Examining empathy and its association with aggression in young Western Cape children

  • Susan Malcolm-Smith
  • Danielle Woolley
  • Catherine L. Ward


Objective: In a context of disturbing rates of violent crime, this pilot study initiated examination of the association between empathy and aggressive behaviour in young Western Cape children. Establishing which empathy measures are appropriate for our context was a primary concern.

Method: To capture various aspects of empathy in young children we adopted a multi-method approach. We examined empathy scores in 65 lower middle socio-economic status (SES) Englishspeaking Grade 1 pupils (6.0–8.0 years old) and their association with aggressive externalising behaviour.

Results: Parent report measures of callous-unemotional traits and aggression performed well, however, the Griffith Empathy Measure, a well-established parent report scale, proved problematic. Empathy scores, particularly those for callous-unemotional traits, were associated with aggression. We also found several associations between aspects of empathy, consistent with the international literature. Cognitive empathy, as measured by first-order false belief reasoning, was not well established, suggesting that other more complex social cognitive tasks were inappropriate for this age group in our context.

Conclusion: The association between empathy and aggression warrants further investigation in this context. Appropriate measures for the South African context must be utilised.


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1728-0591
print ISSN: 1728-0583