Nav: Home

Attentive adults increase children's ability to empathise

May 15, 2018

For human beings to function socially, they need to be able to perceive, understand, and talk about others' mental states, such as beliefs, desires and intentions. There is no consensus among researchers as to when children develop this ability. Previous research indicates that it emerges around the age of four, but research at Lund University in Sweden shows that children can demonstrate this ability earlier - within social situations that they experience together with an engaged adult.

With her colleagues, developmental psychologist Elia Psouni has studied the simplest form of this ability: children's understanding that other people may have a false belief about something - because they lack information. As part of the study, children 33-to-54 months old were asked to predict what would happen next in an illustrated story that was suddenly interrupted. The researchers studied whether the children's ability to predict that the main figure in the story would make a "wrong move", since he held a false belief, would be affected by them hearing the story alone, in the company of an adult occupied with something else, or with an adult engaged in the story together with the child.

In two experiments, the children were shown a film developed by the researchers, about little Maxi whose father moves his favorite toy (an airplane) while Maxi is playing outdoors. When Maxi later on returns indoors and wants to fetch his plane, the film freezes, and the test-leader asks the child where he or she thinks Maxi will look for the airplane. In a third experiment, the children were read to from a picture book with the same story and illustrations, developed by the researchers, in which the last page was torn out.

Commonly, children under the age of four would respond that Maxi would look for the plane where it currently is, despite the fact that Maxi has no way of knowing that the airplane has been moved from its original location. However, in the Lund studies, even among the youngest children who heard the story together with an engaged adult (test-leader), there were impressively many who correctly predicted what would happen.

"Many children correctly detected and told us about Maxi's false belief, i.e. that Maxi would look for the plane where he actually left it. Surprisingly, these children did not remember the story as a whole better than other children, but specifically noticed and mentioned the fact that daddy moved the toy when Maxi was not there, indicating that they paid closer attention to this particular feature of the story", says Elia Psouni.

It is well known among researchers that children as young as two show some understanding for another person's perspective through their spontaneous actions, for example when small children are tricked, or help others look for things. On the other hand, young children do not seem to understand what they understand, and cannot explain the reasoning behind these spontaneous actions. The Lund studies now show that children can perceive, understand and reason about other people's perspectives earlier than previously thought.

"Small children's early understanding of perspective thus seems to require that they 'share perspectives' with someone else - focusing on the same information at the same time", says Elia Psouni.

Interestingly, the studies showed that children who attended to the story on their own (watching the film or being read to) and children with an adult present but unengaged in the story failed in making the correct prediction equally often.

"Being in the same room as the child is not enough. It is the active engagement of the adult together with the child that makes the difference", says Elia Psouni.

In a new experiment, the researchers are now focusing on how children look at the film/book pictures in a particular way when they look together with an engaged adult. They are also exploring the newly developed methods' potential for use in practice, for example in pre-schools.

"This basic ability to understand that other people have their own beliefs, desires and intentions, as in the story of Maxi, is fundamental for children's development of broader social skills and critical thinking. Strengthening today's children in both of these perspectives is essential", concludes Elia Psouni.
-end-


Lund University

Related Children Articles:

Do children inherently want to help others?
A new special section of the journal Child Development includes a collection of ten empirical articles and one theoretical article focusing on the predictors, outcomes, and mechanisms related to children's motivations for prosocial actions, such as helping and sharing.
Children need conventional CPR; black and Hispanic children more likely to get Hands-Only
While compressions-only or Hands-Only CPR is as good as conventional CPR for adults, children benefit more from the conventional approach that includes rescue breaths.
Cohen Children's Medical Center study: Children on autism spectrum more likely to wander, disappear
A new study by researchers at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York suggests that more than one-quarter million school-age children with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disorders wander away from adult supervision each year.
The importance of children at play
Research highlights positive strengths in developmental learning for Latino children in low-income households based on their interactive play skills.
Racial disparities in pain children of children with appendicitis in EDs
Black children were less likely to receive any pain medication for moderate pain and less likely to receive opioids for severe pain than white children in a study of racial disparities in the pain management of children with appendicitis in emergency departments, according to an article published online by JAMA Pediatrics.
UofL offers vaccine trial for children with relapsed tumors at Kosair Children's Hospital
Children with relapsed tumors and their parents are finding hope in a Phase I research study led by Kenneth G.
Dana-Farber/Boston Children's opens immunotherapy trial for children with leukemia
Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center has joined a clinical trial of immunotherapy for children with relapsed or treatment-resistant acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Children less likely to come to the rescue when others are available
Children as young as 5 years old are less likely to help a person in need when other children are present and available to help, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
IPT for children with anaemia
Researchers from Tanzania and South Africa, who are part of the Cochrane Infectious Disease Group, hosted at LSTM, have conducted an independent review to assess the effect of intermittent preventive antimalarial treatment for children with anaemia living in malaria endemic regions.
Safety first, children
Children are experts at getting into danger. So, how can parents help prevent the consequences?

Related Children Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Crisis
There's no greater threat to humanity than climate change. What can we do to stop the worst consequences? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can save our planet and whether we can do it in time. Guests include climate activist Greta Thunberg, chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox, research scientist Sean Davis, food innovator Bruce Friedrich, and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...