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Emotion Review


Empathy and Self-Recognition in Phylogenetic and Ontogenetic Perspective

Doris Bischof-Khler
Emotion Review 2012 4: 40
DOI: 10.1177/1754073911421377
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Empathy and Self-Recognition in Phylogenetic

and Ontogenetic Perspective

Emotion Review
Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 2012) 4048
The Author(s) 2012
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073911421377

Doris Bischof-Khler

Department of Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich, Germany

Empathy means understanding another persons emotional or intentional state by vicariously sharing this state. As opposed to
emotional contagion, empathy is characterized by the selfother distinction of subjective experience. Empathy develops in the
second year, as soon as symbolic representation and mental imagery set in that enable children to represent the self, to recognize
their mirror image, and to identify with another person. In experiments with 126 children, mirror recognition and readiness to
empathize with a distressed playmate were investigated. Almost all recognizers showed compassion and tried to help, whereas
nonrecognizers were perplexed or remained indifferent. Several motivational consequences of empathy are discussed and its special
quality is outlined in comparison with theory of mind and perspective taking.

altruism, empathy, selfother distinction, self-recognition, synchronic identification, theory of mind

The development of empathy in small children is a rather

neglected topic in contemporary psychology. Much more
attention is directed to theory of mind, which is also referred to
as common sense mentalism. What is meant by this concept
and whether or when it can be attributed to very young children is still a matter of debate. Some researchers assume a
theory of mind already in babies in the first year whenever
their behavior shows reference to the mental state of another,
as for instance in social referencing and shared attention;
some even attribute the ability to animals below the primate
level (for a survey, see Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007).
As we will see here, empathic responses, too, are sometimes
considered the outcome of theory of mind.
The problem with such a broad application of theory of mind
is that it treats mechanisms of different complexity all alike. For
example, in several studies with looking-time paradigms, babies
in their second year expected an agent to look for an object
which had been transferred to another location during her
absencewhere she had seen and handled it before she left the
scene. However, when in another trial the agent was reaching
for the object in its new location, the babies looked longerthat
is, they seemed to be astonished that she knew what she could

not know having been absent during the relevant event (Onishi
& Baillargeon, 2005; Southgate, Senju, & Csibra, 2007). From
these and similar findings (for a survey, see Caron, 2009; Sodian,
2010) it is argued that babies already understand the concept of
false belief that has traditionally been considered crucial for the
development of a theory of mind in the fourth year (for a survey,
see Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). A more parsimonious
explanation would be that the babies follow a behavior rule
that does not imply mental-state understanding. This aligns with
a proposal by Povinelli and Vonk (2003) in their debate on
chimpanzees theory of mind. According to this rule, the babies
associate an agents gaze orientation or reaching toward an
object with the objects location, and this association causes
them to anticipate where they will going to be active upon their
return (Bischof-Khler, 2011; Perner, 2009; Perner & Ruffman,
2005; Sodian, 2010). Just the same, very young babies tendency
to interpret an agents gaze, reaching, and pointing as goal
directed can be explained by a similar behavior rule and does
not necessarily imply that they attribute intentions to the agent
(for a survey, see Sodian, 2010). Altogether, the explanatory
value of theory-of-mind attributions to young children remains
equivocal. I, personally, sympathize with a position that ascribes

Corresponding author: Doris Bischof-Khler, Department of Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich, Leopoldstr. 13, D-80802 Munich, Germany.
Email: Doris@Bischof.com

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Bischof-Khler Empathy and Self-Recognition 41

