Empathy in early childhood: genetic, environmental, and affective contributions

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jun;1167:103-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04540.x.


We investigated the genetic and environmental origins of children's empathy toward a distress victim and its correlates with emotional symptoms and affective knowledge. The cognitive (hypothesis testing) and affective (empathic concern) empathy of 122 twin pairs in response to simulated pain by an adult examiner was observed at 3.5 years of age. Moderate (0.19 to 0.44) heritabilities were estimated for individual differences in empathy, and the nonshared environment and error accounted for the rest of the variance. Hypothesis testing and empathic concern were moderately correlated, mainly through overlapping genetic effects. Although children's affective knowledge did not correlate with their empathy, affective knowledge interacted with mother-rated emotional symptoms in predicting empathy; knowledge about emotions was associated with greater empathy in children low in emotional symptoms. In contrast, among children with high degrees of emotional symptoms, those with better affective knowledge tended to show lower empathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Environment*
  • Humans