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National Institute of Mental Health

When Mar 14, 2002 6:00 PM to
Mar 16, 2002 6:00 PM
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National Institute of Mental Health

Keynote Speaker, 
Ethics: The Inaugural Symposium of the Rock Ethics Institute 
Conference, March 14-16, 2002 
Nittany Lion Inn

The Origins and Development of Empathic Concern

Carolyn Zahn-Waxler received a B.A. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin (1962) and an M.A. (1964) and Ph.D. (1967) in child development from the University of Minnesota. She has worked since then as a research psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. Currently, she is Chief of the Section on Development Psychopathology at NIMH. Her research focuses on adaptive development (empathy, positive morality) and maladaptive development (anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior). She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Div. 7) and the American Psychological Society. She has served as Associate Editor and Editor of Development Psychology; Associate Editor of the Annual Review of Psychology; Senior Editor of the APA-OUP Encyclopedia of Psychology; APA Member of Council of Editors; Member of Governing Council for Society for Research in Child Development; Council Member and President of APA Div. 7. She has been appointed to numerous advisory boards and committees pertaining to conceptualization and design of development psychology and psychopathology research; editorial functions; promotion and tenure; awards; ethics; and other topics.

Until relatively recently, society assumed that young children could not experience empathy, anxiety, or depression. This assumption was based on the notion that young children lacked sufficient cognitive development and maturity to distinguish their own psychological selves from those of others and to reflect upon themselves in relation to others. Carolyn Zahn-Waxler’s, National Institute of Mental Health, extensive research calls such assumptions into question. Using such research techniques as simulated situations in the laboratory, observation of children in their homes, and parent, teacher, and self reports, Zahn-Waxler and her collaborators present a rich picture of the empathic abilities of children as early as age two—and show that variations in children’s levels of empathy have important consequences for their psychological development

Having established the presence of empathy in the emotional life of young children, Zahn-Waxler investigates the significance that high (or low) levels of empathy have in relation to later behavior problems or psychological disorders. Although the relation between lower levels of empathy with others and certain forms of disruptive behavior problems is not as strong as Zahn-Waxler and her collaborators expected, they found clear evidence that encouragement of empathy in these problem children can be a very effective tool for helping the child overcome his or her disruptive behavior.

More significantly, Zahn-Waxler finds strong evidence suggesting a link between the higher levels of empathy typically seen in girls compared to boys and a propensity for experiencing major depression and/or anxiety later in life. She contends that gender socialization, which encourages empathy in girls more so than in boys, might predispose girls, particularly certain girls, to express distress in the form of depression and anxiety. Females are twice as likely to experience depression as males. Depressed females often have a history of extreme involvement in their parents’ problems (e.g., discord between parents or the mother’s own symptoms of depression). Depression and anxiety, Zahn-Waxler suggests, could result from the child’s contrary feelings that she is responsible for problems that are not her own and yet that she has no control over them.

Looking more deeply into childhood depression and anxiety, Zahn-Waxler finds that these disorders often begin as a subclinical problem or behavioral/emotional tendency, as multiple problems with a single one becoming prominent over time, or as a distinct problem which eventually evolves into the one found clinically significant. These findings give great hope that observant psychologists, parents, or teachers could anticipate such things as depression and anxiety and provide help to a child before such disorders became disabling and traumatic.

As Zahn-Waxler and her collaborators investigate depression and anxiety in connection with the rest of a child’s emotional and psychological life, they come to find that emotions such as guilt and shame, rather than sadness, are often at the center of a person’s experience of depression. Zahn-Waxler recalls Freud’s theory that “depression is dissatisfaction with the ego on moral grounds” and develops this idea with her research on empathy and with evidence of female’s high self-expectations of devotion to others.

In a similar investigation, Zahn-Waxler finds that emotional states of anger, irritability, and hostility frequently co-occur with depression and anxiety. She offers several hypotheses for this co-occurrence of “internalizing” emotions like depression and “externalizing” emotions like anger. For example, anger could be a way of masking feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. Alternatively, anger and aggressive behaviors might create discord with others that leads a child to feel disconnected, badly about the self, or unloved. This work leads Zahn-Waxler to propose that aggression and disruptive behavior, contrary to the established view, are highly affective disorders and need to be studied in terms of emotional dysregulation.

In the course of her career aimed at understanding children’s social and emotional lives, Zahn-Waxler has considered many theoretical perspectives and studied a broad array of factors. Her work ranges from cross-cultural studies, to behavioral genetics studies, to naturalistic home observations, to experimental laboratory studies. Most of the work is longitudinal, following children’s development over time, and a common thread is the role of gender in social and emotional development. In her analysis of an issue, Zahn-Waxler presents fascinating surveys of the beliefs and hypotheses of all the major camps in the psychological sciences.

The following articles are examples of her interesting perspectives and are quite accessible to non-psychologists:

  • Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, and Marcia J Slattery, “Internalizing problems of childhood and adolescence: Prospects, pitfalls, and progress in understanding the development of anxiety and depression,” Development and Psychopathology v12 (2000): 443-466. 
    (available online for PSU faculty and students)
  • Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Pamela M. Cole[1], and Karen Caplovitz Barrett, “Guilt and empathy: Sex differences and implications for the development of depression,” The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation (New York: Cambridge, 1991): 243-272.
    (copies available—contact the Rock Ethics Institute:rockethics@psu.edu.)
  • Pamela Cole and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, “Emotional dysregulation in disruptive behavior disorders,” Rochester symposium on developmental psychopathology, Volume four: Developmental perspectives on depression (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1992): 173-209.
    (copies available—contact the Rock Ethics Institute:rockethics@psu.edu.)

Sara Leland wrote this overview with helpful feedback from Professor Pamela Cole.