Victims of bullying suffer deleterious psychological consequences including low self-esteem, loneliness, and depression. As a result, social rejection and bullying represent high-priority inquiries among developmental, social, and clinical psychologists. The goal of the current proposal is to test a neuro-cognitive account of a probable precursor to bullying: the development of failures of empathy among typical children. We propose a model in which the cognitive capacity for evaluative social comparison engenders the perception of peers as competitors2a perception which may reduce children6s empathy with peers in distress.
The specific aims of the current proposal are to test the model described above by: 1) testing the predicted link between children6s emerging concern with their place in a competitive social hierarchy and a reduction in empathy, around age 8 or 9 years (Study 1);and 2) examining modulation of known neural substrates of empathy as a function of children6s age and social relationship to the victim (Study 2). To test our model, we will compare children6s empathic reactions to victims who are possible threats in a social hierarchy (3cooler4 and 3less cool4 peers) and to victims who are not competitors (older children, and equal-status friends). Based on previous findings, we predict that younger children (6-8 years) will be less aware of, and less concerned with, competitive social hierarchies, and will therefore show equal empathy for all types of victims. By contrast, we predict that older children (9-12 years) will be concerned with maintaining or advancing their position in a social hierarchy, and thus have reduced empathy for 3competitive4 victims. Study 1 will test these hypotheses using behavioral methods: a structured interview and emotional reports in response to hypothetical vignettes. Study 2 tests the same predictions using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Children ages 9-12 should demonstrate relatively less neural activity in networks associated with empathic responding (e.g., dorsal anterior cingulate, anterior insula, supplementary motor areas, temporo- parietal junction) than younger children when hearing about 3competitive4 targets6 misfortunes. If older children (like adults) even feel pleasure in response to 3competitive4 targets6 misfortunes, we predict that older children will show increased response in ventral striatum, a brain region associated with registration of reward. The impact of this proposal is threefold: First, this project takes a cross-disciplinary approach to addressing a major gap in knowledge regarding the emergence and modulation of empathic responses over the course of development among typical children. Second, we develop a measure of empathy that can be broadly applied with young children and potentially participants from other cultures. Finally, our results have the potential to inform focused and inexpensive cognitive behavioral interventions to attenuate peer victimization and downstream detrimental psychological consequences.

Public Health Relevance

Health The current project examines the cognitive and neural mechanisms which give rise to failures of empathy in typically developing children. Being able to predict the development and interplay of these phenomena may a) illuminate underlying mechanisms of downstream consequences of empathic failure including bullying and peer victimization, as well as childhood/adolescent depression and anxiety;and b) yield more precise indicators of typical versus pathological disruptions of empathy (as seen in conduct and autism spectrum disorders). Furthermore, if our hypotheses are correct and the capacity for evaluative social comparison coincides with failures of empathy, our proposal has broad implications for enhanced and inexpensive cognitive-behavioral interventions to attenuate peer victimization in childhood and early adolescence.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-F11-L (20))
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Maholmes, Valerie
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Other Basic Sciences
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Cikara, M; Bruneau, E; Van Bavel, J J et al. (2014) Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. J Exp Soc Psychol 55:110-125
Cikara, M; Jenkins, A C; Dufour, N et al. (2014) Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm. Neuroimage 96:36-43
Cikara, Mina; Rudman, Laurie; Fiske, Susan (2012) Dearth by a Thousand Cuts? Accounting for Gender Differences in Top-Ranked Publication Rates in Social Psychology. J Soc Issues 68:263-285