Babies Identify Figures Who “Deserve” Empathy
July 29, 2019
The Jerusalem Post – Babies as young as six months old display preferences for characters who have been bullied, according to a recent study from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But the infants are less attracted to those who are distressed for seemingly no reason.
Previous research exhibited that infants six months and younger display antagonistic reactions to bullies, but the question of whether they harbor positive attitudes toward victims remained largely unexplored.
Dr. Florina Uzefovsky, head of the BGU Bio-Empathy Lab and a senior lecturer in BGU’s Department of Psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, and collaborators embarked on the study to determine whether the infants display pro-victim preferences.
The research, published in the British Journal of Psychology, involved a two-part experiment: In the first study, 30 infants between five and nine months of age were shown two video clips, one that featured a distressed character who had been physically harmed by another character, and a second that featured a neutral character who interacted amicably with another character.
When asked to choose between the two characters, more than 80% of the babies chose the bullied victim.
The infants didn’t always prefer the distressed character, however. In this experiment, only about one-third of the babies indicated their preference for the victim, whereas the remainder chose the non-distressed character.
“Babies are able to identify figures who ‘deserve’ empathy and [those who] do not,” said Uzefovsky.
The study provides increasing evidence of infants’ capacity to empathize before one year of life, but also deepens psychologists’ understanding of the variegated circumstances that trigger that empathy.
“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,” Uzefovsky said. “If it appears that there is no justification for the other one’s distress, no preference is shown.”
Other participants in the study included Dr. Maayan Davidov and Yael Paz from The Hebrew University.