by association. If a baby is feeling happy -- and his mother responds by smiling and making joyful sounds -- the baby will learn to associate his own feelings of happiness with the mother's social signals. Thereafter, the brain will link smiles and giggles with an inner feeling of cheer.

In the same way, babies can quickly learn to "wire together" other feelings and social signals. When a baby feels fear, and simultaneously observes signs of fear in another person, the brain forges a link between these signs and the emotion. When a baby feels sad, and hears someone wailing, the baby learns to associate sadness with the sound of crying.  

It's a very plausible hypothesis, and one that should give us pause. If Heyes is right, then caregivers play a crucial role in the development of affective empathy. We nurture empathy by tuning into an infant's moods, and mirroring these feelings -- displaying sympathetic facial expressions, sounds, and gestures.

So empathy isn't something that just happens. As Cecilia Heyes warns, "we cannot take it for granted that empathy will spring up with each new generation, regardless of the social environment and child rearing practices to which each new generation is exposed." 

Parents matter. Peers matter. Social norms and ideologies matter.

To promote empathy, we need to be emotionally responsive to our infants. We need to act as role models for treating others with sensitivity and kindness. We need to teach children to expand -- not restrict -- the circle of individuals that they empathize with. We need to show children how to be reflective and thoughtful. To be consciously, deliberately humane.

So yes, babies feel empathy. Yes, they begin life prepared to show kindness and concern toward people in trouble. But we can screw that up. We must step up to the task.


More reading

Want to know more about emotional contagion in babies? Check out my article, "Can babies sense stress in others? Yes, they can!" And see this article for tips on how to alleviate stress in babies.

For more information about the development of empathy, see these Parenting Science articles:

In addition, see these articles for advice on how to promote prosocial behavior in young children:

References: Do babies feel empathy?

Burnside K, Severdija V, Poulin-Dubois D. 2019. Infants attribute false beliefs to a toy crane. Dev Sci. e12887.

Chae JJK and Song HJ. 2018. Negativity bias in infants' expectations about agents' dispositions. Br J Dev Psychol. 36(4):620-633.

Heyes C. 2018. Empathy is not in our genes. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 95:499-507.

Jin KS, Houston JL, Baillargeon R, Groh AM, Roisman GI. 2018. Young infants expect an unfamiliar adult to comfort a crying baby: Evidence from a standard violation-of-expectation task and a novel infant-triggered-video task. Cogn Psychol. 102:1-20. 

Kahana-Kalman R and Walker-Andrews AS. 2001. The role of person familiarity in young infants’ perception of emotional expression. Child Development 72: 352–369.

Kanakogi Y, Inoue Y, Matsuda G, Butler D, Hiraki K,  and Myowa-Yamakoshi M. 2017. Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors. Nature Human Behaviour 1(2): 0037.

Kanakogi Y, Okumura Y, Inoue Y, Kitazaki M, and  Itakura S. 2013. Rudimentary sympathy in preverbal infants: Preference for others in distress. PLoS ONE 8(6), e65292.

Langford DJ, Crager SE, Shehzad Z, Smith SB, Sotocinal SG, Levenstadt JS, Chanda ML, Levitin DJ, and Mogil JS. 2006. Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice. Science. 312(5782):1967-70.

Liddle MJE,  Bradley BS and Mcgrath A. 2015. Baby empathy: Infant distress and peer prosocial responses. Infant Mental Health Journal 36: 446–458.

Nichols SR, Svetlova M, Brownell CA. 2009. The role of social understanding and empathic disposition in young children's responsiveness to distress in parents and peers. Cogn Brain Behav. 13(4):449-478.

Robson SJ, and Kuhlmeier VA. 2016. Infants' Understanding of Object-Directed Action: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis. Front Psychol. 7:111.

Roth-Hanania R, Davidov M, and Zahn-Waxler C. 2011. Empathy development from 8 to 16 months: early signs of concern for others. Infant Behav Dev. 34(3):447-58

Title image of empathic baby by Beth Nazario / flickr

image of smiling baby by mariyam shafeeq / flickr

image of infant turning away by lafleur / flickr