Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-klj7v Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-22T11:51:58.568Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Psychophysiological correlates of empathy and prosocial behaviors in preschool children with behavior problems

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 March 2009

Carolyn Zahn-Waxler*
National Institute of Mental Health
Pamela M. Cole
National Institute of Mental Health
Jean Darby Welsh
National Institute of Mental Health
Nathan A. Fox
University of Maryland
Carolyn Zahn-Waxler Bldg. 15-K, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892-2668.


This study focused on empathic and prosocial orientations in preschool children who vary in externalizing problems. Children were categorized as low, moderate, or high risk for developing disruptive behavior disorders, depending on severity of current behavior problems. Hypothetical and real encounters with others in distress were used to examine children's affect, behavior, autonomic activity, and social cognitions. When children witnessed someone in distress, empathic concern and prosocial behaviors were present at similar levels for all risk groups. However, moderate and high-risk children were less able than low-risk children to remain positively engaged with distress victims. Girls showed more prosocial behavior than boys, and boys showed more anger than girls. During sadness mood inductions to assess autonomic activity, risk groups did not differ on heart rate or vagal tone. Girls showed higher skin conductance than boys, with high-risk girls showing the highest levels. Higher heart rate (and heart rate deceleration) predicted empathic concern and prosocial behavior, whereas lower heart rate was associated with aggression and avoidance, irrespective of risk. Although biological correlates of emotions and behaviors that reflect caring versus indifference to others' distress are identified, they do not support an early direct link to externalizing psychopathologies.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Achenbach, T. M., & Edelbrock, C. S. (1983). Manual for the Child Behavior Check List and Revised Child Behavior Profile. Burlington, VT: University Associates in Psychiatry.Google Scholar
Achenbach, T. M., & Edelbrock, C. (1986). Manual for the Teacher's Report Form. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont.Google Scholar
American Psychiatric Association (1987). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
Ax, A. F. (1964). Goals and methods of psychophysiology. Psychophysiology, 1 (1), 825.Google Scholar
Behar, L., & Stringfield, S. (1974). A behavior rating scale for the preschool child. Developmental Psychology, 10, 601610.Google Scholar
Brody, L. R. (1985). Gender differences in emotional development: A review of theories and research. Journal of Personality, 53 (2), 102149.Google Scholar
Brothers, L. (1989). A biological perspective on empathy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 146 (1), 1019.Google Scholar
Cacioppo, J. T., & Sandman, C. A. (1978). Physiological differentiation of sensory and cognitive tasks as a function of warning processing demands and reported unpleasantness. Biological Psychology, 6, 181192.Google Scholar
Cairns, R. B., & Cairns, B. D. (1984). Predicting aggressive patterns in girls and boys: A developmental study. Aggressive Behavior, 10, 227242.Google Scholar
Campbell, S. B., & Ewing, L. J. (1990). Follow-up of hard-to-manage pre-schoolers: Adjustment at age 9 and predictors of continuing symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31 (6), 871889.Google Scholar
Chandler, M., & Moran, T. (1990). Psychopathy and moral development: A comparative study of delinquent and nondelinquent youth. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 227246.Google Scholar
Cicchetti, D., & Richters, J. E. (1993). Developmental considerations in the investigation of conduct disorder. In J. E. Richters & D. Cicchetti (Eds.), Toward a developmental perspective on conduct disorder [Special Issue]. Development and Psychopathology, 5 (1/2), 331344.Google Scholar
Cole, P. M., Jordan, P. R., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1990). Mood induction stimulus for children. National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD.Google Scholar
Cole, P. M., Barrett, K. C., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1992). Emotion displays in two-year-olds during mishaps. Child Development, 63, 314324.Google Scholar
Cummings, E. M., Hollenbeck, B., Iannotti, R. J., Radke-Yarrow, M., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1986). Early organization of altruism and aggression: Developmental patterns and individual differences. In Zahn-Waxler, C., Cummings, E. M., & Iannotti, R. J. (Eds.), Altruism and aggression: Biological and social origins (pp. 165188). Cambridge Studies on Social and Emotional Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Dienstbier, R. A. (1984). The role of emotion in moral socialization. In Izard, C., Kagan, J., & Zajonc, R. (Eds.), Emotions, cognition and behavior (pp. 484514). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Miller, P. A., Fultz, J., Shell, R., Mathy, R. M., & Reno, R. R. (1989). Relation of sympathy an personal distress to prosocial behavior: A multimethod study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 5566.Google Scholar
