The development of compassion: It's child’s play

Even very young children are capable of compassion

Compassion is a feeling of sympathy for another individual in distress. The development of this behavior, considered essential for humans to coexist, is still little known. For this reason, two teams of Japanese researchers took an interest in it. They observed that, at the age of 10 months, children already showed signs of rudimentary compassion when confronted with an act of aggression. 

Compassion is a feeling of sympathy for another individual in distress. The development of this behavior, considered essential for humans to coexist, is still little known. For this reason, two teams of Japanese researchers took an interest in it. They observed that, at the age of 10 months, children already showed signs of rudimentary compassion when confronted with an act of aggression. 

This article is a translation of “Développement de la compassion” by Timothée Froelich.

 

Compassion is a feeling of sympathy regarding the misfortunes of others. It plays a fundamental role in social relations and, furthermore, is considered essential for human coexistence. Although this feeling has been discussed for hundreds of years, by philosophers in particular, its origin and its development in children are still very little known. Japanese researchers addressed these questions with a simple test, placing children in certain situations in order to study their behaviors. Their results have been published in the journal PLOS One and are also available on MyScienceWork. They show that at only 10 months, children are capable of compassion.

 

Sources: Flickr / Creative Commons License / t0msk.

 

Compassion in children

 

Previous research had suggested that new borns were able to respond to the distress of other babies by crying along with them. However, the real conscience of others only occurs when they are two years old, when children learn to tell the difference between themselves and others. Developmental studies notably showed that the fact of caring for others appeared after 18 months of age and evolved, by three years of age, into protecting the victim of aggression. 

It was previously demonstrated that young children possess socio-cognitive capacities long before the age of two. In particular, they are able to show a preference for a well-intentioned individual and avoid someone with threatening behavior. Furthermore, studies on empathy in apes and mammals conducted by FBM de Wall, primatologist at Emory University (Atlanta), indicated an automatic, innate response by individuals to go to another in distress. On the basis of all these observations, Kanakogi et al. tried to understand better the behaviors of young children. 

 

Geometrical figures as aggression models

 

It is recognized that animations with simple geometrical figures are perceived as social interactions. Children attribute intentions to them. By studying babies' reactions when they faced with different situations, it is possible to see if they are already capable of compassion. 

 

Extracts from the animations showed to the children:

  1. a.      The blue ball hits the yellow square.  
  2. b.      There is no contact between the two objects.

Sources: Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others in Distress – PLoS ONE 8(6): e65292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065292.

 

The movies used by the scientists depict a blue ball (the one assaulting), a yellow rectangle (the victim) and possibly a red triangle, which will be considered a neutral element in some experiments. As they are too young to speak, the children's reaction is evaluated on the basis of their visual preferences for these shapes. In addition, real representations of the objects are presented to them. Researchers were able to observe that the rectangle was most often grasped by the babies only when it had been shown as a victim on the screen.

The use of a third, neutral element allowed them to highlight the fact that children tried to avoid all contact with an aggressive behavior.

As soon as they are 10 months old, children are able to express a form of rudimentary compassion towards an individual. They show an overwhelming preference for the victims, as opposed to the aggressors, without, however, trying to comfort them. Researchers describe this attitude as the basis of a more mature compassionate behavior where children are able to worry about someone in distress.

This major discovery does not yet allow us to identify which development processes lead to this feeling. New studies will be required to understand the mechanisms that make this evolution possible. 

 

To find out more:

 

de Waal FBM (2012), Empathy in primates and other mammals. In: Decety J, editor. Empathy: From bench to bedside. Cambridge: MIT press. 87–106.