The second year of life marks the beginning of empathic responsiveness to othersâ distress, a hallmark of human interaction. We examined the role of social understanding (self-other understanding and emotion understanding) and empathic disposition in individual differences in 12- to 24-month oldsâ responses to mothersâ and an unfamiliar infant peerâs distress (N = 71). Results reveal associations between empathic responsiveness to distressed mother and crying infant peer, suggesting that individual differences in prosocial motivation may exist right from the outset, when the ability to generate an empathic, prosocial response first emerges. We further found that above and beyond such dispositional characteristics (and age), children with more advanced social understanding were more empathically responsive to a peerâs distress. However, responses to mothersâ distress were explained by childrenâs empathic disposition only, and not by their social understanding. Thus, as early as the second year of life some children are dispositionally more inclined to empathy regardless of who is in distress, whether mother or peer. At the same time, emotion understanding and self-other understanding appear to be especially important for explaining individual differences in young childrenâs empathic responsiveness to a peerâs distress.
KEYWORDS: empathy, prosocial behavior, emotion understanding, toddlers, peers.