Babies prefer attractive faces

The Tweet: “Newborn babies choose to look at attractive faces over plain ones – suggesting that recognizing appealing faces is hardwired at birth.”

The preference for looking at attractive faces is present innately in babies from 14 hours to 8 months old. The phenomenon has been studied widely, looking at attractiveness (as rated by the babies parents), symmetry and ‘averageness’ (how unremarkable a face is). The method for testing this is generally to show children alternating images of attractive and unattractive faces and recording how long each child spent looking at the image. Much of the earliest work looked at the effect of attractive white adult female faces showing that faces rated as highly attractive by the babies parents will hold their child’s attention for longer.

But in 1991, Langlois et al. compared attractive and unattractive adult female and male faces, black female faces, and the faces of other babies in one of the most comprehensive studies of attractive faces on children to date. The researchers corroborated earlier research showing that attractive faces were always preferred and went on to show that the sex of the adult had no effect, and the effect of attractive faces is also present in black women and in attractive baby faces.

Later studies then aimed to establish what attribute makes a face attractive to an infant. In a 1994 study by Samuels et al. attractiveness (as rated by the babies parents) was compared to the symmetry of the face. Symmetry had no effect on the outcome. Then in 2001, Rhodes et al. looked at ‘averageness’ as a quality of attractiveness. They found that the babies showed a slight preference for less ‘average’ faces, but concluded that it was because of the novelty value rather than an intrinsic aesthetic appeal. So the characteristics that make a face attractive to a baby are difficult to determine.

Finally, a study in 1998 by Slater et al. established that a preference for attractive faces is present in babies a day old. The researchers sampled infants from 14-151 hours, and again used female faces rated for attractiveness by adults. This sample of very young children showed that they too spent longer looking at attractive faces.

There is a large body of work that shows babies from a range of ages prefer to look at attractive faces. The reasons that attractive faces should hold our attention for longer remain unclear and whether our adult perception of attractiveness has the same meaning to a newborn is difficult to say. But, our innate response to faces from a young age shows how important they are to our development, and it’s from faces that we begin to understand the world.

Image credit: Natalie Shuttleworth (Flickr)
This post was first published on The Untweetable Truth (5/10/2014)

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