20.02.2017 change 20.02.2017

Baby simulators will test the empathy of expectant parents

For the first time in Poland, research on empathy of parents will be conducted using extraordinary dolls - simulators of the needs of infants. As many as 200 couples will participate in the study - future mothers and fathers. The analyses will be a joint effort of experts in the fields of psychology, biotechnology, chemistry and obstetrics. The interdisciplinary project is coordinated by the Institute of Psychology of the University of Gdansk.

"For the first time in Poland, we will use infant simulators - special dolls used, among others, by researchers from the University of Leiden. Subjects in the experiment will be people in relationships, including couples expecting a child. We will check the levels of empathy declared by the subjects. We are interested not only in psychological variables, but also physiological factors, such as hormones or genes" - the project leader, Dr. Maria Kaźmierczak said in an interview with PAP.

Empathy is considered the foundation of human relations. In the concepts of developmental psychology and family psychology, empathy of parents and showing empathy to children are important factors in the formation of family ties. It has been found that empathy affects the development of children from the first days of their lives.

Recent studies indicate that genetic factors are important for empathy. Key hormones for closeness in a relationship are oxytocin and vasopressin. Changes in the levels of these hormones in situations of care affect the parent\'s sensitivity. The question arises: Does empathy of partners in a couple increase their sensitivity to baby\'s cry due to the associated higher levels of oxytocin and vasopressin?

During the study researchers will observe reactions of the bodies of adults to crying baby and interacting with the baby. Measurements using saliva as well as the analysis of biological material and genes will be performed. The project will last three years, as the researchers plan to test 200 couples, in two different groups. They will include couples expecting a child, where a woman is already pregnant, and both partners are actively preparing for the roles of parents.

"Men are often overlooked in studies of empathy, hormones and parenthood. We want to change that. We will study empathy in the moment of assuming parental roles by women and men. We will check the differences between the reactions of mothers and fathers. We will also observe how they influence each other" - said Dr. Kaźmierczak.

Experts wonder if the fact that one person in a couple reacts with empathy can weaken or strengthen the reactions of the other partner, and whether the behaviour of persons in a relationship towards the baby expressing its needs is similar. The project "Empathy in couples as a predictor of responsiveness to the crying child in a situation of activating the parental role - mediating role of oxytocin and vasopressin" received funding in the programme SONATA Bis 6 of the National Science Centre. Its goal is to explain the issues related to empathy, key for the quality of family functioning and child development.

Scientists wonder whether some people are physiologically predisposed to more strongly respond to the needs of a child. They will compare the declared level of empathy with the reactions of the body. They will verify whether the people who consider themselves to be more empathetic, react more strongly while interacting with the child, than those that assess their empathy level as lower. Analyses are expected to show whether genetic factors play a role in empathy.

Does a high capacity for empathy towards the partner and the child determine successful parenting?

Dr. Kaźmierczak argues that one can always be a good parent, regardless of the level of empathy. He admitted, however, that empathy facilitates the identification of the child\'s needs and building emotional ties with it. The fact that the parent is empathetic, improves the child\'s chances to develop skills important for social functioning, self-regulation of emotions and ability to cope well with emotions in the future. He noted that sometimes empathic "contagion" of other people\'s negative emotions means that parents are too involved in the problems of their children and unable to distance ourselves from them. In certain situations, lack of emotional baggage makes it easier to make rational decisions, beneficial to the child.

The research team will be diverse. Psychological analyses will be combined with "hard" objective biotechnology data. The study will be conducted in the laboratory of the Institute of Psychology of the University of Gdansk, as well as in diagnostic laboratories.

The project assumes cooperation of the team from the Institute of Psychology of the University of Gdansk with experts from the Department of Molecular Diagnostics of the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology of the University of Gdansk and Medical University of Gdansk, as well as experts in pharmacy and neuroendocrinology from the Faculty of Pharmacy with Laboratory Medicine Division and the Department of Obstetrics of the Medical University of Gdansk, and developmental psychologists from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Karolina Duszczyk

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