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Israeli Scientists Find That Babies Develop Empathy As Early As Six Months

If you think that an infant is just lumps of cooing, crying, smiling, sleeping and pooping, think again.

Resesarchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Hebrew University in Israel found that babies as young as six months actually can exhibit empathy.

In a paper published in British Journal of Psychology, researchers doing two experiments debunked the theory that babies only develop the ability to empathize after one year.

Babies age 5-9 months were shown videos of simple figures – one being bullied and one having a positive social interaction. Afterwards, 80% chose the bullied character.

In the second experiment, when the babies were just shown the figures without the accompanying video, they did not choose the sad character, proving they only chose it when it experienced bullying.

“There is a complex social decision they are making — they understand the situation,” said Dr. Florina Uzefovsky, head of the BGU Bio-Empathy Lab and senior lecturer in BGU’s department of psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience. “They do prefer distressed characters being bullied, but not when someone is just being a crybaby,” she told the Forward. Studies like these, she said, disproves earlier developmental psychology theory positing that babies cannot be empathic because they have no separate sense of self.

“In the last decade we started to figure out that infants are more savvy than we give them credit for,” she said, noting that in this experiment, “We wanted to create a paradigm that would be able to test for empathy in earlier stages.”

An earlier study from 2007 showed babies as young as six months preferred a “helper” over a “hinderer” – i.e. someone who was helpful rather than destructive. Although those results could just suggest babies were good at getting their needs met, this study is not about self-interest. “It might be nicer to be around someone positive, but they put aside their desire to be around someone fun to be near someone who has experience distress,” Dr. Uzefovsky said. “It’s the early origins of morality.”

She hopes that future experiments can “ask” different questions, such as if babies would respond to a character that loses something. “We want to map out conditions needed to elicit empathic response.”

Most parents realize that even young babies perceive the world around it and interact with it. But what this study shows, in a practical sense, is that, “Even very young babies have complex social judgments and are savvy interpreters of the world, “ she said, advising parents: “Be aware how you behave around babies, because they are looking and understanding.”

Amy Klein is the author of The Trying Game: How to Get Pregnant and Get Through Fertility Treatment Without Losing Your Mind. (Ballantine, 2020).

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