The Developmental Origins of a Disposition Toward Empathy: Genetic and Environmental Contributions

Ariel Knafo*, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Carol Van Hulle, Jo Ann L. Robinson, Soo Hyun Rhee

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

376 Scopus citations


The authors investigated the development of a disposition toward empathy and its genetic and environmental origins. Young twins' (N = 409 pairs) cognitive (hypothesis testing) and affective (empathic concern) empathy and prosocial behavior in response to simulated pain by mothers and examiners were observed at multiple time points. Children's mean level of empathy and prosociality increased from 14 to 36 months. Positive concurrent and longitudinal correlations indicated that empathy was a relatively stable disposition, generalizing across ages, across its affective and cognitive components, and across mother and examiner. Multivariate genetic analyses showed that genetic effects increased, and that shared environmental effects decreased, with age. Genetic effects contributed to both change and continuity in children's empathy, whereas shared environmental effects contributed to stability and nonshared environmental effects contributed to change. Empathy was associated with prosocial behavior, and this relationship was mainly due to environmental effects.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)737-752
Number of pages16
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2008


  • empathy
  • genetic versus environmental effects
  • prosocial behavior


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