Children's personal distance and their empathy: Indices of interpersonal closeness

Janet Strayer, William Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


We examined relations between children's preferred physical closeness with other persons and both their specific responsive empathy with these persons and their more general dispositional or trait empathy. Children (N = 73) in three age groups (5-, 9-, and 13-year-olds) viewed persons in videotaped vignettes, were interviewed for responsive empathy with these persons, and then placed photos of them on a grid at individually preferred distances relative to themselves. Dispositional empathy was assessed by questionnaire in a separate session. Older children placed vignette characters closer to themselves when they reported greater responsive empathy with them. There were substantial differences in responsive empathy across characters and situations, as would be expected: Adults who punished rarely elicited empathy, nor did a child who lied about another child. Consistent with the within-subjects analysis, vignette characters who elicited greater empathy also elicited closer personal distances. In both analyses (within-subjects and across vignette characters), strength of relation increased with age and was stronger for girls than boys. In contrast to responsive empathy, dispositional empathy was not significantly associated with closer personal distance, despite the significant correlation of the two empathy measures. Thus, it seems important to distinguish empathy that is responsive to particular persons and contexts from more general attitudes that may or may not generalise to specific contexts. © 1997 The International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)385-403
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Development
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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