The Effects of Storytelling on Expressions of Empathy

The present study examined affective and cognitive empathy in preschool children. Seventeen children, ages three to five years, were given The Young Children’s Empathy Measure to determine their understanding of empathy. Participants were then read a children’s story and given the empathy measure again, to see if they expressed more empathy after hearing about a sympathetic protagonist. A second baseline score was obtained one week after the story was administered. On measures of cognitive anger, mean scores increased significantly after the story was heard. Other scores increased after hearing the story, indicating a trend that storytelling is an effective method of increasing expressions of empathy.

Affective empathy is defined as being able to know about and understand another person’s feelings without having experienced the same situation (Feshbach, 1975). Children as young as three years of age have been shown to exhibit appropriate empathy toward others and to demonstrate correct understanding of others’ emotions (Gove & Keating, 1979; Poresky, 1990).

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Although young children can correctly express empathy toward others, empathic abilities do appear to increase as one grows older and is able to view the world in a less egocentric manner (Piaget, 1966). Numerous studies have illustrated a strong positive correlation between age and ability to empathize. Children between five and six years of age show many more appropriate responses on empathy measures than children closer to three years of age (Gove & Keating, 1979; Poresky, 1990). This trend is not exclusive to the earliest years of development. Bryant (1982) administered a pencil and paper empathy scale to first, fourth, and seventh graders and found that seventh graders were more empathetic than the other two groups. Olweus and Endresen (1998) conducted a two-year longitudinal study of 13 to 16 year olds and found a steady increase in empathy as they aged.

Higher levels of empathy in children have also been correlated with the development of many positive behaviors at all ages. Seja and Russ (1999) discovered a strong correlation between high levels of fantasy play and empathy in first and second graders. This trend indicates that being able to vicariously understand the emotions of others is related to creativity and imagination. The ability to empathize is also correlated with increased prosocial behavior and emotional expressiveness and insight (Roberts & Strayer, 1996). Empathy also appears to increase a child’s comfort level and openness around other people, and decreases the physical distance they place between themselves and others (Strayer & Roberts, 1997).

Creativity, imagination, prosocial behavior, emotional expressiveness and insight, and increased personal openness are certainly positive behaviors to encourage in young children, as is empathy itself. Kalliopuska and Tiitinen (1991) developed two programs for nurturing empathy in six and seven year old children over a 4 month period. One program emphasized empathic development through music, combined with physical activity and art. The students learned songs about caring for animals and friendship. The other activities included songs and active games, sculpting clay images of classmates and reflecting their emotions, and playing games about consoling others. In the second program, empathy was developed using drama and stories. Children played the roles of teachers and students enacting an animal’s first day at school. Students also used puppets to act out stories about making friends, and later discussed the stories and the emotions of their characters.

Both programs were highly effective in teaching empathy; the children in the test groups showed significant increases in empathy and prosociability after the 4-month program relative to children in the control group. In the condition emphasizing stories and drama, children showed an even greater increase in these behaviors. These results indicate that empathy can be consciously taught, and that utilizing drama and stories, where children can take on and see and hear the role of another, is a very effective method of teaching empathic behavior.

There is further evidence to indicate that the use of stories is an effective way of teaching empathy to young children. Kagan and Knudson (1982) conducted a study in which five to seven year olds were played tapes of adults involved in happy, angry, anxious, and sad interactions. The same participants were also told stories about children experiencing the same four emotions. Children showed significantly higher levels of affective empathy toward the children in stories than the adults on tape. This lends further support to the idea that children respond more empathetically to characters in stories than in other media. The results also suggest that children are more empathetic to other children than toward adults, possibly because it is easier to identify with the feelings of a peer whose emotions they are more likely to share. Children also showed more empathy toward protagonists who experienced misfortune than they did toward those in more everyday circumstances (Strayer & Roberts, 1997).

The purpose of the present study was to measure levels of empathy in preschool-aged children when storytelling was incorporated, and to compare these levels to empathy exhibited when storytelling was not used. Where previous research used stories as an integral part of empathy measures, in the current study storytelling was not directly involved in the empathy measure. Because most young children are simply read stories and not consciously taught empathy along with them, this seemed a more realistic model for testing the effectiveness of storytelling on a child’s affective empathy. Based on previous research, it was hypothesized that children would exhibit higher levels of empathy after hearing a story with a sympathetic, school-aged protagonist than when simply asked questions from an empathy measure.

Participants were 17 children between three and five years of age (12 boys and 5 girls, mean age 4 years, 5 months). Participants were obtained through a preschool affiliated with Earlham College, a local community center, and through contacting faculty, staff, and community members by word of mouth. All parents and guardians were told all details of the study in a letter in advance, and all children participated with their parent’s knowledge and written consent. Parents were provided with the results at the conclusion of the experiment.

Participants were read a picture book, Hooway for Wodney Wat, (Lester, 1999). The children were also given the Young Children’s Empathy Measure (Appendix A), developed by Robert Poresky (1990). The Young Children’s Empathy Measure (YCEM) consisted of four verbally presented vignettes, each designed to elicit one of four emotions: sadness, fear, anger and happiness. The children were then asked two questions after each vignette. “How does the child feel?” was used to measure each child’s cognitive perspective, and “How do you feel about this?” was used to measure each child’s affective perspective.

