Autonomic correlates of children's concern and disregard for others

Carol Van Hulle*, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Joann L. Robinson, Soo Hyun Rhee, Paul D. Hastings, Ariel Knafo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Psychophysiological research on empathy and prosociality in children has focused most often on cardiac activity, heart rate (HR), and HR deceleration in particular. We examined these processes in 7-year-old children during two empathy mood inductions. We independently assessed children's responses to others' distress in two different contexts: structured probes (simulated pain) and maternal interviews. We identified three groups of children who showed either (1) concern for others in distress (i.e., empathy and prosocial behaviors), (2) active disregard (i.e., anger/hostility and antisocial behavior), or (3) passive disregard (i.e., little or no concern). We compared groups on HR and HR deceleration. The active disregard group consistently showed the lowest HR both when groups were based on structured probes and on mothers' reports. Children who showed passive disregard displayed little self-distress during other's distress and different patterns of association of self-distress and HR than the other two groups. Active and passive disregard thus may reflect two different aspects of lack of concern for others. HR deceleration was seen for all three groups, suggesting it is not necessarily a cardiac index of concern for others. Interdisciplinary approaches and multiple-systems analysis are needed to better understand psychobiological substrates.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)275-290
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to: Carol Van Hulle, Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1500 Highland Ave, Madison, WI 53705, USA. E-mail: [email protected] This study was supported by a grant from the Fetzer Institute to the second author on the Development of Compassionate Love. Data were collected under a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We thank Dr. Sally-Ann Rhea and Dr. Robin Corley at the Institute for Behavior Genetics for project coordination and data management. We wish to thank the families participating in this study and the research assistants who collected and coded the data, especially Corinne Wright and Debra Boeldt.


  • ANS
  • Disregard
  • Empathy
  • Heart rate


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