Preverbal infants show preference for others in distress
At 10 months of age, babies differentiate attackers from victims and neutral parties.
They literally reach out to victims. Their second choice is a neutral party. They avoid attackers.
In scientific experiments by Japanese researchers, the players were shapes on a screen, something
like the early Pac-man games. The researchers suggest the infants’ preference for the victim is the
foundation for sympathy.
The findings seem to confirm other research that says witnessing violence has nearly the same
negative impact as experiencing it directly. This seems to be so even on an infant. The study
certainly confirms that babies observe and are shaped by what is happening around them.
The power of choosing
This experiment further suggests a very early start for what David Emerald (The Empowerment
Dynamic) describes as humans’ default way of looking at the world. It’s a survival mechanism. In
order to keep us alive, our brains are pre-set to keep us focused on problems and threats. Anything
unfamiliar or unexpected (including an aggressive square) is considered a threat, even as early as
10 months. Brain imaging shows that upon detecting a threat, real or imagined, the brain floods the
body with chemicals to produce anxiety. It gives us just three choices of how to react: fight, flee
or freeze. No thinking is involved. Anxiety is the prime motivator, and our default state.
Emerald writes that It takes intention and attention to notice when we are reacting automatically
to anxiety, and to instead choose a purposeful response to the source of the anxiety. A habit of
observing and choosing is the key. The process of choosing takes us out of survival mode and
activates critical thinking.
Give Baby choices
Taken together, these works make clear the importance of allowing very young children to make
choices. Even before they begin to talk or to understand. Hold up two shirts. Ask, red shirt or
green? Let Baby point. When out for a walk, ask Baby which way he wants to go. He can point.
Maybe not the first time. But probably sooner than you think.
“Making choices and translating those choices into desired actions and outcomes” - that is the
definition of empowerment.
Kanakogi Y, Okumura Y, Inoue Y, Kitazaki M et al. (2013) Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others
in Distress.PLoSONE 8(6): e65292, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065292
Emerald, D. (2006). The power of TED: The Empowerment Dynamic. Bainbridge Island, WA: Polaris Press.
World Bank. (2005). "What is empowerment?" http://go.worldbank.org/V45HD4P100.