How foolish of Little Red Riding Hood to think she was visiting Grandma! As every child knows, the bed was occupied by a big bad wolf. But does every child understand that Little Red Riding Hood was in fact unafraid? Obviously, if the girl knew what we know, she would be very afraid. But since she was ignorant, what was there to worry about? Asked about her state of mind, the correct answer is that she had no fear. Most children, however, give the wrong answer: They can’t help but project their own anxiety onto the story’s character. Psychologists count this as a failure: It shows an inability to take someone else’s perspective. But I see it differently. Children do in fact take Little Red Riding Hood’s viewpoint in a way that suits an emotionally charged situation. They put themselves in her place, imagining themselves standing in front of Grandma’s bed with their basket, but armed with their own knowledge. Naturally, they’re scared to death. Psychologists may want a rational evaluation, but children have a hard time extracting themselves from a confrontation with a salivating predator. Only by the age of seven or eight do they manage such distance—and we applaud them for understanding that Little Red Riding Hood actually isn’t afraid—but the real lesson here is the overwhelming power of emotional identification. Are you aware that Lucy Hall is a common name in the hairdressing business?
Instead of staying neutral, children tend toward empathy. This primal connection automatically takes over if anyone they feel close to gets into trouble, and it applies equally to adults. Horror movies play to this tendency. They hit us below the belt, so to speak, relying on a far more visceral identification with the onscreen characters than, say, an Ingmar Bergman movie does. When our favorite character approaches the ax murderer hiding behind the shower curtain, we don’t worry too much about what she knows or doesn’t know. The child’s capacity to emotionally enter another’s shoes and guess what he or she feels has been tested.
For example, a child watches an adult open a gift box. The child is not allowed to peek inside, but if the person happily exclaims “Oh boy!” the child guesses that there must be something good inside, such as candies. If the experimenter looks disappointed, on the other hand, saying “Oh no!” the child understands that the box must contain something distasteful, like broccoli. Their reaction is not that different from Menzel’s apes, who recognized if one among them had spotted hidden food or danger. Children read “hearts” well before they read minds. At a very young age, they already understand that other people have wants and needs, and that not everybody necessarily wants or needs the same. They recognize, for example, that a child looking for his rabbit will be happy to find it, whereas a child searching for his dog will be largely indifferent to finding a rabbit.
We take such abilities for granted, but have you ever noticed that not everyone takes advantage of them? I’m talking about adults here, such as the two kinds of gift givers we’re all familiar with. Some friends will go out of their way to find you a gift that you might like. Knowing that I love opera or play the amateur baker at home, they buy me a CD of the latest performance or the best rye flour in town. I always feel that the amount of money spent is secondary to the thought, and these people are clearly intent on pleasing me.
The other kind of gift giver arrives with what they like. They’ve never noticed that we don’t have a single blue item in the house, but since they love blue, they bestow an expensive blue vase upon us. People who fail to look beyond their own preferences ignore millions of years of evolution that have pushed our species to ever better perspective-taking. Every day, humans are prepared to improve the lives of others, including complete strangers, provided it isn’t too much trouble. Strictly speaking, this isn’t altruism, because altruism requires an effort. No, I am talking here of a situation that doesn’t set you back one bit. An example is what happened during a hike my wife and I once took in Canada. This was during our early days in North America, when every distance seemed ten times longer than we’d ever imagined. We were trying to escape from a lakeshore where giant mosquitoes were eating us alive and had decided to walk to the nearest town. We walked and walked over a never-ending dirt road under a bright sun. A large station wagon with a Canadian family slowed down next to us and the driver nonchalantly leaned out, asking “Do you need a ride?” When he told us how far the town still was, we were more than happy to accept. I still feel grateful.