Babies Show Signs of Altruism Earlier Than Scientists Ever Thought

You can tell pretty early if an infant will grow up to be nice.

Babies notice more than we think they do, and the things they notice can tell us a lot about the kind of people they’ll grow up to be. Previously, scientists determined that toddlers younger than two years old exhibit signs of altruism — selfless concern for the well-being of others — that in turn predicted what they’d be like in the future. Now, new research in the journal PLOS Biology suggests that these signs emerge even earlier than we thought. The way a baby acts before it even turns one year old can reliably predict whether it will display altruistic behavior by the time it’s 14 months old.

Research in this field is an attempt to understand whether it’s really in our nature to be altruistic, and why. Acting selflessly, after all, is not immediately beneficial, at least from a purely evolutionary standpoint. And yet even our non-human primate relatives will sacrifice themselves for their neighbors, leading to the understanding that the behavior is somehow conserved.

In the new paper, published Tuesday, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists show that a 7-month-old baby that pays close attention to the face of someone who is afraid is more likely to display prosocial behavior by the time they’re 14 months old.

“The current study shows that responses to fearful faces at seven months, but not happy or angry faces, predict altruistic behavior at 14 months of age,” write the study’s authors, led by Tobias Grossmann, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “This confirms our hypothesis based on prior work and suggests that the tendency to engage altruistically is linked to responding to others in distress.”

faces in baby experiment
Babies who spent more time looking at the fearful face (left) turned out to be more altruistic toddlers.

To conduct this research, the study’s authors showed seven-month-old baby humans images of faces expressing happy, fearful, angry, and neutral facial expressions. Meanwhile, the researchers tracked patterns of brain activation in the infants’ brains as well as the movement of their eyes while they looked at the faces.

Seven months later, the researchers investigated whether the subjects, now toddlers, exhibited signs of altruism. This extremely cute experiment involved two different situations in which an experimenter acted like they couldn’t reach an object. In one, an adult pretended to accidentally drop a pen, and in the other, attempted to reach for a paper ball that is out of reach, but not for the toddler. Recording these experiments on camera, the researchers examined how often the infants helped and how long it took them to help.

Around 7 months old, babies' responsiveness to fearful faces comes on line.
Around 7 months old, babies' responsiveness to fearful faces comes on line.

Taken together, the data showed that the infants who had spent more time looking at fearful faces when they were seven months old were more likely to help the experimenter in need once they turn 14 months old. They also found that the babies whose dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activated at the sight of a fearful face during the 7-month-old experiment were more likely to help when they were older.

The activity patterns recorded in the seven-month-old brains showed that early attention and later altruism were associated with activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain “linked to cognitive and attentional control of emotion,” the team explains.

cute baby
Early predictors of altruism can appear at seven months old. 

These results build on our understanding of the “caring continuum” — the spectrum of individual ability to detect the emotional state of others (and use that as motivation for helping). They also show that the earliest signs of altruism show up earlier than altruism itself shows up, as indicated by its signature brain activation pattern and a measurable behavior.

“The current developmental data are important also because responsiveness to fear in others is thought to be a marker of (or precursor to) empathic concern, which has been shown to be systematically linked to altruistic behavior in older infants and adults,” the authors write.

Long story short, if a baby seems very attentive and aware of its adults, it’s possible that you’re seeing the very first signs of an awakening awareness and concern for others. Pretty adorable, right?