Friday, October 18th, 2013
Even though parents teach children to consider others’ feelings and be kind starting in toddlerhood, the most important cognitive skills associated with empathy are still developing well into adolescence–later for boys than girls, according to a new six-year study published in the journal Developmental Psychology. More from The Wall Street Journal:
In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes. Adolescence has long been known as prime time for developing cognitive skills for self-control, or executive function.
“Cognitive empathy,” or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don’t begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict.
Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.
The riptides are often noticeable to parents. Susan Burkinshaw has tried to cultivate empathy in her two teenage sons, 16 and 18, since they were toddlers, encouraging them to think about others’ feelings. Yet one “went through a period in eighth grade where he was just a bear to deal with. He always had an attitude,” says Ms. Burkinshaw, of Germantown, Md. “Then as quickly as it came on, it turned back off again.”
The findings reflect a major expansion in researchers’ understanding of cognitive growth during adolescence, according to a 2012 research review co-authored by Ronald Dahl, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers used to believe that both forms of empathy were fully formed during childhood.
Now, it’s clear that “the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically” in the teens, says Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Preliminary research in her lab also suggests cognitive empathy rises in teens. The discoveries serve as a new lens for exploring such teen behaviors as bullying and drug abuse.
Image: Teen friends, via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, September 11th, 2013
Researchers at Emory University have concluded, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that attentive, nurturing fathers are statistically more likely to have smaller testicles than distant, less empathetic fathers. The finding is consistent with the belief that lower testosterone levels contribute to a father‘s enjoyment of parenting, patience, kindness, and other characteristics. More from NBC News:
“The general idea is that lower testosterone on a day-to-day basis helps attune fathers to the needs of their children,” University of Notre Dame anthropologist Lee Gettler, who studies this effect, told NBC News.
Lower testosterone may also make men more empathetic, less aggressive, less interested in mating, or all these.
The idea is part of Life History Theory. The theory holds that many animals, including people, trade off between putting resources into mating, versus parenting. The more energy devoted to having sex, and engaging in competition with others to do so, the less that’s left for raising offspring, and vice versa.
The life histories of children have shown that the more stress and family disruption they experience, the greater the risk they’ll face troubles later. Girls with an absent father, for example, are more likely to start their periods sooner, have sex sooner, and to become single mothers. Boys with absent fathers or stressful childhoods are more likely to begin having sex earlier. They are more likely to put more effort into mating, less into parenting.
The Emory group, led by post-doctoral fellow Jennifer Mascaro in the lab of James Rilling, is the first to use testicle size as a physical marker, and to see if testicle size correlates with brain reward – positive feelings — from nurturing as a way to help explain variation in male parenting.
Image: Happy father and son, via Shutterstock
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Monday, July 15th, 2013
At a mere five months of age, babies appear to be able to understand each other’s emotions, and identifying which sounds match with which feelings (for example, a happy baby laughs, an upset baby cries). More from Today.com:
The takeaway for parents is that babies are very much aware of emotion, said Ross Flom, as associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University and the co-author of the new study — the first to study “peer matching” ability with children this young. The research was published in the journal “Infancy.”
“It highlights the fact that babies are really sensitive to our communicative intent,” Flom told TODAY Moms.
“They can really understand how we’re saying something, so if you’re talking to a young infant, they might not understand exactly what you’re saying but they would certainly understand how it’s being conveyed.”
Researchers weren’t too terribly surprised at the results. Studies have shown babies can match emotions in adults at 7 months of age and younger. But there has been little research so far looking into infants’ perception of the emotional expressions of other infants.
Forty babies took part in the study: half were 3.5 months old, and the other 5 months old.
Image: Babies looking at each other, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
Babies who have not yet had their first birthdays may be able to express sympathy, or the feeling of concern for the well-being of others. This is the finding of a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, which found that babies preferred the victim to the aggressor in a bullying-type encounter they watched on a video screen. More from LiveScience:
Because 10-month-olds can’t yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.
Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.
In some cases, the “bully” and “victim” roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.
In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times. In comparison, when the shapes hadn’t interacted, the babies’ choices were basically random — nine went for the shape that had gotten squished, and the other 11 went for the nonsquished shape.
The results could have simply indicated that babies preferred to steer clear of a nasty character, not that they felt sympathy for the bullied one. To rule out that possibility, the researchers conducted a second experiment with 24 babies, also 10 months old. These babies saw a show nearly identical to the first, except there was a third character: a red cylinder. The red cylinder was a neutral presence on-screen, neither bullying nor being bullied.
After watching the animation, the babies were again given a choice of two toys. Half could pick between the “victim” shape and the neutral shape, while the other half got to choose between the bullying shape and the neutral shape.
This time, 10 out of 12 babies given the neutral-or-bully option went with the neutral cylinder. Meanwhile, of the 12 given the neutral-or-victim option, 10 picked the victim.
In other words, even when there was no mean character present that a baby might want to avoid, the babies still picked the victim.
Though researchers caution this study should not be taken as solid proof of sympathy in babies, it does follow other recent research, including a study published in January that found that babies could demonstrate signs of empathy, or being able to guess what another person is feeling.
Image: Baby, via Shutterstock
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Thursday, January 31st, 2013
Babies as young as a year-and-a-half can guess what adults are thinking and demonstrate remarkable empathy and “mind reading,” according to a new global study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society this week. This ability to understand other people’s perspectives, wishes, and feelings had previously been believed not to appear until children are much older. More from LiveScience:
The findings may shed light on the social abilities that differentiate us from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, said study author H. Clark Barrett, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study used a form of the false-belief test, one of the few cognitive tasks that young children, but not primates, can do.
Humans are “very good at inferring other people’s mental states: their emotions, their desires and, in this case, their knowledge,” Barrett said. “So it could play an important role in cultural transmission and social learning.”
In the classic test of children’s understanding called the false-belief task, one person comes into a room and puts an object (such as a pair of scissors) into a hiding place. A second person then comes in and puts the scissors into his pocket, unbeknownst to the first individual. When that first person returns, someone will ask the child, “Where do you think the first person will look for the scissors?”
The task is tricky because the children need to have a theory of mind, or an ability to understand other people’s perspectives, in this case that of the individual who didn’t see the scissors being retrieved by another.
By ages 4 to 7, most children in Western countries can answer that the first person will look in the original hiding place, because the individual doesn’t know the scissors have moved. But children across the globe tend to give that answer at different ages.
However, past work showed that if researchers don’t ask babies the question, but instead follow the infants’ eye movements, the children seem to understand the concept much earlier. Barrett and his colleagues wondered whether cultural differences in dealing with adults could be obscuring the amazing cognitive leap children were taking.
Image: Baby and adult, via Shutterstock
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