Empathy and popularity are linked

Photo: Stephan Rebernik | Flickr

Photo: Stephan Rebernik | Flickr

The ability to understand that others have their thoughts, emotions and motivations that are different from one’s own is called Theory of Mind. In humans it develops around three to four years of age. While this ability has mostly been observed in humans, there is evidence that birds also have it. Now a review of 20 international research papers concluded that children who are more in tune with other children’s wants and thought are more popular in school than those children who are not as good at reading people.

These findings, reported in Economic Times, were consistent in pre-schoolers as well as for older students, implying that being more understanding and empathetic helps make friends in the initial years of schooling and also contributes to preserving those relationships as kids grow up. On the other hand, the link between sensitivity and popularity was weaker in boys than in girls. While the authors could only speculate, this could be due to differences in the nature of friendships formed by the two sexes. For example, the authors suggested that friendships among girls are generally more intimate and focused on resolving conflicts, thereby requiring greater levels of sensitivity in understanding others’ thoughts and feelings.

Empathy is likely inherited. For example, newborn babies respond with crying when they hear another baby crying in distress, and one- to two-year olds show empathy for family members. However, research has shown that empathy can also be taught. For example, children who have autism spectrum disorders, which hinder their ability to communicate and show empathy, show improvement with the right type of intervention.

Therefore, the results of this study “may be particularly important for children who are struggling with friendship issues, such as children who are socially isolated,” said the study’s lead author Virginia Slaughter, professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia. What it makes clear is that teaching these kids to be more sensitive to others and listen and think about their peers’ situations and feelings can improve relationships they have with them.

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