The Development of Empathy

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The Development of Empathy
– a literature review -


Empathy cannot be taught, but it can be caught
– Mary Gordon -

Student: Vanessa Anseline


Empathy and caring is an essential part of human health. We love because we can empathize (Szalavitz & Perry, 2010). Empathy underlies everything that makes society work; such as altruism, collaboration, love and charity. Failures to empathize are a key part of social problems, such as crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse and inequity. Although we are genetically predisposed to care for others, the development of empathy requires a lifelong process of relational interaction (Szalavitz & Perry, 2010). More importantly, the first relationship humans experience, the mother-child relationship, shapes the neural systems of the stress response to allow self-regulation. This because the brain regions involved in relationships also modulate the stress response and allow empathy to develop. As with most systems, these systems are interdependent and develop together.

Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the emotional states of other people (Decety & Moriguchi 2007). There is consensus that empathy is a multidimensional construct that comprises both affective aspects (emotional responses and the sharing of emotions), as well as cognitive aspects (intellectually understanding another person’s emotional experiences; Decety & Jackson 2004). The cognitive aspects of empathy are closely relates to the theory of mind idea, or the ability to understand one’s own and other people’s mental states. The capacity to maintain a distinction between self and other is an important component of empathy. Research in this area suggests that different aspects of empathy interact with each other to produce empathic experiences (Decety & Jackson 2004).

Determining the age at which infants display empathy depends on your definition of empathy. Most models of empathy involve “an affective response that is more appropriate to another’s situation that one’s own” (Hoffman, 2000, p. 4). Hoffman’s model (1983) emphasizes a motivational component of empathy and its role in inducing altruistic behaviour. Preston and de Waal (2002) propose a “process model of empathy”, based upon processes such as the emotional contagion, sympathy, cognitive empathy, and prosocial (helping) behaviour. In contrast, other models of empathy propose a more developmentally sophisticated construct that requires self-other differentiation and subjective understanding of the other person’s state. For example, Eisenberg and colleagues (1998) propose that empathy is “an affective reaction that results from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is identical or very similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel” (p. 702).

Decety and Jackson (2004) propose a more cognitive model featuring three functional components that interact to produce an empathic response (see Figure 1). These components include affective sharing. This involves common representation of an experience, self-other awareness in order to distinguish the observer from the object, the cognitive flexibility to see another’s perspective and self-regulatory processes.


Figure 1. Schematic representation of bottom-up (i.e., direct matching between perception and action) and top-down (i.e., regulation and control) information processes involved in empathy. These two levels of processing are interrelated. The low level is automatically activated (unless inhibited) by perceptual input and accounts for emotion sharing. Executive functions in the prefrontal cortex regulate both cognition and emotion, through selective attention and self-regulation. The metacognition level is continuously updated by bottom-up information, and controls the lower level by providing top down input. As a result, the top-down...
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