Getting to the heart of childhood empathy: Relations with shyness and respiratory sinus arrhythmia Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Although prior studies have found that shyness and empathy are inversely related and that well-regulated children tend to express empathic behaviors more often, few studies have assessed combinations of these factors in predicting affective and cognitive empathy in early childhood. The authors examined relations among shyness, resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and observed affective and cognitive empathy in a sample of 130 typically developing children (Mage  = 63.5 months, SD = 12.2; 62 males). Shyness was assessed by observing children's behaviors during a self-presentation task and this observed measure was then combined with a maternal report of children's temperamental shyness. Children's shyness predicted lower levels of both affective and cognitive responses to an experimenter feigning an injury. Resting RSA moderated the relation between children's shyness and observed empathy such that relatively higher shyness combined with lower RSA levels conferred the lowest levels of cognitive empathy. Children who were relatively low in shyness exhibited similar levels of cognitive empathy across different levels of RSA. However, this moderation was not found when predicting children's affective empathy. Our results suggest that not all shy children are alike in terms of their empathic behaviors: shy children who are physiologically dysregulated appear to have difficulties exploring and/or processing others' pain.

publication date

  • November 2021