a theory of mind only in cases where children explicitly understand the representational character of representations, that is,
conceptualize mental experience as caused by mental acts
(Bischof-Khler, 2000a, 2011; Perner, 1991; see also Figure 2).
According to current knowledge, this capacity is not yet present
in the great apes or in children younger than 3 years old. Does
this mean that neither understands the mental state of others? In
this paper, I propose that empathy is the first mechanism in phylogeny and ontogeny that conveys insight into the subjective
experience of another, and that it can be explained without the
abilities necessary for a theory of mind.
Empathy is a process in which an observer vicariously
shares the emotion or intention of another person and thereby
understands what this other person feels or intends (BischofKhler, 1991). The empathic response may be caused by the
expressive behavior of the other or by the persons situation.
Although primarily an emotional response, empathy should not
be confused with emotional contagion, in which the emotion of
another person takes possession of the observers without them
being aware of the fact that the shared emotion originates in
another persons emotion. Examples of emotional contagion
are: contagious yawning, laughter, mass panic, or breaking into
tears simply by watching other people crying. In empathy, the
observers remain aware of the fact that the emotion or intention
they participate in is actually the others emotion or intention.
Thus, empathy is comprised of emotional as well as cognitive
components. It means vicarious sharing of emotion while
simultaneously recognizing that one shares the emotion without
necessarily being able to conceptualize that emotion. It is an
emotional response that mediates insight.
Empathy must further be distinguished from another mechanism of social cognition, perspective-taking. This ability means
imagining oneself in another persons place and, on this basis,
conceptualizing the others point of view, thinking, and feeling.
Perspective taking is merely a rational mechanism in which
emotional participation is of no importance. In perspective taking, one can imagine the emotion of another person but that
does not imply sharing the emotion.

Empathy in the Second Year

Before going into a detailed analysis of the process of empathy,
results from our own investigations with 126 boys and girls,
ages 16 to 24 months, will be presented to give an impression of
what children will do when empathizing with a person in need
(Bischof-Khler, 1988, 1991, 1994).
Empathy was investigated in two different settings:
In the broken spoon experiment, the child played with a
grown-up playmate who had already been familiarized with the
child in an earlier play session. After a while, both ate a dessert
and the playmate accidentally broke her spoon. She said she
could not eat anymore and demonstrated grief by sobbing a little
(for about 2 minutes). A third spoon was lying on the table in
case the child might offer it as a substitute. The mothers of the
children sat in the background and were instructed to intervene
only upon the childrens request.

In the teddy bear experiment, with different children of the

same age, the playmate brought a teddy bear along. After a
while, she appeared to accidentally break the teddy bear causing
it to lose its arm. After the accident, she started sobbing and
mourning and verbalized her grief: Mein Teddy ist kaputt (My
teddy is broken).
We distinguished four patterns from the childrens responses:
The helpers showed concern and compassion. All stayed
close to the playmate most of the time. In the spoon experiment,
they stopped eating. They tried to help or consoleoffering a
substitute toy or spoon. In the teddy bear experiment some children attempted to repair the teddy bear, others went to their
mothers and tried to draw their attention to the playmate.
In a second groupthe perplexedchildren also stopped playing or eating, but they did not intervene. They stayed with the playmate and kept their attention focused on her. They appeared not
to know what to do or to not quite understand what was going on.
In a third group, the children showed emotional contagion.
They burst out crying and sought consolation from their mothers.
A fourth group showed indifference. These children looked
momentarily startled but soon lost interest in the playmate and
went on playing or eating.
Helpers were classified as empathic; perplexed children
seemed more worried than empathic. Indifferent children and
children displaying contagion were classified as nonempathic,
the latter because their grief remained centered on themselves
rather than on the person in need.
We considered several possibilities for these behavioral differences, for instance, the relationship to the playmate, or interest in the teddy bear. They turned out to be irrelevant. We did,
however, find a strong correlation to an ability which at first
glance appeared to have little connection with empathy, namely,
the ability of children to recognize themselves in a mirror. This
was tested by another experimenter (who did not know the
results of the empathy test) with the so-called Rouge Test
(Amsterdam, 1972). First, the children were exposed to a mirror. Then a mark was inconspicuously placed on their cheek and
they were placed in front of the mirror again. Children that demonstrated an awareness of the mark were identified as recognizers. They also grimaced and experimented while watching their
body movements in the mirror. Nonrecognizers treated their
mirror image as a playmate whom they smiled at or tried to find
behind the mirror. There was a third group of children who
showed a striking tendency to avoid their mirror image by going
away or turning their heads abruptly when catching their own
gaze. Some of them identified the mark on their face, some did
not. They appeared to be in a prestage of self-recognition and
were, therefore, called transitionals.
The results of our investigation were rather straightforward:
All empathic children recognized themselves in the mirror. Not
all nonrecognizers were empathic. Figure 1 shows the results in
detail: Indifferent children were predominantly nonrecognizers.
Perplexed and children showing contagion were mainly in the
mirror transitional stage. Helpers all recognized themselves; a
few were transitionals who identified the mark on their faces.
Recognizers that did not empathize do not contradict the results

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42 Emotion Review Vol. 4 No. 1











Figure 2. Perception, symbolic representation in imagination, and

meta-representation (theory of mind)




or Contagious


Figure 1. Empathy and self-recognition (Teddy-Bear and Broken Spoon


because self-recognition is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for empathy; other variables can override the empathic
response. The correlation between self-recognition and empathy
remains consistent when age is partialed out.

Self-Recognition and Empathy

Now, to the reasons that led us to expect a connection between
self-recognition and empathy: Self-recognition is due to the
onset of mental imagery at about the middle of the second year
of life. Children now become able to symbolically represent
reality, allowing them to solve problems using their imagination
(Piaget, 1975). This process could be compared to the use of a
flight simulator. One would scarcely allow an inexperienced
student pilot to use a real airplane to try landing. Instead, he
would be seated in a flight simulator where he can commit any
blunder without really risking his neck. Mental imagery is such
a simulator. It allows for imaging behavioral goals and figuring
out the best way to reach them.
Mental imagery requires a novel form of representation as
depicted in Figure 2. It shows a person seeing an object and her
perception of this object. Additionally, at a second level,
an image of this object can be generated by imagination. This
representation can be experienced independent of reality. It can

be generated at any time, shifted around in the imagination and

be put into relation to other objects. Under an epistemological
perspective, the perception itself also is a representation, but its
representative characteristic is not experienced. To the person
the perception is reality as such. Only on the second level is the
person aware of the representative character of the image.
Therefore, it will be called symbolic representation. Symbolic
representations are experienced as referring to reality, not as
being reality. That is, phenomenologically, they differ in quality
from perceptual representations. This qualitative differentiation
allows us to separate real experience from imagination: Even
3-year-olds know that a cookie one thinks of cannot be eaten.
On this level, the representative character of imagery need not
be reflected upon.
Conscious reflection would presuppose a theory of mind. To
understand theory of mind, let us focus on the person at the left
in Figure 2 who also perceives the object. The first person not
only perceives this second person, but can also imagine how the
second person represents the object and manipulates it in her
imagination. And, in the exact same way, the first person could
also represent her own act of perceiving and representing, as
well as other mental acts. Reflecting on mental operations is
what is meant by theory of mind; some authors call this a
meta-representation. To explain empathy, however, the metarepresentation level is not requiredthe levels of perception
and symbolic representation will do.
In primate phylogeny, there is evidence that imagery only
appears at the level of the great apes. Incidents of true mental
problem solving in apes were first documented by Wolfgang
Khler (1921) and David Premack (Premack & Premack,
1983). For instance, chimpanzees piled boxes on top of each
other and climbed on top of them in order to reach a banana
suspended from the ceiling. In clear contrast to solving the
problem by trial and error, they acted in a straightforward fashion after obviously having figured out the solution in their
imagination. As this example shows, mental problem solving
could not be efficient without a representation of the self, as
well. The ape has to be equipped with an image of himself that
he can shift around mentally, just like the images of other
objects involved in the problem. There is evidence that apes

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Bischof-Khler Empathy and Self-Recognition 43



Figure 3. I (unreflected self sensing), Me and You (symbolic


form a rudimentary self-representation, as demonstrated by their

ability to recognize themselves in the mirror (Gallup, 1970).
Consequently, one would expect apes to be able to empathize
comparably to a 2-year-old child.
To understand the connection between empathy and
self-recognition, we next have to ask: What does it mean to
recognize oneself?
When we try to imagine how a child in the first year experiences herself, we can assume that her perceptual world is filled
with relevant objects, but she (herself as a person) is not yet the
subject of her perception. That could lead us to conclude that
something like an ego feeling is still lacking at this developmental stage. However, the baby can already well distinguish whether
an event is caused by herself or by somebody else. Already,
3-month-old babies enjoy events much more when they are selfcreated than when they are only passively observed (Papousek &
Papousek, 1977). The own ego is thus already sensed as a kind of
subject-related quality of the perceived events.
William James (1892/1961) distinguished two kinds of selfexperience: the I and the Me. The I denotes the self as the
subject of experience becoming aware of itself in a kind of unreflected self-sensing (Figure 3). The Me is the objectified self
giving rise to ego-conciousness. Because the I is unreflected, it
is difficult to grasp. It is embedded in carrying out activities, in
producing effects, and in having sensations. In their first year
infants are still confined to the I stage. Although they already
distinguish whether effects are internally controlled or externally caused, they are not yet able to draw this distinction
between the subjective experience of self and others. Babies, it
is true, from the first months on not only experience distinct
emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, fear (Izard, 1991), they also
respond appropriately to the expressions of emotions in others.
And, in episodes of emotional contagion, they share these emotions. Newborns join in crying as soon as they hear other babies
crying. A little later, emotional contagion can also be evoked by
other emotions, such as happiness or sadness, prompted by the
expressions of their caregivers (Hoffman, 1977; Thompson,
1987). Some authors consider this phenomenon to be the outcome of intersubjectivity and argue that babies already sense
others as like me, thereby giving them access to the subjective