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Schaller, M., Carlo, G., & Miller, P. A. (1991). The relations of parental characteristics and practices to children's vicarious emotional responding. Child Development, 62, 13931408.Google Scholar
Eisenberg, N., & Lennon, R. (1983). Sex differences in empathy and related capacities. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 100131.Google Scholar
Eisenberg, N., Schaller, M., Fabes, R. A., Bustamante, D., Mathy, R. M., Shell, R., & Rhodes, K. (1988). The differentiation of personal distress and sympathy in children and adults. Developmental Psychology, 24, 766775.Google Scholar
Eron, L. D. (1983). The consistency of aggressive behavior across time and situations. Anaheim, CA: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
Eron, L. D., & Huesmann, I. R. (1984). The relation of prosocial behavior to the development of aggression and psychopathology. Aggressive Behavior, 10, 201211.Google Scholar
Eyberg, S. M., & Robinson, E. A. (1983). Conduct problem behavior: Standardization of a behavioral rating scale. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 12, 347354.Google Scholar
Fabes, R. A., Eisenberg, N., & Eisenbud, L. (1993). Behavioral and physiological correlates of children's reactions to others in distress. Developmental Psychology, 29 (4), 655663.Google Scholar
Fowles, D. C. (1993). Electrodermal activity and antisocial behavior: Empirical findings and theoretical issues. In Roy, J. C., Boucsein, W., Fowles, D., & Gruzelier, J. (Eds.), Progress in Electrodermal Research (pp. 114). London: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
Gottman, J. M., & Katz, L. F. (1989). Effects of marital discord on young children's peer interactions and health. Developmental Psychology, 25, 373381.Google Scholar
Hare, R. D. (1978). Electrodermal and cardiovascular correlates of psychopathy. In Hare, R. D. & Schalling, D. (Eds.), Psychopathic behavior: Approaches to research (pp. 107143). Chichester, England: Wiley.Google Scholar
Hoffman, M. L. (1975). Developmental synthesis of affect and cognition and its interplay for altruistic motivation. Developmental Psychology, 11, 607622.Google Scholar
Institute of Medicine (1989). Research on children and adolescents with mental, behavioral and developmental disorders. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (1991). Infant predictors of inhibited and uninhibited profiles. Psychological Science, 2, 4044.Google Scholar
Klimes-Dougan, B., & Kistner, J. (1990). Physically abused preschoolers' responses to peers' distress. Developmental Psychology, 26, 599602.Google Scholar
Kochanska, G. (1991). Socialization and temperament in the development of guilt and conscience. Child Development, 62, 13791392.Google Scholar
Lahey, B. B., Hart, E. L., Pliszka, S., Applegate, B., McBurnett, K. (1993). Neurophysiological correlates of conduct disorder: A rationale and review of research. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 22 (2), 141153.Google Scholar
Lazarus, R. S. (1974). A cognitively oriented psychologist looks at biofeedback. American Psychologist, 30, 553561.Google Scholar
Levenson, R. W., & Ruef, A. M. (1992). Empathy: A physiological substrate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63 (2), 234246.Google Scholar
Loeber, R. (1990). Development and risk factors of juvenile anti-social behavior and delinquency. Clinical Psychology Review, 10, 141.Google Scholar
Loeber, R., & Dishion, T. (1983). Early predictors of male delinquency: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 6899.Google Scholar
Lykken, D. T. (1957). A study of anxiety in the sociopathic personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55, 610.Google Scholar
MacLean, P. D. (1985). Brain evolution relating to family, play, and the separation call. Archives of General Psychiatry, 42, 405417.Google Scholar
Main, M., & George, C. (1985). Response of abused and disadvantaged toddlers to distress in playmates: A study in the daycare setting. Developmental Psychology, 21, 407412.Google Scholar
McCarthy, D. (1970). McCarthy Scales of Children's Abilities. New York: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
Miller, P. A., & Eisenberg, N. (1988). The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 103 (3), 324344.Google Scholar
Olweus, D. (1979). Stability of aggressive reaction patterns in males: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 852875.Google Scholar
Porges, S. W. (1985). Spontaneous oscillations on heart rate: A potential index of stress. In Mogberg, P. (Ed.), Animal Stress: New directions in defining and evaluating the effects of stress (pp. 97111). Bethesda, MD: American Physiological Society.Google Scholar
Porges, S. W., Doussard-Roosevelt, J. A., & Maiti, A. K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion. In Fox, N. A. (Ed.), The development of emotion regulation: Biological and behavioral considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development.Google Scholar
