Catching Emotion From Others - Affective Empathy During Infancy and Early Childhood: Dr Jenny Richmond

What is this reseaarch about?

The study of empathy development has mostly focused on how children learn to understand how other people are feeling.

Researchers have largely focussed on cognitive empathy, which emerges during the preschool period, because it has been assumed that emotion sharing (i.e. affective empathy) is present at birth and undergoes little developmental change. Our recent work has called into question this assumption.

We have been using electromyography (EMG) to study how infants and pre-schoolers react to expressions of emotion in other people. When adults look at pictures of happy expressions, the muscles in the cheek that would produce a smile contract a tiny bit.

Similarly, when we look at pictures of angry expressions, the muscles in the brow contract. These tiny changes in muscle activity, which are imperceptible to the naked eye but detectable via EMG, are known as rapid facial mimicry (RFM) and are thought to index a low-level kind of rapid affect sharing.

Although researchers have assumed that RFM is innate, our work shows that 3-month-old infants do not exhibit mimicry at all. Of interest, 7-month-old infants mimic happy expressions but not angry expressions, a pattern that continues throughout the preschool years.

To date, we have found no evidence of mimicry in response to negative expressions, even in 3- to 5-year olds. Our current work focuses on whether infants are more likely to exhibit mimicry in response to people they know relative to strangers, and whether pre-schoolers exhibit mimicry in response to dynamic expressions. 

Other researchers working on this project:

Publications relating to this research:

Datyner, A., Henry, J., & Richmond, J. (in press). Rapid facial reactions in response to happy and angry expressions in 7-month-old infants. Developmental Psychobiology. 

Lab: 

Early Learning Project