Babies Show Empathy for Victims of Bullying as Early as Six Months, Beersheba Researchers Say

Hashem said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9

Babies, even before their fifth birthday, are incredibly smart – much more than one might suppose from looking at them. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba have found that even at only six months, babies show empathy for a bullied victim. 

In a paper published in British Journal of Psychology and titled “Young infants are provictims, but it depends on the context,” Dr. Florina Uzefovsky – head of BGU’s Bio-Empathy Lab who is also a senior lecturer in BGU’s department of psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience – conducted with her colleagues two experiments. Their findings contributed to the debunking of the theory that babies develop the ability to empathize only after one year. 

“The findings indicate that even during a baby’s first year, the infant is already sensitive to others’ feelings and can draw complicated conclusions about the context of a particular emotional display,” she noted. “Even during the first year of life, babies are able to identify figures who “deserve” empathy and which ones do not, and if it appears that there is no justification for the other one’s distress, no preference is shown.”

In the first experiment, researchers determined that five- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate a clear preference for the victim. They showed 27 infants two video clips showing a square figure with eyes climb a hill, meet a circular friendly figure, then happily go down the hill together, all the while displaying clear positive or neutral feelings. But in the second video, the same round figure hits and bullies the square figure until it goes back down the hill, showing its distress by crying and doubling over.

The study examined whether and when young infants are sensitive to distressed others, using two experiments with a forcedchoice paradigm, she explained. “The first experiment showed that five-to nine-month-old infants demonstrate a clear provictim preference: They preferred a distressed character that had been physically harmed over a matched neutral character. The second experiment showed that infants’ preference for a distressed other is not invariable, but rather depends on the context: Infants no longer preferred the distressed character when it expressed the exact same distress but for no apparent reason.” These findings have implications for the early development of human compassion and morality. 

Adults, adolescents, and elementary school-age children typically view bullying negatively and feel empathic concern for victims of aggression Such empathic concern for hurt others is important as it can promote prosocial action (such as defending and comforting) and reduce the risk of behaving aggressively towards others, wrote Uzefovsky. This tendency might not even be unique to humans, as chimpanzees have been seen to console others who suffered at the hands of aggressors. But it has not been known how early children develop this empathic, positive attitude towards others who have been harmed. 

Taken together, the studies show that infants’ preference for a distressed character over a nondistressed character was significantly stronger when the other’s distress was preceded by harm, as in the first experiment, than when there was no clear reason for the distress, as in the second experiment. This indicates that when responding to others’ distress, even young infants already take into account the context or meaning of the distress: 

It will be interesting, she concluded, to examine whether early individual differences in infants’ provictim preferences are stable over time.