Quay, H. C. (1993). The psychobiology of undersocialized aggressive conduct disorder: A theoretical perspective. In J. E. Richters & D. Cicchetti (Eds.), Toward a developmental perspective on conduct disorder [Special Issue]. Development and Psychopathology, 5 (1/2), 165180.Google Scholar
Radke-Yarrow, M., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Chapman, M. (1983). Children's prosocial dispositions and behavior. In Mussen, P. H. (Ed.), Carmichael's manual of child psychology, Vol. 1 (4th ed., pp. 470545). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
Radke-Yarrow, M., Zahn-Waxler, C., Richardson, D. T., Susman, A., & Martinez, P. (1994). Caring behavior in children of clinically depressed and well mothers. Child Development, 65, 13971406.Google Scholar
Richman, N., Stevenson, J., & Graham, P. J. (1982). Preschool to school: A behavioral study. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Robins, L. V. (1966). Deviant children grown up: A sociological and psychiatric study of sociopathic personality. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.Google Scholar
Robins, L. V. (1978). Sturdy childhood predictors of adult antisocial behavior: Replications from longitudinal studies. Psychological Medicine, 8, 611622.Google Scholar
Robins, L. V. (1986). The consequences of conduct disorder in girls. In Oleweus, D., Block, J., & Radke-Yarrow, M. (Eds.), Development of antisocial and prosocial behavior: Research, theories, and issues (pp. 385414). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Robinson, J. L., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Emde, R. N. (1994). Patterns of development in early empathic behavior: Environmental and child constitutional influences. Social Development.Google Scholar
Rose, S. L., Rose, S. A., & Feldman, J. R. (1980). Stability of behavior problems in very young children. Development and Psychopathology, 1, 519.Google Scholar
Rothbart, M. K., Ahadi, S. A., & Hershey, K. L. (1994). Temperament and social behavior in childhood. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 40 (1), 2139.Google Scholar
Smith, A. (1948). The theory of moral sentiment. In Schneider, H. (Ed.), Adam Smith's moral and political philosophy (pp. 7280). New York: Hafner. (Original work published 1759)Google Scholar
Tranel, D. (in press). “Acquired sociopathy”: The development of sociopathic behavior following focal brain damage. In D. C. Fowles (Ed.), Progress experimental personality and psychopathology research, Vol. 17.Google Scholar
Tranel, D., & Damasio, H. (in press). Neuroanatomical correlates of electrodermal skin conductance responses. Psychophysiology.Google Scholar
Tremblay, R. E., Vitaro, Gagnon C., Piché, C., & Royer, N. (1992). A prosocial scale for the preschool behavior questionnaire: Concurrent and predictive correlates. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 15 (2), 227245.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C. (1993). Warriors and worriers: Gender and psychopathology. In J. E. Richters & D. Cicchetti (Eds.), Toward a developmental perspective on conduct disorder [Special Issue]. Development and Psychopathology, 5 (1/2), 7989.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., Cole, P., & Barrett, K. (1991). Guilt and empathy: Sex differences and implications for the development of depression. In Dodge, K. & Garber, J. (Eds.), Emotional regulation and dysregulation (pp. 243272). New York & Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., Cole, P., Richardson, D. T., Friedman, R. J., Michel, M. K., & Belouad, F. (1994). Social problem-solving in disruptive preschool children: Reactions to hypothetical situations of conflict and distress. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 40 (1), 98119.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., Iannotti, R. J., Cummings, E. M., & Denham, S. (1990). Antecedents of problem behaviors in children of depressed mothers. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 271291.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., & King, R. A. (1979). Child-rearing and children's prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Development, 50, 319330.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., Wagner, E., & Chapman, M. (1992a). Development of concern for others. Developmental Psychology, 28, 126136.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., & Robinson, J. (1995). Empathy and guilt: Early origins of feelings of responsibility. In Fischer, K. & Tangney, J. (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions: Shame, guilt, embarrassment and pride. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
Zahn-Waxler, C., Robinson, J. L., & Emde, R. N. (1992b). The development of empathy in twins. Developmental Psychology, 28, 10381047.Google Scholar
Zoccolillo, M. (1993). Gender and the development of conduct disorder. In J. E. Richters & D. Cicchetti (Eds.), Toward a developmental perspective on conduct disorder [Special Issue]. Development and Psychopathology, 5 (1/2), 6578.Google Scholar