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Ugly: Harvard study claims women really like babies - but only if they are attractive
Trevor Butterworth, July 6, 2009
A little bit of data and an awful lot of exaggeration behind claim that unconditional maternal love may not exist

uglyA new study conducted by researchers at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital finds that women are more likely than men to avoid looking at – how does one put this tastefully? – babies that don’t exactly make you stop and say “awwww.”

This “surprising finding,” according to the Associated Press, was powered by a small sample size, with just 13 men and 14 women  (all healthy), who were shown photos of 80 infants – 50 “normal” ones and 30 with “abnormal” features, such as cleft palates, skin disorders, and Down's syndrome. They were asked to score each baby on attractiveness. Each photo remained on the screen for four seconds; however, the participants could choose to extend or shorten the viewing time. The study’s press release explains 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 to men. Still, the women rated abnormal faces as unattractive as did men.”

In the habitual way that every possible human action or reaction must now have a primal raison d’être in order to be truly meaningful, the study’s authors say these results possibly reflect an evolutionary-based need to give limited resources to healthy offspring. As the lead researcher Dr told the AP, “They had this subliminal motivation to get rid of the faces.”  

On the face of it, this claim would seem to be buttressed by other research that has pointed to a link between averageness in facial features and a strong immune system (as expressed by diversity in the major histocompatibility complex), as well as seemingly inbuilt preferences for symmetry in facial features. In other words, if the eyes are a window on the soul (for those, at least, of a literary bent), the face really is a window on one’s genetic inheritance. Women, according to this study, infer something rotten in the state of the DNA by looking away, men by staring.

But the question is whether this study is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Who in even his or her most generous frame of mind would regard a skin disorder as attractive in a baby? The bard, after all, did not write, “Shall I compare thee to a case of leprosy? Thou art more lovely and more flakey.”
One might as well have studied gender reactions to watching to horror movies – women tended to avoid looking at disfigured cadavers, while men were transfixed by the grotesqueries. Afterwards, both sexes rated the monsters and zombies as unattractive.

It is in this regard that the Harvard study takes on a slightly monstrous quality of its own through radical over-interpretation of the results. As the press release notes,

“‘Our study shows how beauty can affect parental attitudes,’ said Dr. Igor Elman, senior author and Director of the Clinical Psychopathology Laboratory at McLean Hospital. ‘It shows women are more invested in raising healthy babies and that they are more prone to reject unattractive kids’… 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 Dr. Rinah Yamamoto, first author. ‘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.’”

But as none of the “abnormal” babies were the offspring of the study participants, and as only two of the women were mothers, it is impossible to infer parental attitudes from a simple measure of how quickly the group turned away from visible forms of affliction in children they weren’t related to. This study tells us nothing about maternal bonding, social or cultural norms, or ethics, all of which are powerful determinants of behavior. Claiming that the study findings raise questions about “unconditional parental love” is pure sensationalism.

Moreover, to see a picture of a baby afflicted with the signs of disease or deformity may open a woman to a more complex range of responses than that required, say, in picking the color of paint. A woman tested by a picture of a deformed child should have some recourse to other responses besides “more” or “less” attractive if the goal is to determine her qualities as a parent. One such quality would be pity, which, as Stephen Daedelus says in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unities it with the human sufferer.”

Perhaps the 14 women in the McLean study could not bear to look at the afflicted children out of pity? If one is committed to evaluating women’s reactions to abnormal babies in evolutionary terms, one is bound to consider the evolutionary basis of emotional responses such as pity, as the emotions, at least on current evolutionary theory, are seen as regulating non-emotional responses to stimuli, such as the rational calculation that resources shouldn’t be wasted on a disfigured or disabled baby. (In fact, the history of infanticide shows that perfectly healthy and attractive children were as likely to be abandoned or sacrificed as unhealthy children – but the decision was usually made by the male, not the female).

Study references require closer scrutiny
More straightforwardly problematic is that the researchers invoke several studies to back up their claims, notably “Effects of craniofacial deformity in infancy on the quality of mother-infant interactions,” Barden et al, Child Dev. 1989 Aug; 60(4):819-24.

