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Empathy, a crucial ability for harmonious interpersonal relationships and moral development, has been defined as consisting of both affective and cognitive components (Hoffman, 1984). Previous studies have found that toddlers’ temperamental inhibition may influence their affective empathy which emphasizes the emotional response to other’s distress (Young, Fox, & Zahn-Waxler, 1999), little is known about the impact of temperamental inhibition on cognitive empathy, the ability to comprehend and infer another’s perspective (i.e., perspective taking). However, studies have found that early shy-withdrawn temperament would predict more advanced social cognitive abilities, such as theory of mind in later childhood (e.g., Wellman et al., 2011). We argued that inhibited children’s less affective empathy may be due to low social reactivity instead of a deficit in social cognition, and this effect would not extend to cognitive empathy.
We investigated the role of behavioral inhibition on both affective empathy and cognitive empathy in 163 Chinese toddlers (M = 2;7, Range = 2;1-3;2, 122 only-children). Children’s behavioral inhibition was assessed by a series of behavioral tasks (e.g., asked to touch a lion mask, a toy snake, or a black box, and play a toy truck with a clown). Affective empathy was measured by their response to a pain simulation performed by an experimenter, and cognitive empathy was measured by two perspective taking tasks: picture task (Masangkay et al., 1974) and sought-for toy task (Moll & Tomasello, 2006). Additionally, toddler’s inhibitory control was measured by a snack delay task.
Results suggested that behavioral inhibition was negatively associated with affective empathy, as inhibited children showed less active interest, less positive social expression, less concerned affect, but more personal distress, than uninhibited children (see Table 1). However, inhibitory control, rather than behavioral inhibition, was significantly associated with cognitive empathy (β = 0.31, t = 3.85, p < .001). Further, the relation between behavioral inhibition and cognitive empathy was moderated by inhibitory control (see Figure 1). For children with low inhibitory control, behavioral inhibition was negatively associated with perspective taking ability (simple slope = - 0.25, t = -2.01, p < .05), but there was no significant relation between behavioral inhibition and perspective taking among children with high inhibitory control. Additionally, only-children presented better cognitive empathy (t = 2.50, p < .05), but less affective empathy (t = -2.24, p < .05) than non-only-children.
These findings have implication for different roles of temperamental inhibition on affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Although highly inhibited children may look callous and rarely show positive social expression towards others’ distress in affective empathy tasks, it does not mean that they lack the capacity of social understanding. Instead, behaviourally inhibited children with high inhibitory control understood others’ perspectives, but with low inhibitory control, behaviourally inhibited children may be prone to take their own perspective instead of others’. Daily interactions with siblings may promote young children’s affective empathy, but these close relationships may also reduce their interactions with non-familial others, thereby limiting children’s social network and social cognition development.