Egocentrism: Who can take whose empathic perspective?


Egocentrism occurs as part of preschoolers’ development in the so-called pre-operational stage and means the inability of a child to differentiate between its own and other people’s thoughts [1]. In other words, children would not realize the suffering of others as such at all [2]. This poses a quite depressive outlook and may not correspond to own experience and observations. Aren’t there more empathy-promising possibilities than such a radical and moral-disabling egocentrism? Is there potential for interventions? And what does animal research tell us?

Piaget’s concept of egocentrism includes more than social perspective taking of preschoolers and has a cognitive and affective dimension, although the latter requires further elaboration [1]. The concept of egocentrism seems to hold true as it was experimentally confirmed in around 60% of children between the age of four and seven [3]. Egocentricity decreases with age [4]. For example, false belief bias, a property of egocentrism, correlates negatively with age [5].

Study results may also depend on the testing method. Through indirect tests, (e.g., observing body language instead of verbal feedback) additional early childhood sensitivity may be detected [6]. Research literature distinguishes between different types of egocentrism. Some types are caused by a lack of conflict processing capabilities [7], and others by, for example, over-demanding and -protecting parental attitudes that can result in adolescents’ shyness, personal fable, and imaginary audience. Egocentrism is positively related to all of these factors [8].

The ability to take other’s perspective doesn’t necessarily mean increased empathy. In contrast, realizing opposing group identities and competing interests may increase a child’s partiality. Positive inter-group experiences need to be fostered to reduce such intergroup bias [4]. If lowered egocentricity is framed as a shift of mental focus away from oneself, however, it was found to promote reflection and self-control in children, which promises to offer useful behavioral intervention possibilities [9]. Theories of empathy suggests a conceptual trinity of perspective taking, including cognitive, visual, and affective elements. It may be thanks to the emotional component that toddlers trained in perspective taking exhibited greater pro-social behavior [10]. It seems to be a logical argumentation that such learning of pro-social behavior through the reduction of egocentrism might involve an increase in affective empathy as well [11]. Some even argue the empathy is directly related to spatial/bodily perspective taking, which, however, is quite contentious [12].

Empathic perspective taking isn’t a uniquely human capability and animals are studied to decode the roots of human social and moral characteristics. Some animals show sympathetic concern when giving solace and they take perspective when voluntarily supporting others. The expression of empathy towards representatives of unfamiliar groups and other species represents a more human-like empathic capability evidenced from primate research [13]. Empathy as a complex mental ability to comprehend other’s emotions was, recently also found in rodents. This finding was remarkable enough to even trigger the creation of a specific academic field dedicated to rodent empathetic behavior [14].


[1] Kesselring, T., & Müller, U. (2011). The concept of egocentrism in the context of Piaget’s theory. New Ideas In Psychology, 29(Special Issue: Cognitive Robotics and Reevaluation of Piaget Concept of Egocentrism), 327-345. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2010.03.008

[2] DeVries, R., & Kamii, C. (1975, August). Why Group Games? A Piagetian Perspective. University of Illinois.

[3] Sharath, A., Sharmila, S., Sureetha, A., & Sivakumar, N. (2014). Relevance of Piaget′s cognitive principles among 4-7 years old children: A descriptive cross-sectional study. Journal Of Indian Society Of Pedodontics And Preventive Dentistry, Vol 32, Iss 4, Pp 292-296 (2014), (4), 292. doi:10.4103/0970-4388.140947

[4] Dominic, A. (2011). Wherein Lies Children’s Intergroup Bias? Egocentrism, Social Understanding, and Social Projection. Child Development, (5), 1579. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01617.x

[5] Mahy, C. E., Bernstein, D. M., Gerrard, L. D., & Atance, C. M. (2017). Testing the validity of a continuous false belief task in 3- to 7-year-old children. Journal Of Experimental Child Psychology, 16050-66. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.010

[6] Surtees, A. R., & Apperly, I. A. (2012). Egocentrism and automatic perspective taking in children and adults. Child Development, 83(2), 452-460.

[7] Hoffmann, F., Singer, T., & Steinbeis, N. (2015). Children’s increased emotional egocentricity compared to adults is mediated by age‐related differences in conflict processing. Child Development, 86(3), 765-780. doi:10.1111/cdev.12338

[8] Wojciechowska, L., & Jasik, M. (2016). Parental attitudes of mothers and fathers and adolescent shyness and egocentrism. Developmental Psychology / Psychologia Rozwojowa, 21(1), 33-47. doi:10.4467/20843879PR.16.003.4792

[9] White, R. E., & Carlson, S. M. (2016). What would batman do? Self-distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science, 19(3), 419-426. doi:10.1111/desc.12314

[10] Cigala, A., Mori, A., & Fangareggi, F. (2015). Learning others’ point of view: perspective taking and prosocial behaviour in preschoolers. Early Child Development And Care, 185(8), 1199-1215.

[11] Schwenck, C., Ciaramidaro, A., Selivanova, M., Tournay, J., Freitag, C. M., & Siniatchkin, M. (2017). Research report: Neural correlates of affective empathy and reinforcement learning in boys with conduct problems: fMRI evidence from a gambling task. Behavioural Brain Research, 32075-84. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2016.11.037

[12] Crescentini, C., Fabbro, F., & Urgesi, C. (2014). Mental spatial transformations of objects and bodies: Different developmental trajectories in children from 7 to 11 years of age. Developmental Psychology, 50(2), 370-383. doi:10.1037/a0033627

[13] Pérez-Manrique, A., & Gomila, A. (2017). The comparative study of empathy: Sympathetic concern and empathic perspective-taking in non-human animals. Biological Reviews, doi:10.1111/brv.12342

[14] Meyza, K. Z., Bartal, I. B., Monfils, M. H., Panksepp, J. B., & Knapska, E. (2017). The roots of empathy: Through the lens of rodent models. Neuroscience And Biobehavioral Reviews, 76(Part B), 216-234. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.10.028