Study: Empathy and Self-Recognition in Phylogenetic and Ontogenetic Perspective

Empathy means understanding another person’s emotional or intentional state by vicariously sharing this state. As opposed to emotional contagion, empathy is characterized by the self–other distinction of subjective experience. Empathy develops in the second year, as soon as symbolic representation and mental imagery set in that enable children to represent the self, to recognize their mirror image, and to identify with another person.


In experiments with 126 children, mirror recognition and readiness to empathize with a distressed playmate were investigated. Almost all recognizers showed compassion and tried to help, whereas nonrecognizers were perplexed or remained indifferent. Several motivational consequences of empathy are discussed and its special quality is outlined in comparison with theory of mind and perspective taking.