How do children develop empathy?

Young Christians in the hallway
In this 2012 file photo, children wait in the hallway of Columbia Heights' Church of All Nations until they're called in for the children's sermon.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Are children born good? Or do they develop positive traits such as empathy and altruism as they get older?

The new field of infant morality studies aims to answer that question and The Daily Circuit welcomes two of the foremost researchers in the field Thursday, Jan. 24.

As a graduate student at Yale University J. Kiley Hamlin did an experiment where she showed babies a video of a shape trying to climb a hill. One shape would come along to help the climber the hill, while another would hinder the climber's progress. Hamlin found that babies preferred the helper shape.

From The Smithsonian Magazine:

This result "was totally surreal," Hamlin says--so revolutionary that the researchers themselves didn't quite trust it. They designed additional experiments with plush animal puppets helping and hindering each other; at the end babies got the chance to reach for the puppet of their choice. "Basically every single baby chose the nice puppet," Hamlin remembers.

Felix Warneken, a Harvard professor of psychology, works with slightly older children. He designed an experiment where an adult would struggle to perform a task (for instance, picking up a pencil) as toddlers sat nearby.

As he told The Smithsonian Magazine:

"Eighteen-month-old children would help across these different situations, and do it very spontaneously. They are clever helpers. It is not something that's been trained, and they readily come to help without prompting or without being rewarded."


Understanding How Children Develop Empathy (NY Times)

Are Babies Born Good? (Smithsonian Magazine)

The Importance of Teaching Children Kindness at a Very Young Age (The Atlantic)

From Mine to Ours: Nurturing Empathy in Children (Huffington Post)

How Disasters and Trauma Can Affect Children's Empathy (Time)

The Human Spark: Chimps v. Children (PBS)