Empathy and Morality "Hardwired" in Children

Last summer researchers at the University of Chicago released the results of a study that suggests that morality and empathy are “hardwired” in children. The researchers had a group of boys and girls look at video of people being kind to each other, being hurt accidentally, or being hurt intentionally. They also monitored the kids’ reactions with a functional MRI. What they found is that different parts of the brain were activated depending on what the kids were viewing. Specific brain areas were activated when the kids viewed someone being accidentally hurt. What was particularly interesting is that additional areas of the brain were activated when kids viewed someone being hurt intentionally. This suggests that kids are hardwired for not only empathy, but also for morality. That is, while they expected to see a consistent brain activation pattern for empathy (i.e., when kids watched someone being accidentally injured), they did not expect that when the kids viewed a person being intentionally hurt, additional areas of the brain would be activated. The researchers speculate that they may have found parts of the brain that deal with moral judgements.  They also feel that this information may one day prove useful in understanding and treating people who appear to lack empathy and morality, for example, people with anti-social personalities or bullies.

You can read more about the University of Chicago study here.

Our ability to empathize with others affects the quality of our relationships. It would be great if we could somehow introduce a medication that would allow someone to be more empathic or ethical. The problem is that unlike the rudimentary controlled world of the laboratory, real life human interactions are very complex and personal interests can make moral judgements very subjective. For instance, would it be immoral to steal medicine from a pharmacy if you had no money and your baby had a potentially fatal illness? Morality here can be very subjective. Similarly, if you witnessed someone that hurt you  in the recent past being intentionally hurt by someone else, would the “empathy centres” in your brain still be activated in the same way?  Writer J. D. Trout’s latest book, The Empathy Gap refutes the “hardwired” understanding of empathy and focuses on the complex and changing ways we either empathize or don’t empathize with one another. He also believes that we should gear public policy to encourage more empathy.

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5 Responses to Empathy and Morality "Hardwired" in Children
  1. matt b
    May 28, 2009 | 12:08 pm

    my only concern about this is that i would like to see the scans done on people cross culturally. Do, say, asain children have the same reactions to the same images as the american children that participated in this study?

  2. Nancy
    May 28, 2009 | 12:11 pm

    What would be interesting would be to study the correlation between adult modeling of empathy and the ability of children to empathize. It would also be interesting to see how societal factors such as increase in screen time and decrease in social interactions affect a child’s abiity to empathize. Environmental influences have been shown to shape brain wiring, and I would hypothesize that this is the case here in addition to genetic and temperamental traits. Interesting stuff!

  3. brianmacdonald
    May 28, 2009 | 12:12 pm

    This is a good question. If these traits are hardwired, you’d expect few differences cross-culturally, I think. Giuseppe, what do you think?

  4. Annie @ PhD in Parenting
    May 28, 2009 | 1:52 pm

    Interesting post. I’m very interested in studies and information on empathy. I think there is a real deficit of it in today’s society and I would like to see the next generation improve on us. With that in mind, I am always looking for ways to help my children be more empathetic.

    I’ve been a bit concerned lately about whether my son will lose some of his empathetic traits if his empathy is not appreciated. When my daughter is crying, he will try to comfort her by hugging her or bringing her favourite toys and all she does is scream at him and throw the stuff back at him. I’m glad that he is showing his sister that he cares, but hope that her reaction to his caring won’t discourage him before she gets through her “terrible two” phase.

  5. JustAskBaby
    June 4, 2009 | 1:29 pm

    While the results of this study are interesting, they fail to take into account the developmental and experiential dimensions. A number of years ago, Jean Piaget made an extensive study of the development of morality in children. David Elkind put together some thoughts on this topic in his latest post: http://www.justaskbaby.com/blogs/professor-elkind/empathy-and-morality-in-children