Young children sympathize less in response to unjustified emotional distress.
Three-year-old children saw an adult displaying the exact same distress in 3 different conditions: (a) the adult's distress was appropriate to a genuine harm, (b) the adult's distress was an overreaction to a minor inconvenience, and (c) there was no apparent cause for the adult's distress. Children who witnessed the adult being appropriately upset showed concern for him, intervened on his behalf, and checked on him when he later expressed distress out of their view. Children who did not know the cause for the adult's distress responded similarly. In contrast, children who witnessed the adult overreacting to an inconvenience showed lower rates of intervening and checking. The degree of children's concern across conditions was correlated with the latency of their helping behavior toward the adult later. These results suggest that from an early age, young children's sympathy and prosocial behavior are not automatic responses to emotional displays but, rather, involve taking into account whether the displayed distress is justified.
Hepach, R; Vaish, A; Tomasello, M
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