BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2002) 25, 28 – 30.
Peers, cooperative play, and the development of empathy in children
Celia A. Brownell, Stephanie Zerwas, and Geetha Balaraman
Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.
email@example.com stzl�@pitt.edu grb22�@pitt.edu
Abstract: Cooperative peer play emerges in the second year of life. How applicable is Preston & de Waal’s (P&deW’s) model to the
empathic processes in cooperative play? Empathic responses during peer play are more general than they propose, and more
dependent on mental state understanding. Moreover, peer play forces children to reason about others’ feelings, possibly serving as a
unique mechanism for empathy development.
In the second year of life, human infants become true social partners with one another for the first time. Between 18
and 24 months of age, children begin to engage in unique, nonritualized, cooperative interactions with peers
(agemates), and this development appears to be universal (Brownell & Carriger 1990; Eckerman et al. 1989; Eckerman
& Whitehead 1999). Thenceforth, peer play and interaction become progressively more central as a context for
socialization. It can be argued, in fact, that children’s peer play enables and drives enculturation as much as does adult-
child interaction (Tomasello et al. 1993).
Although peer play occurs in many species, among human children peers not only accommodate their behavior to
one another dynamically and share emotion expression and behavior during play, but they also share one another’s
goals, desires, and beliefs. Thus, one characteristic feature of the peer play that emerges in the second year of life is its
fundamentally cooperative nature. Cooperative play, in turn, is permitted by the child’s emerging ability to infer others’
intentions, feelings, and thoughts, and to accommodate play to a peer’s mental states as well as to a peer’s overt
behavior (Brownell 1986; Brownell & Carriger 1991; Smiley 2001).
Emotion infuses children’s social play with peers, and empathic concern for others constitutes “the underpinnings of
compassion and connection in social relations” (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992b,
p. 1083). However, empathy with others’ distress is but one aspect of this complex socioemotional landscape. A wide
variety of emotions are shared in children’s social play with one another. Emotional contagion and vicarious
experiences of interest, joy, glee, pride, shame, guilt, and envy can be observed during dyadic interactions as well as at
the group level. Thus, empathic arousal during young children’s play is more general than Preston & de Waal (P&deW)
propose in their PAM model of empathy, which focuses largely on contagious processes associated with fear or distress
responses. A model explaining the development of empathy must account for how children come to experience positive
emotions vicariously as well as fear and distress, and secondary emotions such as pride and guilt as well as primary
At the same time, empathic arousal via vicarious processes is too narrow a mechanism to encompass and explain the
emotional communication and understanding that underlie the development of both peer social play and empathy past
infancy. Consider the following scenarios. A preschooler watches her little brother crying in frustration as he tries
repeatedly to set his truck on the shelf and the truck repeatedly rolls off. Later, she watches the same younger brother
laughing gleefully as his truck rolls off the shelf each time he sets it there. A toddler in a playgroup watches as a peer
has a temper tantrum after an adult has taken away the peer’s toy. Later he watches the same peer weeping sadly after
another child has grabbed her toy. In these common, everyday events, children must read well beyond other children’s
emotion behavior to understand and respond appropriately both to their intentions or desires and to the emotions that
follow from the other’s success or failure in fulfilling those desires (Meltzoff et al. 1999). Participation in cooperative
play depends on these abilities, and it is not coincidental that the first instances of empathy emerge at the same age as
the first instances of cooperative play (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1982).
These complex emotional scenarios are different from expressions of pain or fear in response to an identifiable
object or observable event in a given setting. One of the hallmarks of human emotional response is that emotions can
be generated by unobservable mental states, including beliefs, desires, attitudes, memories, and their interaction with
one another as well as with the external world. Thus, to empathize with and respond appropriately to others’ emotions
requires the child to infer these mental states based on understanding how they are induced and how they relate to one
another and to behavior (Eisenberg et al. 1997; Feshbach 1978; Hoffman 1984). And it is precisely these kinds of
events and circumstances that pervade and define the daily social experiences of young children in play settings with
By the middle of the second year, children respond with sympathetic concern rather than personal distress to simple
pain and distress expressions in others (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992a), and this occurs in tandem with the initial
development of cooperative peer play (Brownell & Carriger 1990; Eckerman et al. 1989). But not until 3 years of age
or older do children respond appropriately to more complex emotional events such as those described above,
presumably because it is only then that they understand the intentions or desires that produce emotional responses in
others. It is also during the third year that children first begin to mark linguistically and to take into account
behaviorally their peers prior intentions during play (Smiley 2001).
By the later preschool years, children can infer their peers’ emotional states from knowing about the particular
events that another experiences, from the contexts in which the events occur, and from knowledge of an individual’s
history and preferences (Eisenberg et al. 1997). These inferential abilities become critical for empathic arousal and
empathic responses, including prosocial behavior, in part because external behavioral cues become less reliable as
indices of another’s emotional state (Saarni et al. 1998). Human children learn to blunt, mask, exaggerate, or otherwise
alter expressive behavior to coincide with cultural display rules. Thus, the cognitive contributions to development of
empathy in human children are as important as are the emotional and behavioral components.
As developmental psychologists, we wish to explain the age-related changes in children’s understanding of and
behavioral re-sponses to these kinds of emotional events. Although empathic arousal must enter into peer play, and
empathic concern must play a role in governing children’s responses to one another during play, such processes must
themselves be subordinated to still more complex processes of interpersonal reasoning that include inferences about the
very feelings that define and constitute peer play. Thus, one key question for understanding the development of
empathy in humans is how the ability to infer emotional states develops and how children come to discover the causal
links among external events, mental states, and emotion behavior. Can a perception-action model, even one enriched by
recognizing cortical processes and mechanisms, address the developing social understanding and reasoning about
mental states that ultimately must enter into description and explanation of human empathy and its development?
Correspondingly, we must ask whether the social mechanisms residing within mother-child interaction, as proposed
by P&deW to explain the development of empathy, are the same ones that reside within peer play. Preschool children
talk about shared emotions, intentions, and inner states with friends and peers more than they do with siblings or
parents, and this especially occurs during cooperative play (Dunn 1999). Similarly, 2-year-olds announce their own
mental states more often to peers during play than they do when playing with mothers. By the preschool years, children
direct helping and other altruistic behavior more to peers than to adults (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1982).
Furthermore, peer play forces children to behave altruistically and to take account of one another’s feelings, whether
real or imagined. Peers share play materials based on inferred emotions in others and they collaborate in thematic play
based on inferred desires and intentions of others. They also participate in the altered realities of joint pretend play,
which includes sharing altered emotional realities such as pretending to be afraid of the jointly imagined tiger, to be
distressed by the jointly imagined pain of its teeth, and to be overjoyed by the jointly imagined superhero’s rescue.
How do the normative changes in peer play, and the unique demands and collaborations of peer play, contribute to
normative changes in emotion behavior, emotion reasoning, and empathy past infancy?
One measure of the utility of P&deW’s model is how applicable it is to the multiple social contexts in which
emotion communication processes are paramount and empathic processes are central. Cooperative play among young
human peers is one such context. It is the development of children’s emotional responses, including empathic
experiences and behavior, in these complex emotional ecologies that we seek to understand.