experience of others (Meltzoff & Brooks, 2001; Stern, 1985;

Tomasello, 1999; Trevarthen, 1979). This interpretation remains
questionable when we look at the origins of contagion (for a
survey, see Preston & de Waal, 2002).
Contagion is phylogenetically an old mechanism known as
mood induction from ethology. It has an important function in
synchronizing divergent motivations in the group (Bischof,
2009). The expressive behavior of conspecifics triggers the same
behavior in the observers who, as a consequence, join together
for instance for eating, drinking, sleeping, or taking flight.
Mirror neurons may well explain this phenomenon (Rizzolatti &
Sinigaglia, 2008). However, they can only explain the arousal of
the same motivation in the observer. They do not explain how
the observer comes to know that their experience originates in
the subjective state of another individual. This is the case with
infants, as well; they cannot yet attribute the source of a shared
emotion to its original carrier. Phenomenologically speaking,
their entire subjective experience is colored by the emotion
shared by contagion.

SelfOther Distinction and Synchronic

The cognitive changes in the second year that provide empathy
with true insight into the mental state of another are selfother
distinction and synchronic identification.
Selfother distinction in this context does not apply to a
physical boundary that is already experienced in the first months
(Stern, 1985). Some authors assume selfother distinction in 3to 9-month-old babies because they can distinguish the mirror
image of self-created movements from the mirrored movements
produced by somebody else (Rochat & Striano, 2002). This
again fails to sufficiently explain empathy because it only refers
to the babys ability to distinguish self-produced effects from
effects produced by someone else.
Selfother distinction, prerequisite to empathy, only becomes
possible after the Me emerges. The Me (Figure 3) is a symbolic
representation of the self in the imagination. It has the character
of an object with a boundary that becomes the carrier of attributes. It can be conceived of as if it were another person. From this
perspective, one can realize that the self has an outside appearance which can be encountered in ones own mirror image. At the
same time, other persons are symbolically represented as well by
the You, which also has an object-like characteristic with a boundary. This condition allows for selfother distinction that provides
the cognitive component to the empathic experience.
Figure 4 demonstrates the process in a flow diagram. On the
left side, we have what the observer perceives: a person crying
over a broken teddy bear. To the right, all components playing a
role in the empathic process are represented separately in little
boxes, although in the real empathic experience they are
not separate, of course, they merge. The observer may become
completely overtaken by the distressed persons grief and
respond with emotional contagion. In a kind of fusion, this grief
is not perceived as the others emotion.

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44 Emotion Review Vol. 4 No. 1




