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Pioneering researcher Carolyn Zahn-Waxler explores why some children seek to relieve others’ suffering

At a busy home daycare, a girl named Julie, only 18 months old, is distressed by a crying baby. Repeatedly Julie seeks ways to comfort the baby, picking up a cookie he dropped from a high chair, patting and hugging him, and getting the daycare provider, her mother, to help.

Why do some children, even at a young age, seek to relieve the suffering of others? How early in our development can the emergence of empathy be traced?

Empathy includes the ability to understand another person’s perspective and also to feel for them.

“Caring starts early, aggression starts early, fear starts early,” says Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Ph.D. ’67. “How do these get balanced out?”

These are questions that have intrigued Zahn-Waxler during her career as one of the nation’s leaders in the relatively young field of developmental psychopathology, the study of how psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior emerge. Her own body of research focuses on the role of emotions in development. She studied the development of empathy while working as a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where she began her career in the late 1960s.

“Today, neuroimaging studies support the idea that humans are biologically wired to respond in caring ways to the suffering of others,” Zahn-Waxler says. “From our studies we had already learned that empathy and caring behaviors are present in the first years of life.”

But when first reported, such findings conflicted with prevailing theories of child development.

“I saw that the question wasn’t whether children had the capacity for empathy,” Zahn-Waxler explains. “The question was how far back in development can you trace it? Once this was known, we could then identify both biological factors (genes and temperament) and environmental processes (such as family life and socialization) that helped explain why some children reach out to those in need while others turn their backs.”

A generation of research

Despite her early interest in understanding empathy, Zahn-Waxler had to set it aside. Most of her career at NIMH focused on mental illness.

“For years, the priority was disorders,” she explains. “The ‘how’ wasn’t considered as relevant as the ‘what.’ But I hung onto that interest and managed to study empathy in the context of mental illness.”

Zahn-Waxler and her staff designed complex longitudinal studies that yielded voluminous data sets. One followed 220 youths through adolescence. Another followed 80 preschool children into early adolescence. A third study, in collaboration with the Institute for Behavior Genetics in Boulder, Colorado, followed 800 twins from birth to age seven. She continues to pursue the role of genes and experience on early empathy in current collaborations with scientists at Hebrew University in Israel.

In 2002 Zahn-Waxler and her husband moved back to the Midwest. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she is now affiliated with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds within the Waisman Center. And she is back on empathy’s trail.

“One of the great things about being at a research university is cross-disciplinary pollination,” she says. She cites the interface of neuroscience with Eastern traditions in the work being done at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. She also has a formal affiliation in the School of Human Ecology, helping graduate students in the Center for Child and Family Wellbeing assess empathy in studies of childhood interventions to promote empathy and kindness.

She continues to work with existing data sets from the NIMH and Colorado longitudinal studies, finding others to get involved and take the role of lead author. That is an opportunity for Zahn-Waxler to support the next generation of scholars.

“I was at a point where I wanted to provide more opportunities for others, mentoring younger people,” she says. “It’s working beautifully.”

A foundation in Minnesota

Mentoring younger scholars is an echo of the mentoring that set Zahn-Waxler's life on the road to research. In the early 1960s, she was finishing a bachelor’s degree in psychology in Wisconsin when she worked as a research assistant to the late Herb Pick, who had just been recruited to a new position.

“He was going to Minnesota and said I should go, too,” she remembers. “I had not thought about graduate school, but he gave me an application.”

It was at the Institute of Child Development that Zahn-Waxler built a strong foundation and background in experimental design, academic rigor, and the ability to think through problems, she says. At a time when women pursuing doctorates were a small minority, it was less the case in her chosen field.

“The environment was nurturing, supportive, and demanding,” she remembers. “I felt completely at home there.”

Despite limited job opportunities, when she finished her doctorate she had offers on both coasts. One was to teach in California, the other to conduct postdoctoral research for two years at the NIMH in Maryland. A faculty adviser observed that the course load of the university offer would make it hard to conduct research.

Zahn-Waxler chose Maryland. At the end of the postdoctoral fellowship, her position was converted to a full-time, tenured appointment—with a caveat: she would not be allowed to conduct independent research. The administration called it a “gentleman’s agreement.” The biomedical focus of NIMH proved to be an inhospitable environment, especially for psychologists and women, but Zahn-Waxler persevered.

“I found ways to get done what was important to me,” she says. Eventually she became an independent investigator with her own budget and headed a research section on developmental psychopathology.

These days Zahn-Waxler continues to pursue the questions about empathy that have mattered to her for decades.

“Human beings carry these potentials within,” she says. “One of our contributions is to better understand and foster this side that is so important and so fundamental to who we are.”

Read more about Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, the Waisman Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, and the Institute of Child Development.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Michael Kienitz | October 2013

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