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Health Answers

Do men and women react differently to babies with abnormal facial features?

By Judy Foreman
July 13, 2009
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Q. Do men and women react differently to babies with abnormal facial features?

A. Yes, according to preliminary research published last month by researchers from McLean Hospital in Belmont. In fact, women seem to be more likely than men to reject babies with abnormal facial features, such as cleft palates, Down syndrome, crossed eyes, or skin disorders. Perhaps, the authors suggest, there’s an evolutionary reason - to make sure maternal resources go toward what they call “facial attractiveness,’’ which might be a sign of health and viability.

The study, published in PLoS One, was conducted by Dr. Igor Elman, a psychiatrist and director of the clinical psychopathology laboratory, and experimental psychologist Rinah Yamamoto. They asked 13 men and 14 women, few of them parents, to look at 80 baby pictures - 50 normal faces, 30 with abnormal features - on a computer. By hitting different keys, the subjects could make the pictures stay longer or disappear from the screen.

Gender played a huge role in whether the subjects accepted or rejected the pictures, said Elman. Women “worked’’ much harder - they made many more keystrokes - to delete pictures of babies with facial abnormalities.

This evidence fits with longstanding psychological theory that the “babyishness’’ of infant features - like the cuteness of baby animals - seems linked to nurturing feelings and behavior in adults, said Yamamoto.

Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist Nancy Etcoff, author of “Survival of the Prettiest,’’ said that “beauty has survival value. Beauty is a biological advertisement for health.’’

Dr. Michael C. Miller, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, agreed, but cautioned that “it’s important not to equate the responses people have to pictures of other people’s children with the reaction of mothers who give birth to a child with significant, visible defects.’’ Many mothers, he said, love and bond well to their babies despite visible flaws.

And for what it’s worth, babies notice beauty, too, said Etcoff. Even days-old babies, she said, prefer to stare longer at faces (not their mothers’) deemed beautiful by adults.

E-mail health questions to foreman@globe.com.

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