This study of ten mothers, five of whom had children with facial deformities, found that while the mothers with the deformed infants “rated their parental satisfaction and current life satisfaction more positively than did mothers of normal infants,” videotapes of their interaction with their children showed them behaving in a “consistently less nurturant manner than mothers of normal children.” These measures, included affectionate touching, the time spent demonstrating a toy, and responding to behavioral cues. The researchers suggested that the mothers weren’t actually aware they were being less attentive to their children than they thought.

Of course, the tiny sample size severely limits the significance of these findings, but the authors are measured and sophisticated in their analysis, noting for instance that “because craniofecially deformed infants smile less often than do normal infants, they are less able to reinforce responses from their caregivers that could lead to reciprocally interactive behaviors.” They also cite other research showing that maternal interaction is greater with normal or attractive children than with children with minor and major facial deformities.

But the opposite of greater interaction is not necessarily neglect – or the rejection of   “unattractive” kids. This paper makes no such claim – it notes only that fewer incidences of discrete behaviors over three observational periods.


The Harvard McLean researchers also cite a 2007 clinical report in Pediatrics by The Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect and the Council on Children With Disabilities warning that children with disabilities tend to be at greater risk of maltreatment. But the report’s definition of disability goes far beyond facial attractiveness (in fact, it says nothing explicit about facial deformities) and covers disabilities that put physical rather than aesthetic stress on parents and caregivers.


But from the babies' perspective...
It’s worth noting that babies are not quite as pathetically shallow as adults when the tables are turned. Far from responding more to attractiveness, as defined by symmetry and averageness, research by Gillian Rhodes and colleagues at the University of Western Australia found that when given the choice, babies respond more to, cue euphemism, novel features.

So to sum up, by putting everything in the obligatory evolutionary terms: “average” adults may not rate “novel” babies as attractive, but babies will rate novel adults as more attractive, whether they are dependent on that adult for survival or not. Now isn’t that cute?

Not surprisingly, behavioral disorders put children at the highest risk for abuse and neglect.

Finally, the study cites “Physical attractiveness of premature infants affects outcome at discharge from the NICU,” Kurdahi Badr et al, but this was about nurse behavior, not maternal behavior. Plus, the contention that the more attractive infants’ rate of weight gain and decreased length of hospitalization directly related to more nurturing from the nurses was potentially confounded by other possible influences, including birth and parental status and gender.

While it is undoubtedly important to examine whether the perception of attractiveness influences professional medical care, the Harvard McLean researchers claim that “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… 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.’”

But there is nothing in Barden et al to show that the five mothers didn’t love their facially deformed children even if they did appear to interact with them in different ways to the mothers of normal children; there is nothing in the Pediatrics report to suggest that aesthetics is a major – or even a minor - causal factor in child neglect; and the Kurdahi Badr study says nothing about maternal behavior).

Not to be trivial, one might point to all the mothers who take care of severely disabled and disfigured children at great personal sacrifice as evidence that whatever evolution began, evolution and culture changed. Again, the fact that none of the 14 women were responding or rating their own children and only two were parents undermines the inferences made to “unconditional maternal love.”

And what exactly is unconditional maternal love to begin with? How can you interrogate a “commonly held view” through cognitive study without first establishing some grounds for what that view might actually mean. One might as well ask 14 people do they feel happy, and if a majority don’t, say that you have challenged the commonly held view that happiness exists.

The next stage for the McLean researchers is to repeat the study with brain imaging, “to try and 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.” All of which suggests adding another level of philosophical confusion when reduced to an argument about aesthetics and maternal love. As Raymond Tallis, Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, noted in the “The neuroscience delusion”:

“Under normal circumstances, experiences are had by a person, not by a stand-alone brain. The brain of an experiencing person is not isolated, like the famous “brain in a vat” of Hilary Putnam’s thought experiment: it is in a body. Corresponding to this is the fact that when, for example, I see something I like, or someone I love, my brain, or some small part of it, is not the only part of me to light up. My heart may beat faster, or more thickly; a smile may appear on my face; and my step may be a little jauntier. The effects do not stop there. My body is located in a currently experienced environment; and, since I am human, that environment is situated in a world that is extended in all spatial, temporal, cultural directions. This world, too, may be transformed by my encounter with the loved one’s face, and I may think differently about it. For the extraordinary thing about human beings – and what captures what is human – is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds.”


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