The development of behavioral responses to another person’s distress has been well characterized in infants and toddlers from 10 to 25 months of age (e.g.,
Zahn-Waxler & Radke-Yarrow, 1982
; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, Wagner & Chapman, 1992
). Behavioral responses include orienting toward a person in distress, self-referencing, mirroring the other person’s distress, expressing sadness or worry, and offering help or comfort. Early in this developmental period, infants’ responses reflect emotional contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994
) and self-orientation. As cognitive abilities progress, infants’ responses take on other-oriented and pro-social qualities (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992
). Infants’ responses to others’ distress may be qualitatively different from empathy before an infant understands the self-other distinction (Bischof-Kohler, 1994
) in that empathy entails some understanding that the triggering emotional experience belongs to the other person. In the same developmental window when self-other distinction crystallizes (Asendorpf & Baudonniere, 1993
), the pro-social quality of distress response behaviors also increases considerably (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992
). Evidence that distress-response behaviors are correlated at the two ages suggests that primitive distress responses during infancy and later expressions of empathy are developmentally linked (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992
Despite evidence of short-term links with important developmental milestones, little is known about longer-term implications of distress-response behaviors during infancy (see Hutman & Dapretto, 2009
). Given that negative emotions are salient for infants (e.g.,
Hornik, Risenhoover & Gunnar, 1987
) and that infants adjust their behavior in response to other people’s displays of negative emotion (Campos & Sternberg, 1981
; Feinman, 1982
; Gunnar & Stone, 1984
; Klinnert, Campos, Sorce, Emde, & Svedja, 1983
; Walden & Ogan, 1988
), we speculated that infants’ behavioral responses to another person’s distress would reflect individual differences in social attunement and a corresponding aptitude to benefit from social learning opportunities. The goal of this study was to determine whether variability in 12-month olds’ response to distress was associated with the acquisition of skills such as adaptive social functioning and language, evaluated at 36 months.
The early emergence of emotion discrimination is adaptive for safety (e.g., Preston & de Waal, 2002
) and for the achievement of emotional attunement with caregivers (Feldman, 2007
). Infants are able to discriminate their mother’s facial expressions of emotion at 3½ months (Montague & Walker-Andrews, 2002
). They can differentiate emotions with bi-modal audiovisual presentation at 4 months using standardized videotaped stimuli (Flom & Bahrick, 2007
) as well as in the context of a play interaction, such as a peekaboo game (Montague & Walker-Andrews, 2001
). By 7 months, infants respond differently to negative affect than to neutral and positive affect, looking longer at fearful faces than happy faces (Nelson & Dolgin, 1985
) and taking longer to habituate to fearful compared to happy faces (Nelson, Morse & Leavitt, 1979
). At this age, infants show larger ERP amplitudes in response to negative facial expressions than positive ones (de Haan & Nelson, 1998
; Kestenbaum & Nelson, 1992; Nelson & Nugent, 1990
). Twelve-month olds demonstrate larger Nc
amplitude – reflecting attention – in response to objects associated with negative emotion than those associated with positive or neutral emotion (Carver & Vaccaro, 2007
). At the behavioral level, 10-month olds consistently orient to other people’s displays of distress (Zahn-Waxler & Radke-Yarrow, 1982
) and social referencing emerges at one year. That is, 12-month olds modify their behavior in response to maternal affective displays (Feinman & Lewis, 1983
; Sorce, Emde, Campos, & Klinnert, 1985
), especially when the maternal affect is negative (Hornik et al., 1987
). In that social referencing is critical for shaping behaviors and learning rules that help infants navigate their environments safely, the accurate interpretation of affective signals may be implicated in both social and cognitive development.
There are several theoretical justifications for proposing links between infants’ responses to negative affective signals, adaptive social functioning, and language skills. Responding to another person’s distress involves interpreting changes in the affective state of a social partner. The ability “to perceive and respond to rapidly changing bits of affective information” (Feldman & Greenbaum, 1997
, p. 17) at 3 months was strongly correlated with three measures of symbolic competence at 24 months: symbolic play, verbal IQ, and the use of internal-state words. Perceiving and adapting to changes in a social partner’s affective state was associated with the development of skills in both the cognitive and social domains. Affective states are conceived as groupings of discrete behavioral phenomena such as facial expressions, gestures, and sounds. Abstracting from these phenomena, disregarding the differences among them, and organizing them into coherent units of understanding may contribute to the development of symbolic reasoning. Accordingly, infants who are more responsive to others’ distress, accurately categorizing the other person’s discrete behaviors, adjusting their own affect and behavior in a congruent fashion, would be expected to demonstrate superior social and language development.
Another process that may link infants’ distress-response patterns to language and social functioning is theory of mind. An infant’s response to witnessing another person’s distress may reflect his emerging awareness of and ability to intuit the other person’s perspective, especially as self-awareness and the self-other distinction coalesce (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992
). Responding to distress requires some interpretation of the social partner’s mental state and can be construed as an affective component of theory of mind, or a precursor to theory of mind. “The echoing of affects, feelings, and emotions that takes place in reciprocal interaction between young infants and their caretakers is at the origin of intersubjectivity, a necessary element to the development of more advanced social cognition, including theory of mind” (Rochat & Striano, 1999
, p. 8). The ability to understand mental states has been linked with peer interaction skills and the development of friendships (Dunn & Brophy, 2005
). Furthermore, demonstrated links between theory of mind and language ability are plentiful (for a review, see Milligan, Astington & Dack, 2007
). Therefore, children who demonstrate understanding of the internal states of others by means of a congruent affective response to another person’s distress would be expected to develop a relatively advanced theory of mind and, thereby, to achieve superior social functioning and language skills.
Proposing a link between distress response, social, and language development is further justified by research indicating that common brain regions subserve empathic and imitative processes (Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziota & Lenzi, 2003
). In that these brain regions are activated in the observation of another person’s pain and direct experience of pain, they may potentiate the matching of representations between observer and the object of observation (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004
). To the extent that early empathic responses reflect shared representation of social experience at the neural level, this may support shared understanding of events co-experienced by social partners. Therefore, infants’ distress-response patterns may reflect an aptitude for shared understanding, social learning, and language acquisition.
The establishment of links between distress response and measures of social and language development would support the proposition that responsiveness to distress reflects a key component of social cognition and a mechanism of social learning. Furthermore, associating overt early behavior with subsequent social and language development would suggest a means for identifying infants who are at risk for adverse developmental outcomes and it may indicate a target for treating children who show signs of atypical social or language development.
In this study, 12-month-old infants’ responses to an examiner’s feigned distress were evaluated as predictors of language skills and social functioning at 36 months. Feshbach’s (1982)
conceptual model of empathy includes a cognitive component, reflecting the ability to differentiate among affective states, as well as an emotional response. Accordingly, we measured the duration of infants’ attention to the distressed examiner’s face as a continuous measure of interest or effort to make sense of the examiner’s experience. We also evaluated congruent changes in the child’s affect in response to the examiner’s distress. Both attention and affective response to the examiner’s distress were evaluated as predictors of language and social functioning at 36 months.
The literatures cited above indicate links between infants’ classification of emotional information and symbolic competence; between theory of mind, social understanding, and development of language; and between perception of another person’s affective signals and shared understanding of a painful experience. These findings suggest the hypothesis that allocation of more attention at 12 months to the face of an examiner in distress will correspond with superior language skills and adaptive social functioning at 36 months. The second hypothesis of the study is that 12-month olds who respond to the examiner’s display of distress with a congruent affective response will have superior language skills and adaptive social functioning at 36 months relative to 12-month olds who do not demonstrate a congruent affective response to distress.