Figure 5. Synchronic identity

Figure 4. Expression-induced and situation-induced empathy

This state of affairs changes as soon as self-representation,

which allows one to recognize oneself in a mirror, develops. Due
to self-representation, one is aware of oneself as being somebody separate from the other, not just physically, but on a psychological level as well. Thus, self and other appear as separate
carriers of their own inner experience (selfother distinction).
This allows the empathic observer to remain aware of the fact
that the shared emotion is actually another persons emotion.
Since the mechanism of emotional contagion is already present at the beginning of life, it could well be the emotional basis
for empathy as soon as one is aware of a selfother distinction.
This explanation, however, does not suffice to explain situationinduced empathy. Emotional contagion is only released when
grief, or any other emotion, is exhibited in the expressive behavior of a person. Empathy may also be evoked by a persons situation. A sad story or event happening to a person can already
lead to compassion in 2- and 3-year-olds, even when the children
do not know or perceive the persons response (Zahn-Waxler,
Radke-Yarrow, & Kind, 1979).
Furthermore, expression-induced empathy could not explain
how an observer comes to understand the intention of another
person who tries to reach a goal, but does not succeed. What
motivates us to cooperate and to help to complete their action?
To understand the aim/the desire/the need of another and to figure out a solution for their problem, the observer has to take that
persons entire situation into consideration; their expressive
behavior alone would not convey the relevant information.
In order to explain situation-induced empathy, we have to
refer to the second cognitive requirement mentioned earlier
synchronic identification (Bischof, 1978). Identification in this
context is not to be understood in the sense it is considered in
psychoanalysis: wanting to be like another person. Synchronic
identification is a mode of perception (Figure 5) due to which
two phenomena given at the same time, but separated in space,
are perceived as being the same. Here an essential differentiation has to be made. To be identical is often confounded with
being equal. That is incorrect. One egg looks just like another,
yet they are not necessarily the same: You can eat onethe

other one can still be hatchedso they are not identical.

Equality of appearance is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of identity. Rather, being identical has to be understood in
the sense of sharing the same fate.
Synchronic identification is a necessary requirement of mental imagery because it connects symbolic representations with
reality. We must be able to realize that the ideal object, which we
tentatively shift in mental simulation to another place, is identical with the real objectunmoved at its original site. Second,
synchronic identification relates verbal concepts to the facts
they denote. At about 18 months, children demonstrate a kind of
word explosion in their language acquisition. They now understand that objects are, in a way, the same as their names, as Karl
Bhler (1930) put it. Verbal concepts are not just associated with
facts; they represent them symbolically. Third, synchronic identification may relate two real facts in such a way that one appears
as a symbol of the other, as in the case of a photograph and its
original. In development, this is the starting point for pretend
play. Finally, synchronic identification yokes the I to the Me,
thereby allowing that I recognize my mirror image as me.
With respect to empathy, synchronic identification also
changes the mode in which the other person is perceived. Me
and You appear essentially identical (Figure 4). The subjective I
then relates to You similarly to the way it relates to Me. The I is
mirrored in the You, as it were. The others experience is, in
essence, the same as mine. Thus, the other person qualifies as an
object of synchronic identification. Consequently, everything
that happens to the other is perceived as something concerning
myself, as well. I respond emotionally to the others situation as
if I were in that persons place. I experience their problem as if
it were my problem. Again, selfother distinction prevents an
emotional fusion.
It remains to be emphasized that identification needs no former experience with a similar situation as long as this situation
has the potential of becoming relevant to the observer. Nor does
empathy mean that the emotional and motivational state of the
other must be reflected upon in the sense that the child actively
considers, What would I feel if I were in her situation? Rather,
the insight lies in the quality of the vicariously felt emotion
or intention itself. They arephenomenologicallycentered in
the other.

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Bischof-Khler Empathy and Self-Recognition 45

This differentiation is missing in contemporary literature.

Instead, it is thought that empathy only conveys insight when
it is completed by a truly cognitive mechanism which is considered to be perspective taking (Feshbach, 1978; Hoffman,
1976). It is argued that empathizers must simultaneously represent the state of the other person beside their own state (Perner,
1991). In this respect we have to distinguish two aspects of the
empathic process. The behavioral goal of the other person and
the means to reach this goal must be simulated in a kind of
vicarious mental problem solving that becomes possible with
symbolic representation (compare Figure 2). The desire or
intention of the other need not be represented as a mental state
because it is induced by empathic identification.
Representation of desires and intentions as mental states
(independent of the state one is in) is only available at the following stage of development and presupposes the ability to consider several perspectives simultaneously. This ability refers to
Level II perspective taking as conceptualized by Flavell, who
distinguishes it from Level I perspective taking (Flavell, Everett,
Croft, & Flavell, 1981). The latter is based on a behavior rule
referring to gaze orientation and allows babies already in their
second year to be aware of what another person can or cannot
see. Level II perspective taking develops with the onset of a
theory of mind around the fourth birthday and allows children to
imagine how the world appears to another person from his or her
perspective. It could scarcely be a necessary component of
empathy because empathy already developed 2 years earlier.
However, there are situations in which perspective taking is a
valuable supplement to empathy. Empathy has a shortcoming. I
can only empathize according to my own reactivity. What if I,
myself, would feel anxious in a given situation but the other
person, unlike me, would not? Only children with a theory of
mind can understand that desires and emotions of other people
can be different when compared to their own responses and
preferences. Or, suppose I am competing with an opponent and
the opponent wins. To imagine how he feels, it would be necessary to represent his joy although I, myself, feel down at this
instant. This kind of problem can only be solved by affective
perspective taking which, in combination with empathizing,
considerably improves and enlarges the understanding of
others mental states in ongoing development.
Considering the evidence that children in their second and
third year are already rather competent at inferring another persons emotions and desires (Bischof-Khler, 1988, 1994;
Buttelman, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2009; Krtner, Keller, &
Chaudhary, 2010; Trommsdorff, Friedlmeier, & Mayer, 2007;
Vaish, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2009; Warneken & Tomasello,
2006; Wellman & Woolley, 1990; Yuill, 1984; Zahn-Waxler et
al., 1979; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, Wagner, & Chapman,
1992), some authors argue that a theory of mind concerning
desires and intentionsdesire psychology precedes
belief-psychology (Wellman & Bartsch, 1994). The discrepancy in age could mostly be resolved if the role of empathy
were to be upgraded that allows children (from the age of 2
upwards) to possess quite an elaborate understanding of another




