A baby’s first year of life is all take and very little give. “Change my nappy!” “Feed me!” “Me! Me! Me!”
We all start out as very demanding, seemingly thankless creatures. But collectively we make up one of the most social species on Earth. As we develop, we all acquire the abilities needed to participate in a give-and-take society.
Young children start helping their parents – and other adults – soon after their first birthday. If an adult drops something – say a clothes peg when trying to hang up the washing – the chubby fingers of an observant toddler could come to the adult’s aid.
The desire to help probably stems from a burgeoning sense of sympathy towards another human being. But scientists are still trying to figure out what processes are occurring in our brains to explain helping behaviour, especially in young kids.
It’s two in the afternoon. You’re sitting in a meeting room listening to a presentation that is proving to be about as interesting as reading the instruction manual of a toaster. Your eye-lids are doing battle with gravity, and your head threatens to loll forward, but you figure you’ll probably make it through the meeting, so long as you find something else to distract yourself.
But glancing around the room, your efforts are suddenly thwarted. You see your colleague noticeably stifling a yawn. In your post-lunch under-caffeinated state you are defenceless – a yawn is soon welling up within you and there’s little you can do to stop it.
Humans are extraordinarily social creatures – our ability to form complex communities where we exchange goods and services, as well as knowledge, has no doubt been essential to our success as a species. Empathy is central to our desire to care for and connect with our fellow human beings – whether they are close friends or family, or others in the community that rely on the generous donations of strangers.
But are all humans empathic by nature, or are there some amongst us who struggle to see any perspective other than their own? Are we as empathic as our parents and grandparents, and what are the implications for society as a whole if empathy is on the wane?
I spoke to social psychologist Sara Konrath, from the University of Michigan, about intergenerational differences in empathy, and how this important social attribute seems to be diminishing in Generation Y in the latest episode of Up Close. Sara is Assistant Professor with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.