Infants’ attention to faces is associated with social development

Submitted on Mon, 07/09/2018 - 12:44

According to a new study from the University of Tampere, attention to faces in infancy is associated with the development of empathic traits later in childhood. The results showed that infants who were more attentive to faces at seven months were more likely to show spontaneous prosocial behaviour at two years of age. Children who showed greater attention to faces at seven months were also reported by their parents to have less callous-unemotional traits at four years of age.

Over 200 Finnish infants participated in the new longitudinal study. At seven months of age, the children took part in an eye tracking study in which their attention to faces and facial expressions was measured. Social development was assessed at two and four years of age with eye tracking, observational tasks and parental ratings. Prosociality was assessed with tasks in which the child had a possibility to help a researcher who had trouble completing a simple task. Callous-unemotional traits, which indicate relatively less feelings of empathy towards other people, were rated by the parents.

In addition to the results on prosociality and callous-unemotional traits, the study showed that attention to faces was pronounced at seven months but decreased markedly by two years of age. Finally, the results also showed that attention to faces in infancy was not associated with children’s understanding of stories describing others’ thoughts, intentions and emotions at four years of age. Therefore, it seems that attention to faces in infancy is particularly associated with the development of behavioural responses during social interactions with others, but not with more complex social abilities requiring verbal processing.

Even newborns are interested in human faces, and the ability to process various types of information from faces, such as emotional state and identity, develops during the first year. There are also individual differences in how much babies pay attention to others’ faces. However, apart from the new study, there is a lack of comprehensive longitudinal research on the associations between face processing in infancy and the development of social behaviour in childhood.

“This research highlights the importance of studying face processing in infancy by demonstrating that early individual differences in processing social information can be relevant for understanding later childhood development,” says Academy Research Fellow Mikko Peltola from the University of Tampere.

Research Director Jukka Leppänen emphasises that an important next step will be to replicate these preliminary results in larger and more heterogeneous samples. “The methods developed in the Infant Cognition Laboratory (http://www.uta.fi/med/icl/) offer excellent possibilities for population-based studies of these phenomena.”

The research was funded by the Academy of Finland and the European Research Council. The results were published in Developmental Science.


Peltola MJ, Yrttiaho S & Leppänen JM. (2018). Infants’ attention to faces as an early marker of social development. Developmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12687

The research paper is also available here.

For more information, please contact:
Dr Mikko Peltola, tel. +358 50 318 6120, mikko.peltola@staff.uta.fi
Dr Jukka Leppänen, jukka.leppanen@staff.uta.fi