Empathy and maternal responsiveness

Gail Susan Schlenger, Fordham University


The developmental literature has indicated that maternal responsiveness to infant cues has important consequences for the developing child's social, emotional, and cognitive competence, that maternal characteristics mediate responsiveness, and that empathy may be intrinsic to a mother's ability to respond to her infant. This study attempted to determine if there was a relationship between empathy and maternal responsiveness. It was hypothesized that the greater the subject's empathy, the greater the responsiveness, and that subjects would demonstrate greatest responsiveness to infant distress signals. The homogeneous, volunteer sample consisted of 56 middle- to upper-middle-class women in their third trimester of pregnancy with their first child. After completing the Mehrabian and Epstein Emotional Empathic Tendency Scale, subjects viewed 12 15-second silent videotaped segments of four 5-month-old infants crying, neutral, and smiling. Following each videotaped segment, subjects completed a two-part responsiveness questionnaire measuring the degree of their emotional responsiveness, as well as their willingness to pick up the infant. Data were analyzed using a 3-factor repeated measures ANOVA, with Scheffe two-tailed post hoc pairwise analyses of significant interactions. Responsiveness was examined as three measures: subjective emotional responsiveness, demonstrative responsiveness, and overall responsiveness. Analyses revealed that middle empathy subjects demonstrated greatest responsiveness, despite some variation by baby and state. Middle and high empathy subjects were found to be more similar to each other and less similar to low empathy subjects, who demonstrated significantly less responsiveness than middle and high empathy subjects. Significant interactions and post hoc comparisons revealed that responsiveness to different babies was contingent on the baby's state, and that there were differences within and between babies across states. Results also revealed that subjects demonstrated greatest responsiveness to infant distress signals. Results suggest that there may be an optimal level of empathic arousal that motivates responsiveness, that certain characteristics about babies may encourage responsiveness, and that crying is a potent, evocative infant signal. The developmental literature has implicated low maternal empathy as a factor motivating child abuse. Results of this study may have implications for pre- and post-natal intervention to foster more optimal mother-infant interaction.

Subject Area

Academic guidance counseling|Developmental psychology|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Schlenger, Gail Susan, "Empathy and maternal responsiveness" (1994). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9511246.