Developmental Science

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Volume 21 Issue 6 (November 2018), Pages

Infants' attention bias to faces as an early marker of social development

Abstract

Infants have a strong tendency to look at faces. We examined individual variations in this attentional bias in 7‐month‐old infants by using a face‐distractor competition paradigm and tested in a longitudinal sample whether these variations were associated with outcomes reflecting social behavior at 24 and 48 months of age (i.e., spontaneous helping, emotion understanding, mentalizing, and callous‐unemotional traits; N = 100–138). The results showed a robust and distinct attention bias to faces at 7 months, particularly when faces were displaying a fearful expression. This bias declined between 7 and 24 months and there were no significant correlations in attention dwell times between 7 and 24 months of age. Variations in attention to faces at 7 months were not associated with emotion understanding or mentalizing abilities at 48 months of age, but increased attention to faces at 7 months (regardless of facial expression) was related to more frequent helping responses at 24 months and reduced callous‐unemotional traits at 48 months of age. Thus, while the results fail to associate infants' face bias with later‐emerging emotion understanding and mentalizing capacities, they are consistent with a model whereby increased attention to faces in infancy is linked with the development of affective empathy and responsivity to others' needs.

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