Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

Babies can express sympathy for bullying victims

A recent study suggests that infants can feel sympathy (feelings of pity or sorrow) for another. But how did they find this out? Is this finding as grand as it appears?

Experimenters showed infants video clips of two meaningless objects (a blue sphere and a yellow cube) interacting as well as a third, neutral, object (which moved, but did not interact with the other two). One of them is the aggressor, which appeared to beat up the other object. The other was the victim, which also moved around the screen, but was "attacked". The infants where then given 3D versions of the objects, and they consistently reached for the object that had been bullied. Also, while watching the video, infants spent more time looking at the aggressor. The authors interpreted this to mean that the infants wanted to "keep an eye on" the potentially threatening aggressor and sympathize with the victim.

In their credit, the authors do say this is a "rudimentary and automatic" sympathetic response and the results can't be accounted for because of how much the objects move (remember, both were moving around the screen). However, the behaviours shown by the infants are somewhat difficult to interpret. The authors suggest looking at other measures, such as changes in physiology, to see whether the infants were distressed and therefore chose to interact with the victim. This may still not answer some questions though, such as: does the infant prefer the victim because they feel sympathy, or because they want to avoid the aggressor?

This study highlights the difficulties scientists face when dealing with non-verbal subjects (including other animals!). How do we build a clear picture of what's going on inside their head? (For potential answers to this question see some of my other posts).


Reference: Kanakogi, Y., Okumura, Y., Inoue, Y., Kitazaki, M., Itakura, S. (2013). Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others in Distress. PLoS ONE: 8 (6), pp. e65292- e65292.