Empathy across development: Examination of multiple contexts and levels of analysis

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Empathy—the ability to understand and “feel with” others’ emotional states, along with the tendency to feel concern for others’ wellbeing—shapes important aspects of social functioning across development (Eisenberg, 2017). In three empirical papers, we explore predictors of empathy across different stages of development, and across multiple levels of analysis within Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model.

Paper 1 examined associations between brain structure and observed empathic responding among N = 78 school-aged children (4–8y). Larger bilateral hippocampal volume (adjusted for intracranial volume) predicted greater empathic responding, but only for boys. The association was not driven by a specific subregion of the hippocampus (head, body, tail), nor did it vary with age. Findings suggest that hippocampal structure contributes to individual differences in young children’s empathic responding, consistent with findings in adults (Laurita & Spreng, 2017).

Paper 2 examined whether parental attributions and empathic emotions in response to child distress predicted 4-year-olds’ observed empathic responding two weeks later. In a sample of N = 88 mother–child dyads, bootstrapped mediation analyses showed that parents’ less negative and more situational/ emotion-focused attributions about child distress predicted parents’ empathy, which in turn predicted their children’s empathic responding to the experimenter’s distress. Findings shed light on the role of parents’ social information processing in the intergenerational transmission of empathic care.

Drawing on attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969/1982), Paper 3 used experimental priming methods based to test whether temporarily enhancing adolescents’ feelings of relational security at school could increase their empathy for a bullied peer. Adolescents (13–15y; N = 234) were randomly assigned to imagine school-based experiences involving (a) receiving emotional support, (b) engaging in a fun social activity, or (c) engaging in a neutral activity; they then read a news story about a bullied peer and rated their feelings of empathy and willingness to help the victim. Multilevel modeling revealed no main effect of priming on adolescents’ empathy; however, dispositional attachment security significantly predicted empathy and willingness to help, pointing to the importance of dispositional security in social relationships for shaping empathy in school contexts.