Physiological Regulation and Fearfulness as Predictors of Young Children's Empathy-related Reactions

Jeffrey Liew, Nancy Eisenberg, Tracy Spinrad, Natalie Wilkens, R. G. Haugen, Anne Kupfer, Mark Reiser, Cynthia L. Smith, Kathryn Lemery, Melinda E. Baham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


Indices of physiological regulation (i.e., resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA] and RSA suppression) and observed fearfulness were tested as predictors of empathy-related reactions to an unfamiliar person's simulated distress within and across 18 (T1, N = 247) and 30 (T2, N = 216) months of age. Controlling for T1 helping, high RSA suppression and low fearfulness at T1 predicted T2 helping. In a structural model, empathic concern was marginally positively related to resting RSA at both assessments whereas personal distress was related to RSA suppression within time (marginally positively at T1 and significantly negatively at T2). Fearfulness was associated with self-oriented, distress-related reactions within time. Comfort seeking (an index of personal distress) declined in mean level with age whereas helping increased, and both behaviors exhibited differential continuity (as did resting RSA). Individual, as well as developmental, differences in the types of reactions that young children exhibit when witnessing others' suffering and distress were discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-134
Number of pages24
JournalSocial Development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2011


  • Emotion regulation
  • Empathy
  • Fear
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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