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Empathy is the ability to share another's emotional experience. It is a prosocial behavior that underlies altruism. Empathy, along with affection, gratitude, sympathy, and compassion, are complex social emotions that contribute to the moral behavior that cements society. Since empathy is an internal affective reaction, it has been inferred through various behaviors including emotional expression, social referencing, helping behavior, and self-report.

M. L. Hoffman has proposed a developmental theory of empathy that has at least four stages. In the first stage, emotional contagion, an infant will cry upon hearing the cries of another. At this stage, it is not clear whether the infant can distinguish who is in distress. The next stage emerges in the second year when a toddler, who can differentiate between self and other, will express egocentric empathy. Upon hearing the cry of another, the toddler will provide help that he himself would find comforting, such as offering his own favorite toy. The third stage appears in the third year as the child begins to take the perspective of another and can offer help that the other might need. Finally, in middle childhood, the fourth stage is achieved; the child realizes that he and others are independent persons whose emotions may be tied to their unique history of past events.

The development of empathy is influenced by cognitive development, the increasing ability to differentiate self and other and to take another's perspective. Children who receive nurturing from parents who model empathy and who explain the reasons behind moral behavior are more likely to demonstrate empathy.


Eisenberg, Nancy, ed. Empathy and Related Emotional Responses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Hoffman, M. L. "Development of Moral Thought, Feeling, and Behavior." American Psychologist 34 (1979):958-966.

Oatley, Keith, and Jennifer M. Jenkins. Understanding Emotions. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

Sroufe, L. Alan, Robert G. Cooper, and Ganie B. De Hart. Child Development: Its Nature and Course. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Strayer, J., and Schroeder, M. "Children's Helping Strategies: Influences of Emotion, Empathy, and Age." In Nancy Eisenberg ed., Empathy and Related Emotional Responses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Zahn-Waxler, Carolyn, Marian Radke-Yarrow, and R. King."Child-Rearing and Children's Prosocial Initiations toward Victims of Distress." Child Development 50 (1979):319-330.

Joanne Bitetti

Jane Brown-O'Gorman

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3