A new Israeli study finds that infants can show empathy for a bullied victim as early as five months of age.
Through two experiments, researchers from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev and Hebrew University in Israel add new evidence that contradicts the current theory suggesting that babies only develop the ability to empathize after one year.
Their study is published in the British Journal of Psychology.
“The findings indicate that even during a baby’s first year, the infant is already sensitive to others’ feelings and can draw complicated conclusions about the context of a particular emotional display,” said Dr. Florina Uzefovsky, head of the BGU Bio-Empathy Lab, and senior lecturer in BGU’s department of psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience.
“Even during the first year of life, babies are able to identify figures who ‘deserve’ empathy and which ones do not, and if it appears that there is no justification for the other one’s distress, no preference is shown.”
In the first experiment, the research team found that five- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate a clear pro-victim preference. They showed 27 infants a video clip depicting a square figure with eyes climbing a hill, meeting a friendly circular figure, and then happily going down the hill with the circular figure, all the while displaying clear positive or neutral feelings.
In the second video, the rectangular figure climbs the hill only to be met by a round figure that hits and pushes it back down the hill. The rectangular figure then shows distress by crying and doubling over.
Next, the researchers had the babies show their preference by choosing one of the square figures presented to them on a tray. More than 80 percent of the infants chose the figure that had been bullied and who had shown clear distress, thus showing empathic preference towards the bullied figure.
Importantly, when the babies were shown the same set of figures without the context of why there was sadness or a positive mood, they showed no preference for either figure. In other words, the babies no longer showed a preference for the distressed character when it expressed the exact same distress but for no apparent reason.
The findings add new evidence to the growing body of research exploring the emergence of human compassion and morality.
Researchers Dr. Maayan Davidov and Yael Paz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also participated in the study.