The second year of life marks the beginning of empathic responsiveness to others’ distress, a hallmark of human interaction. We examined the role of social understanding (self-other understanding and emotion understanding) and empathic disposition in individual differences in 12- to 24-month olds’ responses to mothers’ and an unfamiliar infant peer’s distress (N = 71). Results reveal associations between empathic responsiveness to distressed mother and crying infant peer, suggesting that individual differences in prosocial motivation may exist right from the outset, when the ability to generate an empathic, prosocial response first emerges. We further found that above and beyond such dispositional characteristics (and age), children with more advanced social understanding were more empathically responsive to a peer’s distress. However, responses to mothers’ distress were explained by children’s empathic disposition only, and not by their social understanding. Thus, as early as the second year of life some children are dispositionally more inclined to empathy regardless of who is in distress, whether mother or peer. At the same time, emotion understanding and self-other understanding appear to be especially important for explaining individual differences in young children’s empathic responsiveness to a peer’s distress.
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