Since the Jan. 14 death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old in South Hadley, Mass., who committed suicide after being bullied by fellow students, many onlookers have meditated on whether the circumstances that led to her after-school hanging might have been avoided.
Could teachers have stepped in and stopped the bullying? Could parents have done more to curtail bad behavior? Or could preventive measures have been started years ago, in early childhood, long before bullies emerged and started heaping abuse on their peers?
Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.
Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.
Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish, recent science suggests that it is not. The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species chimps, for instance, will protest the unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.
The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry when hearing another infant's cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.
But like language, the development of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As evidence, look no further than ancient Greece and the millennia-old child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an environment of uncompromising brutality enlisting them in boot camp at age 7 and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal food, which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.
In Athens, future leaders were brought up in a more nurturing and peaceful way, at home with their mothers and nurses, starting education in music and poetry at age 6. They became pioneers of democracy, art, theater and culture. "Just like we can train people to kill, the same is true with empathy. You can be taught to be a Spartan or an Athenian and you can taught to be both," says Teny Gross, executive director of the outreach group Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., and a former sergeant in the Israeli army.
What the ancient Greeks intuited is supported by research today. Childhood as early as infancy is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy. And although children can be astonishingly resilient, surviving and sometimes thriving despite abuse and neglect, studies show that those who experience such early trauma are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic later on, bullying other children or being victimized by bullies themselves.
Simple neglect can be surprisingly damaging. In 2007, researchers published the first randomized, controlled study of the effect of being raised in an orphanage; that study, and subsequent research on the same sample of Romanian orphans, found that compared with babies placed with a foster family, those who were sent to institutions had lower IQs, slower physical growth, problems with human attachment and differences in functioning in brain areas related to emotional development.
Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family's attention; instead, they are cared for by a rotating staff of workers, which is inherently neglectful. The infants miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.
Nearly 90% of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life, and the minds of young children who have been neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between people and pleasure. That deficit can make it difficult for them to feel or demonstrate love later on. "You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children," says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and a pioneer of empathy research, "or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment."