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PLoS Biol. 2018 Sep 25;16(9):e2005281. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2005281. eCollection 2018 Sep.

The neurodevelopmental precursors of altruistic behavior in infancy.

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Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States of America.
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany.
Institute of Educational Sciences, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany.


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.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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