Speaker: Carolyn Zahn-Wexler, UW Departments of Psychology & Psychiatry
Abstract: Compassion, cooperation and concern for others are essential for individuals in all societies to survive and thrive. Yet many competing factors can inhibit their expression. It is essential then to understand processes that contribute to empathy, both those that enhance and hinder its development. Empathy makes it possible for people to connect with others' experiences; moreover, it motivates individuals to help and comfort others, share resources, and provide protection when needed. Empathy has both cognitive and affective components, i.e. the ability to understand the perspective of the other and to resonate emotionally to another's distress. It has neural and physiological correlates; neuroimaging studies support the notion that we are biologically wired to respond to the suffering of others. Emotional contagion is present in the first days of life, seen in infants' reflexive cries when they hear the cries of other infants. This shared emotional response is commonly viewed as a precursor to empathic concern for someone in distress. It quickly becomes more regulated and transformed; between the ages of one and two years children show both cognitive and affective empathy and prosocial efforts to help others in distress. I will focus on longitudinal studies of the early developmental course (0-5 years) of young children's concern for others, providing examples of empathic concern and caring behaviors. These findings, when first reported, ran counter to prevailing theories of early social-emotional development. Early empathy shows moderate consistency over time which means some children change whereas others do not; moreover, change can manifest itself in different ways. While the potential for empathy may be innate and universal, there are clear individual differences. Other biological (e.g. genes, temperament) and environmental (e.g. parenting practices, parental psychopathology, culture) processes can alter its expression and developmental trajectory. I will review some of these factors and consider future directions which include the study of gene-environment interactions.