The children were each visited individually three times by the experimenter. Visits were conducted either in the child’s preschool or home, and the same location was used in each session.

In the first session, the YCEM was administered and answers were recorded, to establish a baseline empathy score for each child. The second session took place on a different day, and the experimenter read the story to the child. Immediately afterward, the YCEM was administered a second time, and a second score was recorded. The story was not discussed in relation to the YCEM.

The third session took place 1 week after the second, to assess whether there would be any long-term effects of the story on empathy. The story was not mentioned by the experimenter, and the YCEM was administered a third time, and a third score was recorded.

Mean empathy scores for baseline, immediate, and delayed test conditions are shown in Table 1. Higher means indicate more appropriate expressions of empathy. One-way repeated measure ANOVAS were used to analyze the differences between the different experimental conditions for each vignette. For all items, means were higher for cognitive than for affective empathy. Storytelling produced a significant effect in cognitive anger over the three conditions (F (df 2,32) = 4.216, p * .05).

Post hoc paired t-tests (alpha set at .017 according to Bonferroni procedure) revealed a significant increase in empathy scores from the baseline (M = 3.0588, SD = .5557) to the immediate test condition (M = 3.4706, SD = .5145, p * .017). The same test also revealed marginal significance in the change of mean scores from the story condition to the second baseline test (M = 3.1765, SD = .3930, p = .056). These results indicate that storytelling did increase the empathy expressed by participants.

No significant changes in mean scores were found in the remaining seven questionnaire items, although an interesting trend was revealed. There appeared to be a further effect of storytelling for several more questionnaire items aside from affective anger. For cognitive sadness, affective sadness, and affective fear, mean scores increased from the baseline to the immediate condition, although not significantly (Table 1). These increased means indicate a definite trend of more appropriate expressions of empathy when storytelling is employed.

In three of the eight questionnaire measures, cognitive fear, as well as both affective and cognitive happiness, mean scores decreased from the baseline to the immediate condition, although not significantly (Table 1). This trend is interesting because it indicates a possible negative effect of storytelling. For the remaining item, affective anger, means remained the same from the baseline to the immediate condition. No effects of age or sex were found. Discussion

The hypothesis in this study was not strongly supported. In one half of the questionnaire items, scores increased as an effect of storytelling, one significantly. In three of the four remaining items, scores dropped from the baseline to the story condition. It is difficult to determine if these trends indicate whether or not storytelling has an effect on children’s empathy, and whether it is positive or negative.

There are several possible explanations for a decrease in empathy scores after hearing a story. The testing conditions were not always the most appropriate for reading to a child. At times, the test was administered in a large room with several other children, who often interrupted and asked questions about what was taking place. This might have increased the participant’s distractability or reduced the attention span, which in turn could reduce the impact and effectiveness of storytelling. A more ideal testing environment would be one that is quiet and the full attention of the experimenter and the child can be given to the story being read and the test being administered.

When working with preschool aged participants, it is also important to note that their logic is not always the same as that of an adult, and that it is quite variable. When asked, “how does a child who just lost its best friend feel?”, a young child may respond, “like he couldn’t go.” This answer might very well make perfect sense to the child, but it becomes difficult for the experimenter to determine what sort of emotion this is, and how it might be coded for data analysis. During the next session, however, the same child may be thinking in a different way and give the response that is considered most appropriate, “sad.” In the mind of the child, however, these two seemingly different answers may mean exactly the same emotion. The variability in logic and verbal expression of young children can thus greatly effect the responses given on a questionnaire.

In the present study, it was interesting to examine the children’s understanding of affective versus cognitive empathy. Participants consistently demonstrated a better understanding of what another child’s emotion would be than what their own would be in response to the other child’s situation. The question “how does this child feel?” leaves much less room for interpretation that the question, “how do you feel about that?” It is possible that the latter could be interpreted as, “how do you feel about being in that situation?” or “how do you feel about the child’s involvement in that situation?” If interpreted the first way, the child must simply put him or herself in a situation which he or she has most likely experienced, which is much more concrete, and easier to do at this young age. The question becomes more difficult when interpret the second way, which requires the child to relate to an imaginary child in an imaginary situation.

Another interesting trend was which emotions appeared to be best understood. Children consistently mistook anger for sadness, in response to the vignette, “a child really wants to go out but is not allowed.” The change in means from the baseline to the story was significant, but mean scores were generally lower for anger than for sadness, fear, and happiness. This indicates that young children are less aware of anger than other basic emotions, that it is more difficult for them to articulate, or possibly that they equate it with sadness. Children were most likely to correctly identify sadness and happiness consistently, which possibly indicates that they are more aware of these emotions, and are better able to verbalize them.

There was an indication that hearing a story with a sympathetic protagonist does actually lead a child to express more empathy. If administered to a larger sample in a more consistent and appropriate environment, it is quite possible a significant effect of storytelling could be found. In the present study, no attempt was made to consciously emphasize and teach empathy along with storytelling. In future research, storytelling could be proven more effective when combined with a deliberate teaching of empathy, which has also been shown to be highly effective. Future research could also examine the effects of different types of storybooks, with different types of characters and situations, and how this might change a young child’s expressions of empathy toward others.


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The Effects of Storytelling on Expressions of Empathy. (2018, Jun 07). Retrieved from