Young children's theories of mind about empathetic and selfish motives

Harvey J. Ginsburg1, Shirley M. Ogletree1, Tammy D. Silakowski1, Roger D. Bartels1, Shannon L. Burk1, G. Marc Turner1
1Southwest Texas State University, United States
Cite this article:  Ginsburg, H. J., Ogletree, S. M., Silakowski, T. D., Bartels, R. D., Burk, S. L., & Turner, G. M. (2003). Young children's theories of mind about empathetic and selfish motives. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 31(3), 237-244.

Volume 31 Issue 3 | e1252 | Published: May 2003 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2003.31.3.237

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Young children's prosocial behaviors may be motivated by empathy. Forty-one 36-66 month-old children were actively involved with a pipe cleaner figurine play scenario. One figurine appeared distressed at an alarm sound. The other figurines simultaneously terminated the alarm, expressing either empathic or selfish motives. Twenty-four participants (58.5%) correctly pointed at the empathic and selfish figurines, and correctly restated their motives. Of these, 50% (12) consistently predicted empathic or selfish figurines' motives and actions in 3 other situations. Linear regression analyses indicated children's theories of mind about others' selfish and empathic motives predicted preferences for snack sharing with the empathic figurine (R2 = .690, p < .001) and empathically helping a friend in distress (R2 = .702, p < .001).
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