Sensitive Babies Become Altruistic Toddlers

Summary: A baby’s attention to fearful faces may predict their level of altruism as toddlers, a new study reports.

Source: Max Planck Institute.

Our responsiveness to seeing others in distress accounts for variability in helping behavior from early in development, according to a study published Sept. 25 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Tobias Grossmann from the Max Planck Institue for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the University of Virginia, and his team.

Altruistic behavior such as helping an unfamiliar person in need is considered a key feature of cooperation in human societies. Yet our propensity to engage in altruistic acts varies considerably among individuals, ranging from extraordinarily altruistic kidney donors to highly antisocial psychopaths. Past studies have suggested that greater sensitivity to fearful faces is linked to heightened levels of prosocial behavior, which can already be seen in preschool children. Examining responsiveness to fearful faces and its variability early in human development represents a unique opportunity to shed light on the precursors of altruistic behavior.

To address this question, Grossmann and colleagues tracked eye movements to examine whether attentional responses to fear in others at seven months of age predict altruistic behavior at 14 months of age. The analysis revealed that altruistic behavior in toddlerhood was predicted by infants’ attention to fearful faces but not happy or angry faces. Moreover, infants’ attentional bias to fearful faces and their altruistic behavior was predicted by brain responses in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex measured through functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

a baby and  toddler

Altruistic behavior such as helping an unfamiliar person in need is considered a key feature of cooperation in human societies. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

“From early in development, variability in altruistic helping behavior is linked to our responsiveness to seeing others in distress and brain processes implicated in attentional control. These findings critically advance our understanding of the emergence of altruism in humans by identifying responsiveness to fear in others as an early precursor contributing to variability in prosocial behavior”, says Tobias Grossmann, study leader and first author of the underlying publication.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Bettina Hennebach – Max Planck Institute
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “The neurodevelopmental precursors of altruistic behavior in infancy” by Tobias Grossmann, Manuela Missana, and Kathleen M. Krol in PLOS Biology. Published September 25 2018.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2005281

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Max Planck Institute”Sensitive Babies Become Altruistic Toddlers.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 28 September 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/altruistic-toddler-sensitive-baby-9927/>.
Max Planck Institute(2018, September 28). Sensitive Babies Become Altruistic Toddlers. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 28, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/altruistic-toddler-sensitive-baby-9927/
Max Planck Institute”Sensitive Babies Become Altruistic Toddlers.” http://neurosciencenews.com/altruistic-toddler-sensitive-baby-9927/ (accessed September 28, 2018).

Abstract

The neurodevelopmental precursors of altruistic behavior in infancy

Altruistic behavior is considered a key feature of the human cooperative makeup, with deep ontogenetic roots. The tendency to engage in altruistic behavior varies between individuals and has been linked to differences in responding to fearful faces. The current study tests the hypothesis that this link exists from early in human ontogeny. Using eye tracking, we examined whether attentional responses to fear in others at 7 months of age predict altruistic behavior at 14 months of age. Our analysis revealed that altruistic behavior in toddlerhood was predicted by infants’ attention to fearful faces but not happy or angry faces. Specifically, infants who showed heightened initial attention to (i.e., prolonged first look) followed by greater disengagement (i.e., reduced attentional bias over 15 seconds) from fearful faces at 7 months displayed greater prosocial behavior at 14 months of age. Our data further show that infants’ attentional bias to fearful faces and their altruistic behavior was predicted by brain responses in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), measured through functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). This suggests that, from early in ontogeny, variability in altruistic helping behavior is linked to our responsiveness to seeing others in distress and brain processes implicated in attentional control. These findings critically advance our understanding of the emergence of altruism in humans by identifying responsiveness to fear in others as an early precursor contributing to variability in prosocial behavior.

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