Babies as young as six months can show empathy for victims, study finds

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Researchers say that babies as young as six months are able to demonstrate empathy towards victims of bullying.

A new study published in the British Journal of Psychology has debunked - according to Science Daily - a long-held theory that babies only develop the ability to empathise after 12 months.

"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," says Dr. Florina Uzefovsky, head of the Bio-Empathy Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

"Even during the first year of life, babies are able to identify figures who "deserve" empathy and which ones do not, and if it appears that there is no justification for the other one's distress, no preference is shown," she explained.

Two experiments were conducted to arrive at the conclusion that infants feel empathy towards others.

"They showed 27 infants two video clips depicting a square figure with eyes climb a hill, meet a circular friendly figure, then happily go down the hill together, all the while displaying clear positive or neutral feelings. In the second video, however, the same round figure hits and bullies the square figure until it goes back down the hill, showing distress by crying and doubling over," explains Science Daily.

The babies were then presented with both round and square figures on a tray. 80 per cent of the time, the infants chose the victim of the aggression, demonstrating that the babies felt empathy for a character in distress, though this was dependent on the context.

"When shown the same set of figures without the context of why there was sadness or a positive mood, the babies showed no preference for either figure."

The study authors think the findings open the door for more indepth "...understanding of the development of morality."

Adults assess a situation in terms of whether they think distress is justifiable, before they show (or don't show) empathy. And while toddlers of 18 months and older have been shown to appraise a situation similarly, this is the first study where infants show the beginnings of contextually-dependant empathy.