I (Me)

Empathy Guilt
Sensation Seeking

Figure 6. Motivational consequeneces of empathy

persons emotional and motivational states even though they

are not yet able to reflect on mental processes. Therefore, in
many cases, what is meant by desire psychology is actually
To exemplify this, I refer to an experiment by Repacholi and
Gopnik (1997) that is frequently cited as proof for an early
onset of desire psychology. In the experiment, a person
expressed preference for broccoli and disgust at cookies. Even
18-month-old (but not 14-month-old) infants did not offer
cookies to this person; they understood that somebody else did
not like cookies, although they, themselves, did. The behavior
can well be explained as an empathic response. In the experimental setting, the other person showed their liking and disgust
by their expressive behavior. By doing this, they offered the
appropriate releaser to empathizing, thereby informing the child
of their real preference. It is no surprise that the 14-month-olds
failed. They were too young to have formed a Me and, therefore,
not yet able to empathize.

Motivational Consequences of Empathy

Finally, I want to add some remarks on the motivational consequences of empathy (Figure 6). The most common is compassion, also referred to as sympathy and sometimes not distinguished
from empathy (Batson, 1987). Compassion is considered to play
a dominant causal role in prosocial intervention and helping
behavior (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). In our experiments we took
it as the main indicator of empathy. In compassion, empathic distress motivates an urge to terminate this distressnot by running
away, but by ending the miserable state for the other.
A further consequence of empathy is cooperation. By identification, the observer participates in the intention of the other
and thereby becomes motivated to figure out which activity is
most appropriate for reaching the goal the other is aiming at.
There are quite a few examples of empathic identification in
chimpanzees as, for instance, cooperation in hunting and food
sharing (de Waal, 2008; Goodall, 1986; Khler, 1921; Menzel,

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46 Emotion Review Vol. 4 No. 1

