Understanding another person's subjective state is mediated by two different mechanisms – empathy and theory of mind. Whereas the latter allows one to take another person's perspective without being emotionally involved, empathy is primarily an emotional mechanism. It generates an understanding of another person's emotional or intentional state by vicariously sharing this state. In contemporary discussion, empathy is often not clearly distinguished from emotional contagion – in which the subject is indistinctly taking over the other person’s mood. Affect attunement, social referencing and other incidences of shared affect in the first year of life can be explained by emotional contagion.
However, it must be emphasized that emotional contagion does not provide the observer with the insight that it is ANOTHER person’s state that he or she shares. Authors who did not distinguish between emotional contagion and empathy must therefore stipulate additional cognitive mechanisms, such as perspective taking or even a theory of mind, to supply the empathic observer with this insight. Contrary to this notion, we postulated that the allo-centering of the felt emotion is mediated by a particular perceptual module named “synchronic identification,” which is available only to anthropoids and humans. Unlike time-bridging “diachronic identification,” which allows a person to recognize the ball proceeding from the screen as the same ball that previously rolled behind it, synchronic identification enables a person to identify two objects perceived simultaneously at different sites – such as myself and my image in a mirror.
In human infants, mirror-recognition develops at about the middle of the second year. We predicted that exactly when this competence is available, children should also be able to identify empathetically with another person and draw a clear-cut distinction between the emotional domains of self and other. This hypothesis was tested and fully confirmed in four different samples with a (combined) total of 126 children – ages 15 to 24 months. In two separate sessions, with different investigators, the subjects underwent a “rouge test” for self-recognition and were confronted with a person in need who demonstrated grief. Empathy was operationalized by the children’s demonstration of emotional concern and by prosocial interventions. In all four studies, not a single subject that showed concern and tried to help the person in need was unable to recognize him or herself in the mirror. All non-recognizers showed a perplexed or indifferent response in the empathy test.
There were, as one would expect, in every sample a few recognizers who failed to show an empathic response. Therefore, in a fifth investigation we considered security of attachment as tested by the Strange Situation of Ainsworth as a possible moderating variable. This investigation yielded significant associations between attachment type and response in the empathy experiment. The majority of insecurely attached children did not react empathetically. Thus, insecure attachment may be one reason why children become stuck in their empathy-development.
A final remark seems to be in order. Quite often, empathy is understood as being synonymous with sympathy or compassion with another person’s welfare. However, one should not overlook the fact that empathy does not necessarily yield prosocial emotions. It can also be the basis for sensation seeking, malicious gloating, malevolence and intentional cruelty. The question under which conditions children specialize on empathetically enjoying another person’s distress is still open to investigation.
Bischof-Köhler, D. & Bischof, N. (2018). Self-Recogintion, Empathy and Concern for Others in Toddlers. In N. Roughley and T. Schramme (Eds.): Forms of Fellow Feelings (78-106). Cambridge University Press.
Bischof-Köhler, D. (2012) Empathy and self-recognition in phylogenetic and ontogenetic perspective. Emotion Review 4/1, 40-48.
Bischof-Köhler, D. (2004) Empathy, Compassion and Cruelty, and How They Connect. Presentation at Einstein Forum, Potsdam:
Zivilisationsbruch mit Zuschauer. Gestalten des Mitgefühls download presentation (pdf)
Bischof-Köhler, D. (1991). The development of empathy in infants. In M.E. Lamb & H. Keller (eds.), Infant Development. Perspectives from German speaking countries (245-273). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. download chapter (pdf)
Soziale Entwicklung in Kindheit
Bindung, Empathie, Theory of Mind
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Bischof-Köhler, D. (2006). Empathie – Mitgefühl – Grausamkeit. Und wie sie zusammenhängen. Berliner Debatte Initial 17(1/2), 14-20.
Bischof-Köhler, D. (2001). Zusammenhang von Empathie und Selbsterkennen bei Kleinkindern. In M. Cierpka & P. Buchheim (Hrsg.), Psychodynamische Konzpte (321-328). Berlin: Springer.
Bischof-Köhler, D. (2000). Empathie, prosoziales Verhalten und Bindungsqualität bei Zweijährigen. Psychologie in Erziehung und Unterricht 47, 142-158. english abstract
Bischof-Köhler, D. (1998). Zusammenhänge zwischen kognitiver, motivationaler und emotionaler Entwicklung in der frühen Kindheit und im Vorschulalter. In H. Keller (Hrsg), Lehrbuch Entwicklungspsychologie (325-377) Bern: Huber.
Bischof-Köhler, D. (1994). Selbstobjektivierung und
fremdbezogene Emotionen. Identifikation des eigenen Spiegelbildes,
Empathie und prosoziales Verhalten.
Zeitschrift für Psychologie 202, 349-377.
Bischof-Köhler, D. (1989/1993). Spiegelbild und Empathie. Die Anfänge der sozialen Kognition. Bern: Huber
Bischof-Köhler, D. (1988). Über den Zusammenhang
von Empathie und der Fähigkeit, sich im Spiegel zu erkennen.
Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie 47, 147-159.