Journal article Open Access

The origins of empathic concern

Zahn-Waxler, Carolyn; Radke-Yarrow, Marian

Recent developments in research cast doubt on early conceptions of young children as primarily egocentric and uncaring of others' needs. Studies reviewed indicate a broad range of social competencies children bring to their interpersonal relationships. As early as 2 years of age, they show (a) the cognitive capacity to interpret, in simple ways, the physical and psychological states of others, (b) the emotional capacity to experience, affectively, the state of others, and (c) the behavioral repertoire that permits the possibility of attempts to alleviate discomfort in others. Both temperament and environment may contribute to individual differences in concern for others. Early socialization experiences that lead to adaptive and maladaptive patterns of responsiveness to others' needs are described. Examples of environmental risk conditions include parental depression, marital discord, parental maltreatment. Implications of this work for broadening existing conceptualizations of empathy and related prosocial orientations are addressed.

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