1972). These behaviors are considered to have played an

important role in human evolution. Their occurrence in the great
apes suggests that empathy was available at a rather early stage
in our phylogeny. Recently, helping has been proved in young
chimpanzees (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006, 2010).
Feeling guilty is another consequence of empathy (Hoffman,
1976). In this case, a person who caused another persons distress cannot help but empathize with the victim. Already in
their second year, children show evidence of guilt feelings
(Zahn-Waxler et al., 1979). Hoffman pointed out that empathy
also plays an important role in the development of morality
particularly with respect to its emotional constituents like concern, regret, shame, feelings of justice, existential guilt, moral
aggression, and retaliation.
Compassion and identification do not necessarily turn into
prosocial intervention. Prosocial intervention is costly and the
costs may be considered to be too high. Some of the children in
our experiments did not realize that there was a substitute spoon
and considered giving their own spoon away but were inhibited
from doing so because then: How should they, themselves, eat?
Further variables influencing the outcome of empathy are autonomy and competency. High-ranking children are more prepared
to help others (Bischof-Khler, 2011). Feeling incompetent may
be one reason why bystanders often do not intervene (Staub,
1986). Small children simply may not know what to do, as was
the case with some of the perplexed children in our studies.
Probably the most important determinant influencing the
motivational outcome of empathy is familiarity (Hornstein,
1978). In animals, familiarity indicates being related. Due to kin
selection, relatives are the potential recipients of altruistic
behavior (Hamilton, 1978). In man, too, familiarity facilitates
identificationunfamiliarity counteracts it. In small children,
an unfamiliar person may evoke a stranger reaction, thus preventing them from approaching this person. In adults familiarity
is taken, in a much broader sense, as an indicator of whether a
person qualifies as a recipient of help. However, personally
knowing each other will not suffice in this respect. As is known
from experiments, needy persons improve their chances of
receiving help and sympathy when they belong to the in-group,
that is, when they are relatives, or have the same religion, share
the same values and opinions, speak the same idiom, or belong
to the same ethnic group.
Finally, contrary to a common opinion, it has to be mentioned that empathy can also be the basis of socially negative
emotions, leading to negative consequences for others. Empathic
participation in the grief of another person does not necessarily
lead to compassion. In cases where the observer has a grudge
against the distressed person, empathy can lead to malicious
gloating. In this case, the miserable state of the other is empathically shared and, at the same time, enjoyed. Sensation seeking
is another example of empathizing. In this case, the observer,
without being endangered himself, vicariously shares the thrill
of the danger or catastrophe encountered (in reality) by another.
Probably the most unpleasant negative consequences of empathy manifest themselves when empathy is combined with
aggression. If we define aggression as intentionally harming a

person, then we have to keep in mind that intended harming

presupposes that the aggressor is aware of how his victim will
feel. Aggression in animals below the great apes and in small
children is, as it were, innocent because they are not yet able
to empathize. Interestingly enough, as soon as children are
able to empathize, they not only sympathize with the distressed, they also start committing aggressive acts that are
obviously intended to hurt other persons and go on doing so,
even if their victims complain (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1979). In
sadism, participation in the pain of the suffering victim is the
very aim of the experience. This consequence can be observed
in our next relatives as well. Jane Goodall (1977) reports
behaviors occurring in chimpanzee warfare that cannot be
considered anything but cruel.

Development of Empathy
The basic capacity to empathize is an effect of maturation rather
than socialization. Empathy is a human potential that evolves in
all children as soon as they are able to mentally represent themselves and to synchronically identify. Along with the refinement
of social cognition by developmental processes, the further fate
of this potential depends on individual experience as well as on
social and cultural influences in general. I cannot delve further
into this, so I will leave it with a few remarks. The basic innate
understanding of emotional expressions has to be differentiated
in a social context. The first steps in this respect are affect
attunement (Stern, 1985) and the tendency of caregivers to mirror the behavior of babies (Papousek & Papousek, 1977), thereby
allowing them to refine the association of inner experience with
its outside appearance.
In our subjects, only a few recognizers did not empathize.
Most tried to help and almost all showed compassion and concern. As we discovered in a separate study, recognizers with
nonempathic response were frequently found to be insecurely
attached (Bischof-Khler, 2000b). Security of attachment to
caregivers was determined by Ainsworths Strange Situation
Test (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Insecurely
attached children tended to show emotional contagion or to
respond indifferently in the empathy situation.
An American study with 2- and 3-year-olds provides a hint
as to which socialization practice may encourage empathy and
which one may not (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1979). Children were
more often inclined to empathize and show compassion when
they had mothers who were empathic and who explained to
them that it is not a good thing to hurt somebody else because
that person would feel pain and sorrow (inductive method). The
children with less empathic mothers, who without explanation
only forbade hurting others, showed less empathy themselves.
Socialization certainly influences the degree to which persons empathize. It may also be the reason why empathy declines
or disappears in some persons or even turns into an inclination
for socially negative reactions. The conditions under which
developments of this kind occur, however, are still far from
being clarified.

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Emotion Review
Vol. 5, No. 1 (January 2013) 116
The Author(s) 2013
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073912471619

Doris Bischof-Khler (2012), Empathy and Self-Recognition in Phylogenetic and Ontogenetic Perspective, Emotion Review,
4: 4048.
(Original DOI: 10.1177/1754073911421377)
On page 41, the following error was made:
Not all nonrecognizers were empathic. should be correctly written as: All nonrecognizers were not empathic.

SAGE apologises for this error.