August 21, 2012
Youngsters Often Know When Someone Does Not Deserve Sympathy
Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Researchers recently discovered that young children know when an individual should not receive sympathy. In particular, a child as young as three years of age can determine the difference between those who are whining and those who have a real reason to be upset.
"The study provides the first evidence that 3-year-olds can evaluate just how reasonable another person's distressed reaction is to a particular incident or situation, and this influences whether they are concerned enough to try to do something to help," explained the study's lead author Robert Hepach, researcher of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a prepared statement.
In the experiment, scientists observed 48 children, aged between 36 to 39 months. Researchers tracked the reactions of the child based on three different incidences including when the distress was justified, when it was not justified, and when the reason for the distress was not known. In particular, two adults would meet with a child, with one of the adults displaying frowning, whimpering, or pouting. These reactions were related to specific incidents of material loss, physical harm, or unfairness.
The children participants were able to see the adult respond to something distressful or react to something that was similar but with less severe consequences. Overall, those children who saw the adult act upset due to real harm or injustice displayed concern, intervened on behalf of the person, or checked on the individual later on to make sure the distress was no longer a serious issue.
Also, in another test, an adult was given one helium balloon and the child was given two balloons. When the adult “accidentally” released the balloon in not the air, he would act distressed. In this case, the child would give up the balloon more quickly to the adult if he had seen him angry or sad based on real harm than an inconvenience.
Overall, the experiment showed that young children do not respond to distress automatically but are cognizant to the situation in which distress happens. They work to evaluate the context of the situation. The findings of the study also demonstrate that humans early in development utilize flexibility and sophistication in crafting their sympathy response. This shows that humans do their best in balancing empathetic and sympathetic responses with social bonds and interactions.
"These very young children really considered what was happening in a given situation rather than automatically responding with sympathy to another person apparently in distress," commented Hepach in the statement. "In most instances, they identified unfounded distress and they responded in a manner appropriate for the specific situation."
Researchers believe that more studies need to be done in the area.
“Future research is needed to investigate whether children´s sympathetic responses also dissociate in terms of more versus less immediate appraisals,” wrote the authors of the paper.