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Degree Name

MA (Master of Arts)



Date of Award


Committee Chair or Co-Chairs

Peggy J. Cantrell

Committee Members

Jon B. Ellis, K. Ramsey McGowan


Empathy is reognized as a primary process that underlies most human interaction. It appears to be a fundamental building block for positive growth and development. Both research and cumulative wisdom indicate that individuals, at a very early age, have the capacity for empathy but vary markedly in their capacities to establish empathic ties. It appears that empathy evolves through a maturation process, but the critical ages of this process are unclear. Results in gender studies have been inconsistent and little research has been conducted concerning situational effects. The current study measures the differences in cognitive and affective empathy and prosocial behavior among four, five, and six-year-old girls and boys upon witnessing the distress of a peer as the result of peer-only, adult-only, and peer and adult disapproval.

Two hundred forty-six four, five, and six-year-old children (165 females, 81 males) participated in the study. All of the children viewed five 1-3 minute excerpts taken from three popular children's videos. Two of the videos depicted joy in a peer, while three depicted distress in a peer. The distress resulted from three different sources of disapproval. After each excerpt, three questions were answered, each assessing a different component of empathy: cognitive, affective, and prosocial. Each child completed all of the questions and then filled out simple demographic questionnaire.

Data was analyzed on the responses to the three videos depicting distress using a MANOVA to compare mean differences on each of the three independent variables. A chi square statistic was used to compare differences in numbers of children who correctly (empathically) responded to each question regarding the three videos. Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and prosocial behavior were analyzed separately between and within age groups.

Analysis revealed statistically significant differences among four, five, and six-year-olds in scores of cognitive, affective, and prosocial empathy but no significant differences between girls and boys. Significant differences were found within ages on the number of correct responses to cognitive, affective, and prosocial behavior. Also, significant differences were found within and between age groups across video content, but again, not between girls and boys.

Overall, the current data suggest that empathy, in general, is present as early as four years of age. In fact, the cognitive and prosocial components of empathy seem to be well established in the character of most children by this time. The affective component of empathy, on the other hand, is not as evident even by age six, though precursors appear to be evolving. During ages four, five, and six, it appears that not only empathy is evolving, but an understanding of the situations that evoke empathic responding. Present findings suggest that age and situation are more important than gender in the development of empathy at this stage.

Document Type

Thesis - restricted


Copyright by the authors.