Attentive adults increase children’s ability to empathise

A family goes walkabout at Canary Wharf.

Adults play a large part in helping children to develop empathy at an early age, according to new research carried out in Sweden.

Researchers at Lund University found that adults engaging with children in social situations can help them to demonstrate empathy earlier than the age of four. This is the age which many previous studies have suggested children start to display this quality.

‘False belief’

Elia Psouni, a developmental psychologist, led a team which examined whether children aged 33-54 months showed empathy in its simplest form. They determined whether children could understand that other people may have a false belief about something because they lack information.

For the study, children were asked to predict what would happen next in an illustrated story that was suddenly interrupted.. The researchers wanted see if the children would predict that the story’s main character would make a ‘wrong move’ because they had a false belief. They also wanted to see if the kids would be better at doing this with an adult who was busy with another activity, or with an adult engaged in the story with the child.


In the two experiments, the children were shown a film developed by the researchers about little Maxi, whose father moves his favourite toy airplane while Maxi is playing outdoors When Maxi goes inside to play with his plane, unaware that his dad has moved it, the kids were then asked where Maxi would look for his plane once he discovered it was missing.

Usually children younger than four would answer that Maxi would look for the plane where it actually is, even though Maxi doesn’t know that his father moved it. However, even some of the youngest children correctly predicted that Maxi would look for the plane in its old location – but only when they took the test while with an engaged adult.


“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,” said Psouni. “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.

“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,” she added.

Author: Simon Weedy

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