The Women Who Stare at Babies

By Elizabeth Preston | March 6, 2015 9:06 am

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A drooling baby face is not equally exciting to everyone around it. A new study says that young women who like the idea of motherhood get more enjoyment than their peers from staring at infants’ faces. But they don’t love all of those chubby mugs equally. Even more than the baby-neutral, wannabe moms are biased toward the cutest ones.

Amanda Hahn is a researcher at the University of Glasgow’s “Face Research Lab,” directed by psychologists Lisa DeBruine and Benedict Jones. (On their website you can see an averaged photo of all seven lab members’ faces, because of course.) Hahn is especially interested in motivation. For this study, she wanted to know what drives people to look at photos of babies—or not.

Hahn focused on heterosexual women with no children of their own. She recruiting 200 subjects online; their average age was about 22.

As for the baby pictures, Hahn started with 10 photos of real babies. Then she digitally tweaked them to create a slightly cuter, plus a slightly less cute, version of each baby. (Information about what shapes make baby faces more or less cute had come from a previous study.) The differences were subtle, as you can see in the pair of faces below.

baby heads

Do you want to look at one of these faces for longer? For one part of the study, that’s all the women did: stare at faces. A hundred subjects watched babies flash by on the screen one at a time. The pictures lingered for just a few seconds each. But women could press one set of keys to make a face stay on the screen a moment longer, and a different set of keys to speed things up and move on to the next baby.

In a separate experiment, the other hundred women rated all the baby faces on a cuteness scale of 1 to 7 (“not cute” to “very cute”). Finally, all the subjects filled out a questionnaire about their maternal tendencies. They answered questions about how much they want to be involved in aspects of child raising such as dressing, grooming, and taking kids to activities. They also rated how much they enjoy hanging out with kids, how strongly they want children of their own, and how maternal they feel, compared to their peers.

The key-pressing task is a way to measure how rewarding someone finds a picture. People who enjoy looking at a photo will press the button to keep it on the screen. Hahn found that her subjects did stare longer at the artificially cute-ified babies than the uglified ones. (In the picture above, the allegedly cuter baby is on the left.)

But certain women enjoyed the cute photos more than others did. To measure how rewarding the attractive babies were for different subjects, Hahn measured the gap between each woman’s time spent staring at cuter and less-cute babies. The women with the widest gaps also had the highest maternal tendency scores.

That’s not because other women couldn’t tell which babies were cute. In the ranking experiment, subjects rated the cuter photos significantly higher than the less-cute ones. But there was no link to their scores for maternal tendencies.

Hahn thinks this means women with more motherly feelings experience more reward in their brains from seeing a cute baby—but it has nothing to do with whether they can spot a cute baby in the first place.

Of course, this is all about women who don’t have kids of their own. It’ll take more studies to find out whether actual moms still find it rewarding to stare at other people’s cute babies. They may be too busy cleaning up drool and poop to look around.


Images: top by Darren Waters (via Flickr); bottom, Hahn et al.

Hahn, A., DeBruine, L., & Jones, B. (2015). Reported maternal tendencies predict the reward value of infant facial cuteness, but not cuteness detection Biology Letters, 11 (3), 20140978-20140978 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0978

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  • Loren Grosse

    I’m a stressed out 27 year old mother of 3 and would love to send them off to a sitter for two weeks. However, I still adore my babies and care for them the best I can and I have to say, all three are gorgeous Gerber looking babies. I was instantly drawn to the baby on the left, the baby on the right (I’m aware it’s the same baby) has a big head and the shape isn’t as , eyes, nose lips… anyway, about the study, even though I’m stressed out and want to get rid of my kids more often than not I still get really excited to see a cute baby and want to kiss it’s fuzzy little head

    • GuestWhom

      When you say a “sitter” I’m guessing you, like most people, mean a female?

      • Sieben Stern

        well she doesn’t mean YOU, creeper!
        I don’t think you understand how weird you come across… :/

        • Loren Grosse

          Lol

      • Loren Grosse

        I’m not sure why the getting a baby sitter was the most important thing about what I said. The study said that there wasn’t any trials yet to see if women who already have children feel the same way when they see a cute baby. I’m saying, in my experience and even with the stress of being a single mother and wanting to hide somewhere alot of the time, the answer is yes, I do still feel the same about other babies when I see them and I actually for a brief moment want more children. But that’s just how women are wired. It’s in our make up to forget about the pain and sacrifice that comes with groqing, birthing and raising a child. But that’s another story completely. And you do sound a little creepy to pick out the man/woman baby sitting thing but it could just be something you’ve experienced to be bitter for a moment. Idk. But to answer THAT question, I personally would actually prefer a trustworthy and energetic male to babysit for me. I’m not sexist, just don’t know many men who actually want to take on the role of working in child care. Most men prefer not to so it’s only natural for some people to see it as abnormal for a man to want to care for children because for most men, it is abnormal.

  • GuestWhom

    I used to adore children and grew up in a big family that always had babies around and was great with them and could almost always calm a crying baby when others couldn’t. However, in our society today so many parents are so concerned their child is going to be kidnapped or assaulted by men in particular that it’s trained me to ignore children I’m not related to. It is generally socially acceptable for women to stare at babies in public but if a man does the same thing, smiling at the baby or making funny faces to get the child to laugh the parents often get upset and give a look of disapproval when they don’t with women doing the same thing. These social behaviors and others have an impact these types of studies and could be why less men gawk.

    • Sieben Stern

      their study was about women. I’m so sorry life isn’t about YOU 100% of the time. I’m revoking your man-victim card and you’re going to deal with it like a grown-up from here on out, ok, bro! I know you can do it.

      Bu~ut…. if you’re interested, maybe YOU could do a study about random males/fathers/sperm donors and compare data with the people who did this study about women who want to be mothers. I think that’s a brilliant idea.

      Also, if you’re staring at babies in a way that makes their caregivers uncomfortable, it’s you dude, not the caregivers… :/ I’ve been around guys that are fatherly with kids (make faces, wave at babies, picked up dropped toys, etc) and no one is creeped out.

  • ejhaskins

    I prefer the REAL looking baby, with the proper baby face :-) I can almost smell the lovely baby smells, and it looks cuddly. (on the right!)
    I don’t know which one though is the ‘prettied up one? The one on the let looks either older, or less well fed. Or more doll-like.

    • Elizabeth Preston

      Actually both of them have been digitally manipulated! The real baby would be somewhere in between these two pictures.

  • Episteme

    As a single (and unfortunately childless) guy, I nonetheless share the Stares-at-Babies phenomenon with these women – alas, society looks at me askance whenever I do so. Looking at the too faces above, I mentally made note of the one on the right looking more dour and immediately started making silly faces at my own computer screen (puffing up my cheeks and bugging my eyes out) as if it would somehow cause the digitally-manipulated picture to cheer up…

  • zlop

    Rockefeller Re-Engineered Females, just want to be men hating feminists.
    “Sexodus: Why Are Young Men Giving Up On Women”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=LeIJBnO5gpM#t=41

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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