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Department of Psychological Sciences

Jeffrey Howard, Ph.D.

Advisor: Dr. Mark Barnett

Dissertation Title

Preschoolers’ empathy for specific affects and their social interaction (facial, prosocial, sex differences) 

Dissertation Abstract

A review of the relevant research revealed little support for the theoretical assertion that young children's dispositional empathic sensitivity to a peer's distress might motivate prosocial behaviors and inhibit aggressive behaviors. It was argued that problems with the prior studies might exist at two levels. First, empathy may be too globally defined such that the assessment of the child's differential empathic sensitivity to specific affects might be more closely related to social behavior than the total empathy score. Second, the widely used verbal report measure of empathy was found to have serious limitations when used with very young children which suggested the need for nonverbal assessments of the children's dispositional empathy.

A slide-story measure of empathy was created. The facially expressed and verbally reported empathic responses of 35 preschool children to happy, sad, angry, and physically hurt peers was assessed. Ten weeks of naturalistic observation of the children during free play followed the empathy testing. The children's helping, comforting, physical and nonphysical aggression were recorded.

While the verbal empathy scores for the four affects were significantly intercorrelated, only the negative affects were significantly intercorrelated using facially expressed empathy scores indicating that it may be appropriate to distinguish between empathy for positive and negative affects. The extremely low frequencies of observed behaviors made the determination of interrater reliability questionable so the findings for the empathy-behavior relationships should be considered as tentative pending replication. A series of analyses compared the empathic sensitivities of children divided into high and low groups on each of the social behaviors. The major findings for the nonverbal empathy measure were the following. High helping boys were found to be more empathic toward happy peers, and less empathic toward sad peers than were in the low helping boys. High helping girls tended to be more empathic toward sad peers than were low helping girls. No association between empathy and comforting was found due to the low frequency of comforting. Aggression tended to be positively associated with overall empathy level.


Ph.D., Psychology, Kansas State University, 1983