Moral development focuses on the emergence, change, and understanding of morality from infancy through adulthood. In the field of moral development, morality is defined as principles for how individuals ought to treat one another, with respect to justice, others’ welfare, and rights. In order to investigate how individuals understand morality, it is essential to measure their beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that contribute to moral understanding. The field of moral development studies the role of peers and parents in facilitating moral development, the role of conscience and values, socialization and cultural influences, empathy and altruism, and positive development. The interest in morality spans many disciplines (e.g., philosophy, economics, biology, and political science) and specializations within psychology (e.g., social,cognitive, and cultural). Moral developmental psychology research focuses on questions of origins and change in morality across the lifespan.
Q: I read your column on how teens develop empathy. Could you please provide more information about recent research on the topic?
A: Researchers are finding that the teen years are a window of opportunity for adults to help adolescents develop empathy—the capacity to feel concern for others and understand their perspective. A common assumption in the past was that children’s capacity for empathy was mostly formed by adolescence. Numerous brain-imaging and behavioral studies in recent years, however, show that areas of the brain involved in understanding the mental states of others continue to develop through the teen years, according to a 2014 research review in the Annual Review of Psychology. Social behaviors teens develop in adolescence have a formative impact on brain development and may become lifelong patterns, says the study by researchers at University College London, England, and the National Institute of Mental Health, in Bethesda, Md.
Teens’ capacity for empathy plays a big role in their lives. Adolescents who are low in empathy tend to get in more trouble for aggressive behavior. They also have more conflicts with their parents, perhaps because they don’t recognize when they are violating parents’ rules or care about their response, according to a six-year study of 467 adolescents published recently in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
Low-empathy teens tend to become less empathetic from early to mid-adolescence, perhaps because conflict makes them less sensitive, says the study, led by Caspar Van Lissa, a researcher at Utrecht University, Netherlands. Teens high in empathy tend to develop better skills. Psychologists say adults can help by responding warmly to teens’ feelings, helping them understand others’ emotions and viewpoints and exposing them to settings where empathy is encouraged or rewarded.