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The Emergence of Empathy in Babies

Experts explain how babies develop sensitivity to people in distress

Four-year-old Ben begins to wail after he accidentally whacks his fingers with a toy hammer. His 22-month-old brother, Kirby, trots over and hands Ben his blankie, then pats his back. Ben gives him the fish-eye; he's more accustomed to Kirby yanking his hair than acting like Mr. Rogers. What Ben doesn't realize is that Kirby has started down the road to empathy.

Studies examining children's concern for others had previously focused on babies' sensitivities to people in distress. At the Univer-sity of California, Berkeley, researcher Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., wanted to find out when children discover that other people feel differently than they do — a prerequisite for empathy. In her study, toddlers were presented with a bowl of Goldfish crackers and a bowl of raw broccoli spears. Not surprisingly, all of the babies preferred the crackers. A researcher then sampled food from each bowl. She made a happy face when she tried the broccoli and a disgusted face when she tried the crackers. Then she held out her hand and said, without specifying which food she meant, "Could you give me some?"

Fourteen-month-old babies gamely offered her the crackers — likely they assumed that the food they wanted must be what she wanted too. But the 18-month-olds handed her the broccoli. They understood that this lady preferred the broccoli (those grown-ups!) even though they themselves did not. This ability to acknowledge other people's feelings — even when they differ from your own — is essential to understanding when (and how) people want to be comforted.

"To become truly empathic," Gopnik says, "you have to say not just 'I feel your pain,' but 'I feel your pain, and I know it's not my own. I should be helping you, not myself.'"

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