Science & Tech

Study: Women more likely than men to reject unattractive babies

4 min read

Research questions existence of unconditional maternal love

Women are more likely than men to reject unattractive-looking babies, according to a study by researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, possibly reflecting an evolutionary-derived need for diverting limited resources towards the nurturing of healthy offspring. The findings also challenge the idea of unconditional maternal love.

“Our study shows how beauty can affect parental attitudes,” said Igor Elman, senior author of the research, director of the Clinical Psychopathology Laboratory at McLean Hospital, and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It shows women are more invested in raising healthy babies and that they are more prone to reject unattractive kids.”

The research, published in the journal PLoS ONE, sought to determine whether aesthetic appearance affects how hard that adults are willing to work in order to watch pictures of babies. 

Subjects, including 13 healthy men and 14 healthy women, were shown photos of 80 infants, including 50 normal ones and 30 who had abnormal facial features, including such abnormalities as cleft palates, skin disorders, Down syndrome, and others. 

Each photo was set to remain on screen for four seconds, but subjects could extend or shorten the viewing time of each photo by pressing certain computer keys. A second part of the experiment asked the subjects to rate the attractiveness of each infant on a numerical scale.

The study found that men and women expended a similar amount of effort – quantified by the number of key presses made to keep photos up on the screen – to extend the viewing time of the normal babies. At the same time, the attractiveness ratings given by men for these normal babies were significantly lower than those given by the women. However, when it came to the photos of abnormal babies, women made a greater effort to avoid looking at them, compared with men. Still, the women rated abnormal faces as unattractive as did men.

The differences between men and women in motivational effort to extend or shorten the viewing time of abnormal-looking babies “may reflect an evolutionary-derived need for diversion of limited resources to the nurturance of healthy offspring,” the paper concludes.

The findings question the concept of unconditional parental love, at least among women. “What our results suggest is that this is determined by facial attractiveness,” said Rinah Yamamoto, first author and a research fellow in psychiatry. “Women may be more sensitized to aesthetic defects and may be more prone to reject unattractive kids. Men do not appear to be as motivated. They didn’t expend the same effort.”

The study noted that work with abandoned and neglected children firmly links their abnormal appearance to maltreatment by caregivers. One study, done in Israel, found that 70 percent of children abandoned by their parents had a conspicuous flaw in their appearance even though those flaws were not life-threatening nor did they affect the children’s intellectual development.

“This may be to some extent because adults are unconsciously motivated to care for infants with healthy facial features, indicating fitness for survival and to exclude the least fit,” the paper said. 

“The abandonment and neglect data along with our findings may thus challenge the commonly held view of unconditional maternal love and acceptance of the offspring,” it said. “If mother’s love is not unconditional, what is the condition? The results provide indirect support for … the idea that babies’ aesthetic appearance has a motivating influence on the adults’ caretaking behavior.”

The paper suggests that the findings may have clinical implications in terms of predicting potential for abuse and neglect of children.

Elman said that because the study involved a small number of subjects it must be replicated in larger follow-up studies. Future studies will also involve brain scans of subjects in order to try to pinpoint how men’s and women’s brains may be functioning differently while they view the images and make their choices for extending or shortening the time they are looking at the images.

The study, which also involved researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, was funded by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.